by Charles Kusi Minkah-Premo
In the past decade, African countries have taken huge strides to include renewable energy sources such as wind, biomass and, solar in their energy mix which is largely dominated by hydroelectric power. However, in recent years, more and more African countries are considering nuclear energy as a means of boosting their economies and closing their power supply gaps. Scott Firsing’s informative piece in The Wire examines Africa’s recent forays into nuclear energy and it was a pleasant surprise for me to learn that nuclear energy in Africa was not a novel prospect. As far back as the 1950s, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) built the continent’s first nuclear reactor and currently there are twelve nuclear research reactors situated in eight African countries. These reactors serve primarily as neutron sources for research purposes and are not used for power generation.
South Africa (SA) leads the way on the continent’s nuclear energy front. It is currently the only African country with an operational nuclear power plant (2 GW) and plans to develop 9.6 GW of nuclear energy by 2030 at a cost of $37—$100 billion. Kenya is a runner-up to SA in terms of adding nuclear power into its energy mix. The East African nation plans to bring 1GW of nuclear power on line by 2025, rising to a further 4GW by 2033. It has also committed itself to setting up an independent nuclear power regulatory authority, with China offering its support to help Kenya realize its nuclear aspirations. [http://www.csmonitor.com/Environment/Energy-Voices/2015/1007/Is-Africa-on-the-verge-of-a-nuclear-energy-revolution] Algeria, Ghana, Nigeria, Niger and Uganda are among a host of African countries that have expressed interest and formulated policies geared towards building nuclear plants.
Given that most African countries have limited expertise in nuclear energy, it comes as no surprise that they have turned to foreign countries for support. China and Russia have already signed MOUs with a number of African countries to develop skills and strategic partnerships and have each embarked on landmark projects in the continent. It must be pointed out that the support and interest from foreign countries is not borne solely out of goodwill but is also a mere realization of the fact that Africa accounts for about 20% of the world’s uranium production and thus securing access to Africa’s uranium—the key ingredient for nuclear energy—bodes well for their own domestic nuclear power.
Although it is good news that Africa has reached a stage of growth and empowerment where it can consider different options for its energy sector, it cannot be ignored that future of nuclear energy does not look entirely promising. The contribution of nuclear to the world’s primary energy production fell from 8% in 2000 to about 4.4% in 2014. The reason for this decline lies in the fact that most of the currently functional nuclear reactors were built in the 1960s and 1970s and were designed for a lifespan of 30 to 40 years and now require decommissioning. The decommissioning process is in itself a costly process and can be just as expensive as construction costs—the decommissioning program in France is now at an estimated 300 billion euros. Two recent studies, one of which was conducted by South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research also found that nuclear-generated electricity will be more expensive than the electricity generated by new coal plants, solar PV panels and wind energy in today’s prices. When you also factor in the time and personnel costs as well as the painstaking measures needed to be taken when dealing with radioactive waste, it begs the question if developing countries should seriously consider this prospect. Furthermore, there are huge concerns about the possibility of nuclear accidents such as the Fukushima disaster. [https://theconversation.com/the-risks-attached-to-south-africas-nuclear-energy-strategy-46111] Presently and in the mid-term, no African country—with the exception of SA— would be well equipped to adequately deal with a nuclear accident even one on a small scale.
As an African, I am excited to see the continent continue to make leaps and bounds in the energy sector and making concerted efforts to address the issue of poor energy access that has plagued the continent. However, Africa has only recently begun to scratch the surface of its renewable energy potential and still has so much to gain from the ongoing breakthroughs in the renewable energy sphere. The costs and risks of nuclear energy even when compared to other technologies are simply too high for most African countries to bear for the foreseeable future.
The Christian Science Monitor (http://www.csmonitor.com/Environment/Energy-Voices/2015/1007/Is-Africa-on-the-verge-of-a-nuclear-energy-revolution)