Eye on nuclear energy: Does Africa have capacity to handle risky reactors?

Saturday November 24 2012

Boosted by the abundance of uranium and a rising energy deficit, a number of African countries are keen on tapping into nuclear power. Photo/Graphic/TEA

Boosted by the abundance of uranium and a rising energy deficit, a number of African countries are keen on tapping into nuclear power. Photo/Graphic/TEA Nation Media Group

By NYAMBEGA GISESA Special Correspondent

The nuclear disaster that struck Japan last year following a devastating tsunami is still fresh in the world’s memory, but this is not stopping African countries from aspiring to tap into this form of energy.

But the fact that Japan, which is far more developed than any country in Africa was left in a nuclear mess after the tsunami struck several reactors, raises questions on whether the world’s poorest continent has the capacity and expertise to handle such risks.

Yet Africa, which is faced with an energy deficit, is keen on finding new sources.

Speakers at a recent meeting dubbed “Stakeholder Involvement and Public Communication for New and Expanding Nuclear Power Countries in Africa,” held in Nairobi between November 5 and 8, spoke of a continent that has realised the importance of nuclear energy.

By last year, at least 10 African countries had expressed interest in becoming the continent’s next nuclear powers.

“Have you heard of any country that has moved from a developing to a developed nation by using solar power?,” asked Collins Juma, Kenya’s nuclear power project technical affairs director.

Energy gap

Allan Bonner, a nuclear consultant for the Kenyan government, said there was a need to find ways to seal the energy gap on the continent and to industrialise.

“Many African countries are eyeing nuclear power to meet increased demand for energy as populations rise,” said Dr Bonner.

Their sentiments are supported by scientists who say new, smaller and more flexible nuclear technologies can benefit developing countries.

Advocates of nuclear power see it as a “silver bullet,” that can help Africa become industrialised.

World’s reactors

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) there were 437 nuclear units in operation in the world as of October 19, while 64 were under construction.

In the European Union, 15 of 27 member states have nuclear power plants with a total of 132 producing around 30 per cent of the electricity in the region. 

Currently, two reactors are under construction in Slovakia and one each in Finland and France.

In Africa, only South Africa has a nuclear power station, but already, 21 countries are members of the IAEA.

They are Algeria, Cameroon, DRC, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Liberia, Libya and Madagascar. The others are Mali, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Tunisia, United Arab Republic and Uganda.

Several African countries including Egypt, Nigeria, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Ghana and Kenya are at different stages of nuclear development.

In Kenya for example, a Nuclear Energy Project Committee was established on November 19, 2010. The Energy Act, No.12 of 2006 that is currently under review, includes “nuclear power” within its definition of “energy.”

Already, the country is completing a pre-feasibility study for a nuclear power programme.

“We expect the study to be out latest April next year,” Mr Juma said. “We are also rolling out civic education programmes in all 47 counties across the country with the aim of telling people that nuclear power is safe, relatively cheap and will help in stabilising the electricity grid.”

Dr Ochilo Ayacko, the executive chairman of the Nuclear Electricity Project Committee, said Kenya expects to commission its first nuclear plant of 1,000MW in 2022.

By 2031, three other nuclear plants with a combined capacity of 4000MW are expected to be commissioned.

The country’s move towards nuclear energy is part of its development blueprint dubbed Vision 2030, through which Kenya hopes to transform itself into an industrialised country.

According to the country’s Least Cost Power Development Plan (LCPDP), the total installed capacity in 2030 will be 15,026MW, of which nuclear plants are expected to contribute 19 per cent.

Tanzania, on the other hand, is making progress in this regard. Both Tanzania’s Nuclear Technology Policy and Nuclear Energy Policy are in their final stages while the Atomic Energy Act and Regulations are already in place.

“The official status on the nuclear energy project is not out but there is a lot going on on the ground,” said J B Ngatunga, a Tanzanian nuclear scientist.

With its fast growing industrial sector led by manufacturing and mining, the country’s energy needs are huge.

Recently, Tanzania, which relies heavily on hydropower, was hit hard by power shortages caused by low water levels in the dams’ catchment areas due to inadequate rainfall. 

Tanzania’s case

Tanzania’s hydropower potential is estimated at 4.7GW; coal reserves are estimated at about 1,200 million tonnes, of which 304 million tonnes are proven while natural gas is estimated at 49.5 billion cubic metres of proven reserves.

The use of fossil fuels is beset by environmental pollution challenges.

In the past 10 years, Tanzania’s domestic energy demand has grown rapidly due to population growth and increase in economic activities.
Uganda plans to tap into nuclear power to avoid a possible energy crisis in the near future.

“The generation potential from hydro, biomass, geothermal and peat if fully developed can only serve the country up to 2018. We are now considering nuclear energy as a serious option to meet our power needs,” said Sarah Nafuna Mudoko, the head of the Nuclear Energy Unit in Uganda.

The country’s current installed capacity is 1,000MW.

In Ghana, the country’s nuclear power programme started in 1961 with the establishment of the Kwabenya nuclear reactor project, which was then cancelled in 1966 when the government was overthrown in a military coup.

In 1994, the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission, with assistance from IAEA, acquired a 30kW neutron reactor.

A presidential committee was set up in May 2007 to assess the feasibility of nuclear power for electricity generation. Currently, a Nuclear Bill has received Cabinet approval and is before Ghana’s parliament.

Both Egypt and South Africa have made considerable progress in nuclear energy development.

According to Ahmed Ibrahim of the Nuclear Power Plants Authority, Egypt, renewed its quest to tap into the energy source as an option for electricity generation in 2006.

In October 2007, then president Hosni Mubarak launched an initiative to start developing nuclear power plants that are expected to generate 5,000 MW by 2027. The country is currently in the bidding process, having been delayed by the Arab Spring uprising.

South Africa, a country that accounts for 60 per cent of all of Africa’s energy production (Africa as a whole generates only 3.1 per cent of the world’s electricity), has two nuclear reactors generating 5 per cent of its electricity.

In Nigeria, Africa’s second-biggest energy consumer, the initial plan was to introduce nuclear technology from 2000.

Now plans to generate 1,000MW from two proposed nuclear plants before 2019 are being delayed by a simmering conflict between the country’s two nuclear regulatory authorities.

The continent’s quest for nuclear power is boosted by an abundance of uranium.

Namibia, Niger and South Africa are major producers, accounting for about 15 per cent of the world’s known recoverable uranium resources.

According to a 2005 IAEA report, Africa has 18 per cent of the world’s known recoverable uranium resources.

Uranium deposits

Alio Toune of the Ministry of Energy and Petroleum in Niger said the country has 280,00 tonnes of proven uranium reserves and expects to be the second producer in the world at 10,000 tonnes annually by the end of 2015.

Currently, investigations are underway to unearth deposits of uranium and other minerals such as beryllium and thorium that have the potential to produce atomic energy in Botswana, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Gabon, Guinea, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Mozambique, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Countries like Senegal and Tunisia are considering the possibility of extracting uranium as a by-product during fertiliser production from phosphate rock.

But even as countries on the continent eye nuclear power, questions of safety linger.

Concerns have been raised over the absence of a culture of maintenance.

Kenya, for example, suffers frequent power blackouts due to maintenance issues at its hydroelectric power plants, while  most of Nigeria’s gas thermal plants and hydropower stations were operating below capacity in 2006 due to lack of government investment in maintenance.