Is Africa Ready for Nuclear Energy?

Is Africa Ready for Nuclear Energy?



Years back, nuclear energy was a fancy option limited to the industrialized world. In due course, nuclear could be an energy source for much of Africa, where only South Africa currently has a nuclear power plant.

Governments across the continent are devising development policies to become middle-income countries in the medium term. Socioeconomic growth comes with a rise in energy demand—and a need for a reliable and sustainable energy supply.

For industrializing countries in need of a clean, reliable and cost-effective source of energy, nuclear is an attractive option.

“Africa is hungry for energy, and nuclear power could be part of the answer for an increasing number of countries,” says Mikhail Chudakov, deputy director general and head of the Department of Nuclear Energy at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an international organisation that promotes the peaceful use of nuclear technology.

A third of the almost 30 countries currently considering nuclear power are in Africa.

Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria and Sudan have already engaged with the IAEA to assess their readiness to embark on a nuclear programme. Algeria, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia are also mulling the possibility of nuclear power.

“Energy is the backbone of any strong development,” says Nii Allotey, director of the Nuclear Power Institute at the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission. “And where do we get energy from? We have hydro, thermal, fossil fuels, and we have local gas—but these are dwindling. They are limited; fossil fuels could run out by 2030. And, the prices are volatile.”

For Ghana, cost-effective, reliable electricity is the entry point to higher-value-added manufacturing and export-led growth. For example, the country’s reserves of bauxite—the ore used to produce aluminium—are an important source of income, but for now it is exported raw.

“We have a smelter, but it’s not operating at full capacity because electricity is too expensive,” Allotey says. “If we had cost-effective electricity, we would not be exporting raw bauxite, but exporting smelted bauxite at a much higher price. This would be a big move for Ghana.”

Power to the people

African governments are working to make electricity more widely accessible. Roughly 57% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa does not have access to electricity.

For many, the electricity supply is characterised by frequent power outages, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), an organisation of 30 mostly industrialised countries that have met a set of energy security criteria.

Is Africa ready for nuclear?

“Going nuclear is not something that happens from one day to the next. From the moment a country initiates a nuclear power programme until the first unit becomes operative, years could pass,” says Milko Kovachev, head of the IAEA’s Nuclear Infrastructure Development Section, which works with countries new to nuclear power.

“Creating the necessary nuclear infrastructure and building the first nuclear power plant will take at least 10 to 15 years.”

A successful nuclear power programme requires broad political and popular support and a national commitment of at least 100 years, Kovachev added. This includes committing to the entire life cycle of a power plant, from construction through electricity generation and, finally, decommissioning.

In addition to time, there is the issue of costs. Governments and private operators need to make a considerable investment that includes projected waste management and decommissioning costs.

Kovachev points out that “the government’s investment to develop the necessary infrastructure is modest relative to the cost of the first nuclear power plant. But [it] is still in the order of hundreds of millions of dollars.”

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