Article – the potential for Nuclear Energy in Africa

Published: 05/06/15

In our main article in this edition, Rachel Burgin writes on the potential for nuclear energy in Africa.

The potential for Nuclear Energy in Africa

Bringing electricity to every home in Africa is one of the greatest challenges of our age. The question is whether nuclear power has the potential to make a contribution as part of a diverse energy strategy. According to Africa Development Bank figures, an estimated 60% of Africans 620 million people are not connected to the grid. In rural areas, electrification can be as low as 10%. 70% of businesses struggle with an unreliable electricity supply. With the continent’s population rising towards 2 billion, matters will only become worse if the challenge is not faced. [1]

The case for moving away from a dependence on tradition fossil fuels is compelling. According to Chapter 9 of the IPCC Report, Africa is one of the most vulnerable continents to Climate Change and this is exacerbated by existing developmental challenges such as endemic poverty, complex governance and institutional dimensions; limited access to capital, including markets, infrastructure and technology; ecosystem degradation; and complex disasters and conflicts. [2]

Moreover, air pollution is a major threat to public health, particularly around South Africa’s ‘coal belt’. According to a Greenpeace Report, it is estimated that 2,200 to 2,700 premature deaths are caused each year by the air pollution emissions from Eskom’s coal-fired power plants, including 200 deaths of young children. [3] The growth of wind and solar power on the continent such as the Lake Turkana Wind Power Project and the Kalkbult Solar PV project in South Africa (on both of which Trinity advised) is encouraging.

However, renewable energy does have its limitations. Wind power only produces electricity when it is windy; solar power only during the day. Hydropower also has great potential but not during Africa’s frequent droughts. Nuclear energy has the advantage of being carbon-free and constantly available regardless of the climate. And while nuclear may have higher costs than other forms of energy, it takes less uranium to power a nuclear power plant than coal to power a coal-fired power plant: 25 tonnes of uranium produces the same amount of electricity as 2.7 million tonnes of coal. Africa has its own uranium supply. Namibia has 10% of the world’s reserves, first discovered in the Namiba Desert in 1928. [4] Niger has 7.5% of the world’s uranium reserves. [5]

Nuclear science has the potential to create other industries and economic opportunities. Radioactive material can have scientific uses in medicine. Americium, which is produced as part of the nuclear decommissioning process, can be used in smoke alarms and in Space technology. Accordingly, Africa’s nuclear energy industry has shown signs of growth in recent years. Last year, Pretoria and Moscow signed a deal in respect of eight Russia-designed VVER reactors in South Africa providing 9,600 MW of capacity with the first 1,200 MW reactor coming on line in 2023. In June 2012, Rosatom signed a memorandum of understanding to “prepare a comprehensive program of building nuclear power plants in Nigeria” including the development of infrastructure and a framework and system of regulation for nuclear and radiation safety. Russian financing options will be available to Nigeria, whose preferred option is a build-own-operate (BOO) arrangement with majority Rosatom equity. Early in 2015, the intention was to have a first unit on line by 2025, and 4,800 MWe operating by 2035. Rosatom has signed similar agreements with the Ghanaian government. Egypt, Senegal, Uganda and Kenya have also made moves to develop nuclear energy. [6]

Developing nuclear energy does come with numerous challenges: it requires a highly skilled and specialist workforce which, if not home-grown, would need to be imported. Nuclear plants take a long time to plan and build so they are no ‘€œquick fix’ solution to electricity shortages. Nuclear plants last, on average, 60 years but it takes some 20 years to earn back the investment. As a long term solution, they require political stability which can be elusive in many parts of Africa. Furthermore, they need a tough regulatory regime covering safety and security issues in order to protect against disasters and that can be a challenge in nascent democracies.

Finally, there is the need to have a strategy for the nuclear waste and this requires a solution that will last for thousands of years for the lifespan of radioactive isotopes. This final challenge is even eluding such advanced economies as the UK. Without proper strategies in Africa’s emerging economies, the risks of nuclear radiation could very well outweigh the benefits of a secure electricity supply, and potential investors may want to take their money elsewhere. Many of the state-owned power plants in virtually every African jurisdiction are in a poor state (or are non-operational). This has resulted from a failure to make the required investment in the maintenance of those plants and a lack of suitably qualified staff.

The Trinity view is that unless the public sector is able to reverse this longstanding trend, the rationale for nuclear assets that are owned by or eventually transfer to the government is a challenging one.

Endnotes:

[1] AfricElec Africa Power Monitor 20 May 2015, pp.5-6

[2] https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg2/ar4-wg2-chapter9.pdf

[3]http://www.greenpeace.org/africa/Global/africa/publications/Health%20impacts%20of%20Eskom%20applications%202014%20_final.pdf

[4] http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-G-N/Namibia/

[5] http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-G-N/Niger/

[6] http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Others/Emerging-Nuclear-Energy-Countries/

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