Faced with power shortfalls, demands for greener energy and drought threats to hydropower, a growing range of African nations are considering a shift to an unexpected power source – nuclear energy.
South Africa has the continent’s only commercial nuclear power plant. But according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a third of the almost 30 countries around the world considering adopting nuclear power are in Africa.
Ghana, Kenya, Egypt, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria and Sudan have engaged with the IAEA to assess their readiness to embark on a nuclear programme, and Algeria, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia are mulling the possibility, according to the agency.
Altogether, at least seven sub-Saharan African states have signed agreements to deploy nuclear power with backing from Russia, according to public announcements and the World Nuclear Association (WNA), an industry body.
“Africa is embracing nuclear science in general,” said Colin Namalambo, a commissioner of the African Commission on Nuclear Energy, in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation during a recent meeting in Accra on nuclear power opportunities.
That growing interest comes despite evidence that solar and wind might be a cheaper and greener way to expand electricity production in Africa, where one person in three still lacks access, most of them in rural areas.
Benson Kibiti, director of communications for Power for All, which aims over the next decade to get reliable energy to most of the 1.1 billion people globally without it, said off-grid solar is the smartest economic choice for Africa.
“While I agree that the continent is in dire need of energy, with 600 million people still living without access to electricity, it takes 10 years and billions of dollars to commission a nuclear power station,” he said in an email.
That makes nuclear power a “prohibitively expensive” choice, he said, arguing that “off-grid solar is and should be Africa’s energy future”.
But countries from Egypt to Ghana are pushing ahead with nuclear plans, arguing such power is low-carbon and can provide a reliable baseline of energy to complement renewables such as solar and wind.
Nuclear is “clean and sustainable”, Prince Akor Larbi, a technician with the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of the Accra meeting in March.
In southern Africa, the push to consider nuclear power is being driven in part by drying of hydroelectric dams as a result of climate change.
Those dams – particularly Lake Kariba – provide a majority of the electricity to many southern Africa nations, from Zimbabwe to Zambia.
The Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority in early 2019 introduced 18-hour load shedding after water levels fell in the lake, and is still struggling with power shortages.
Zambia now is considering adding nuclear power to shore up its energy mix and provide a stable base of power, said Mwape Chipala, an energy ministry spokesman.
“This is in order to have security of supply from all sources of energy and to prevent what is happening in Lake Kariba as a result of hydropower dependence,” he said.
Getting nuclear power established isn’t cheap, Chipala admitted, but both Russia and China have shown interest in helping finance any nuclear project in the country, he said.
The country hopes to establish its first nuclear power plant over the next 10-15 years, he said, with hopes it could supply power for five decades.
Egypt aims to begin constructing the country’s first nuclear power plant in July, with Russian funding, according to local media.
Gillane Allam, an ambassador from the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, said at the Accra meeting that nuclear energy would help end power cuts hitting economies across the continent.
Akachukwu Okafor, principal partner for Change Partners International, an energy and sustainability consultancy in Nigeria, said he believes nuclear energy is not the solution to Africa’s problems but could be part of it, alongside renewables.
What works “varies from country to country,” he said in a telephone interview.
Some African nations, such as Kenya and Ethiopia, are looking at nuclear power as part of a broader effort – also including solar and wind power – to expand their power grid in a low-carbon way.
In terms of expanding energy access to those without it – about one in three Africans, according to the World Bank – Kibiti said off-grid renewable projects are a smart choice as they do not require expensive connections to the national grid.
“Given that close to 80% of Africans reside in rural areas, decentralised renewable energy” makes sense, he said.
Solar energy is also safer than nuclear energy as there is no environmentally hazardous radioactive waste, and no huge financial outlay for construction, he said.
Lassina Zerbo, executive secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, said any investment in nuclear technology in Africa will require strong cooperation with neighbouring countries, a culture of transparency and accountability and a willingness to work together to overcome technological and security issues.
He said a lack of cooperation among African nations is a key challenge holding back efforts to establish nuclear technology on the continent.
Namalambo, of the African Commission on Nuclear Energy, said there is need to have legal frameworks in place before African countries venture into nuclear energy – including frameworks on nuclear non-proliferation, safety and security.