New Energy Technology Could Bring Electric Power to Third World

Published November 1, 2006

“The only good thing about the good old days is that they’re gone.”

My grandmother’s wisdom came from experience. As a teenager in late nineteenth century Wisconsin, she had cleared tons of rocks from fields and hauled countless buckets of water on the family farm. If she had to select just one modern technology, she said, she’d choose running water. But electricity was a close second.

No wonder. Without electricity, modern life reverts to her childhood: no lights, refrigeration, heating, air conditioning, radio, television, computers, safe running water, or mechanized equipment for homes, schools, shops, hospitals, offices, and factories.

Billions Live in Darkness

Incredibly, this is what life is still like every day for 2 billion people in developing countries. Viewed at night from outer space, Africa really is the Dark Continent: only 10 percent of its 700 million people regularly have electricity. While 75 percent of South Africa is now fully electrified, only 5 percent of Malawi, Mozambique, and other African countries are so fortunate.

Much of poor and rural Asia and Latin America is in a similar predicament.

Instead of rolling blackouts, neighborhoods have rolling power in most of Africa. “In the western part of my country, families get electricity maybe three hours every two weeks,” said Pastor Abdul Sesay, a Sierra Leone native who now resides in Maryland. “Eastern communities get it maybe once a month.”

Instead of turning on a light or stove, millions of women and children spend their days gathering wood, grass, and dung to burn in primitive hearths for cooking and heating. Instead of turning a faucet, they spend hours carrying water from distant lakes and rivers that are often contaminated with bacteria.

Reliable Power Needed

Pollution from these household fires causes 4 million deaths a year from lung infections. Tainted water and spoiled food cause intestinal diseases that kill another 2 million annually.

The dearth of electricity also means minimal medical facilities, manufacturing, and commerce–and impoverished countries forever dependent on foreign aid.

Abundant, reliable, affordable electricity is thus a critical priority for developing nations.

Hydroelectric projects offer one solution, coal-fired power plants another. They aren’t perfect ecologically, but neither are wind turbines, which require extensive acreage, kill birds, and provide inadequate amounts of intermittent, expensive electricity that cannot possibly sustain modern societies.

Pebble Bed Promise

Now a revolutionary nuclear energy technology is being designed and built in South Africa with suppliers and partners in many other nations. The 165-megawatt Pebble Bed Modular Reactors (PBMR) are small and inexpensive enough to provide electrical power for emerging economies, individual cities, or large industrial complexes.

In addition, multiple units can be connected and operated from one control room, to meet the needs of large or growing communities.

Residual heat from PBMR reactors can also be used directly to desalinate sea water; produce hydrogen from water; turn coal, oil shale, and tar sands into liquid petroleum; and power refineries, chemical plants, and tertiary recovery operations at mature oil fields.

Unparalleled Safety

The fuel comes in the form of baseball-sized graphite balls, each containing sugar-grain-sized particles of uranium encapsulated in high-temperature graphite and ceramic. This makes them easier and safer to handle than conventional fuel rods, said Pretoria-based nuclear physicist Dr. Kelvin Kemm.

The new technology also reduces waste disposal problems and the danger of nuclear weapons proliferation. Conventional fuel rod assemblies are removed long before complete burn-up, to avoid damage to their housings, but PBMR fuel balls are burnt to depletion.

Because they are cooled by helium, the modules can be sited anywhere, not just near bodies of water, and reactors cannot suffer meltdowns. If the chain reaction must be shut down, the fuel’s residual decay heat dissipates slowly and naturally.

Economy, Environment Meet

Since PBMRs can be built where needed, long, expensive power lines are unnecessary. Moreover, the simple design permits rapid construction (in about 24 months), and the plants do not emit carbon dioxide.

PBMR technology could soon generate millions of jobs in research, design, and construction industries and millions in industries that will prosper from having plentiful low-cost heat and electricity. It will help save habitats that are now being chopped into firewood and improve health and living standards for countless families.

“I met a guy living in the bush who got electricity and promptly started making wooden chairs,” Dr. Kemm told me. “Not garden stuff, but perfect Louis XIV chairs, because he could now use electric saws, drills, routers, and lathes.” It is a story that will be repeated all over the Third World as people gain access to electricity.

Activists Still Oppose

Not surprisingly, dozens of companies and countries are keenly interested in PBMR technology, and the first pilot plant will go online in 2011. But assorted special interest groups have lined up against it.

George Soros’s Open Society Foundation supports anti-nuclear organizations that oppose PBMR. Danish interests see it as undesirable competition to their wind turbine businesses.

Others assert electricity “destroys” traditional cultures. “If there is going to be electricity,” said activist Gar Smith, it should be “decentralized, small, and solar-powered.”

Poor people everywhere hope these patronizing attitudes will soon be replaced by a recognition that they have an inalienable right to take their place among the Earth’s healthy and prosperous people.

Paul Driessen ([email protected]) is senior policy advisor for the Congress of Racial Equality and Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green Power. Black Death ( This article was originally published in the Washington Times and is reprinted with permission.