In a damp office at Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa University, doctoral student Hailu Geremew fantasises about working on the nuclear reactor his country is now pondering building.
“Oh that is my dream, my dream, my dream,” said the nuclear physicist, 32, wearing rectangular glasses and a cardigan.
Geremew is part of a new generation of African scientists whose prospects are expanding as their governments team up with foreign powers on a potential fast-track to electrification.
For now, South Africa is the only country on the continent operating a nuclear power plant.
But in recent years, at least seven other 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.
Geremew first heard about the ambitious nuclear deal Ethiopia had struck with Moscow on the television news two years ago. The next day, his university department was buzzing with talk about it.
Ethiopia’s memorandum of understanding on nuclear cooperation with Russia paves the way for the construction of a nuclear power plant and a research reactor in the long term, said Frehiwot Woldehanna, Ethiopia’s state minister for the energy sector.
The East African country has been electrifying rapidly to meet rising energy demand and its own goal to become the biggest power exporter on the continent, while sticking to pledges to remain a low emitter of planet-warming greenhouse gases.
Under a 2015-2020 development plan, Addis Ababa wants to raise power generation to more than 17 000 megawatts (MW) from current capacity of just over 4 200 MW, mainly by harnessing hydro, wind and geothermal sources.
Its most ambitious project under construction is the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Nile river that will churn out 6 000 MW at full capacity when completed within the next four years, according to Ethiopian Electric Power, the state-owned utility.
But Woldehanna worries about betting on an abundance of water for the country’s main source of electricity, as droughts become more frequent.
With rivers sometimes drying up, “you cannot fully rely on hydropower”, he said, adding that nuclear technologies have “environmental” advantages over others.
Plans for a nuclear power plant in Ethiopia remain at the “pre-feasibility stage”, but the country is serious about building one, he emphasised.
‘Atoms for Africa’
With sub-Saharan Africa’s 48 countries generating the same amount of power as Spain, despite a population 18 times larger, the option to bring electricity access to their people on a bigger scale using nuclear energy is gaining momentum.
Nearly six out of 10 sub-Saharan Africans still lack access to electricity, according to World Bank data.
Like Ethiopia, emerging nuclear states Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Rwanda, Zambia and Ghana have signed agreements with Russia’s state nuclear corporation, ROSATOM – most since 2016.
Their content ranges from language on the construction of nuclear reactors to assistance with feasibility studies and personnel training, press statements show.
ROSATOM’s solutions for managing spent fuel and radioactive waste vary from country to country, but are normally worked out at the later stages of a nuclear new-build programme “in the strictest compliance with international law”, a spokeswoman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Chinese state-owned nuclear firms have also taken the lead in the region, sealing deals with Kenya, Sudan and Uganda, WNA data shows.
South African student Masamaki Masanja, 23, won a ROSATOM competition for young people to make videos about Africa’s nuclear potential, and got to visit the Novovoronezh nuclear power plant in western Russia in 2017.
“It was mind-blowing,” said the second-year mechanical engineering student, via Skype.
The experience left him with a strong sense that nuclear power should be adapted quickly for Africa’s needs.
Sub-Saharan African nations have shown an interest in nuclear because coal is scarce, while large volumes of natural gas in Nigeria and Tanzania tend to be exported for profit, said Jessica Lovering, co-author of a 2018 report, “Atoms for Africa”, from the U.S.-based Center for Global Development.
Booming populations and international pressure to curb greenhouse gas emissions also play a role, she added.
Ethiopia, for instance, has pledged under the Paris Agreement on climate change to curb its already meagre emissions by two-thirds from business-as-usual projections by 2030.
The Paris accord, agreed in 2015 by about 195 nations, seeks to wean the global economy off fossil fuels in the second half of this century, limiting the rise in average temperatures to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial times.
Ramping up nuclear power may be a carbon-neutral option, but presents dilemmas such as the high cost of building a plant and setting up supporting infrastructure, including safe management of nuclear fuel, said Lovering.
Yet gaining access to large amounts of cheap electricity from nuclear plants that run 24/7 could boost domestic manufacturing, as well as lighting up homes, she said.
Some political observers, however, are concerned about the prospect of nuclear reactors backed by Russia in some countries with rebel groups and weak government institutions.
An Africa-based Western diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous, doubted Russia’s assurances it would collect nuclear waste from projects it helped establish.
“You could end up with very unfortunate situations in parts of Africa … if you have a decaying nuclear power plant overrun by rebels, with waste that’s not going away,” he said.
Multiple requests for an interview with Russia’s ambassador in Ethiopia were declined.
So-called dirty bombs can combine conventional explosives like dynamite with radioactive material such as nuclear waste.
Noel Stott, a South Africa-based researcher with VERTIC, a non-profit that tracks the implementation of international treaties, highlighted an array of agreements in place to control the weaponisation of nuclear technology.
The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, to which all African countries but South Sudan are party, mandates safeguards to secure nuclear material, for example.
And 40 nations have joined the Treaty of Pelindaba that creates a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Africa.
At family-run cookie factory Mo-Ya, which towers over surrounding homes in Addis Ababa, chief executive officer Sara Zemui said Ethiopia’s plans to grow and modernise its energy production would mean better-powered businesses – and more jobs.
Frequent electricity cuts have long disrupted baking at the factory, spoiling batches of the cookies whose sugary scent perfumes Sunday mass at a nearby church.
A few months ago, Mo-Ya forked out more than $100,000 to purchase equipment that, in a blackout, enables a seamless transition to generator power, Zemui said.
Here, as in the nearly two-thirds of Ethiopia with access to an electricity connection, power cuts – and associated costs – are caused mainly by overloads on the ageing grid, said Tilahun Legesse, a director at the Ethiopian Electric Utility.
In other parts of Africa, however, similar daily outages are due to insufficient power production, said Lovering.
At Addis Ababa University, assistant professor Tilahun Tesfaye cannot wait for his country to reap the benefits of a nuclear reactor.
“It’s long, long overdue,” he said. “The need is very high.”
But the road will be a long one, he said, pointing to out-of-order machinery in his nuclear physics laboratory, the largest such facility in this country of 105 million people.
It could take 20 years for Ethiopia to build a nuclear power plant, estimated Hong-Jun Ahn, a Korean electrical engineer who advises the Ethiopian government on its nuclear plans.
Yonas Gebru, director of Addis Ababa-based advocacy group Forum for Environment, said green activists could prove another hurdle amid debate over whether nuclear power is “clean” energy.
“It would be good, and it would be wise also … to better capitalise on already started initiatives such as hydropower, wind energy (and) solar energy,” said Gebru.