In June, 1954, Russia became the first country to commission a nuclear power plant that generated electricity for commercial use with a net electrical output of 5MW connected to the power grid. Since then, nuclear energy has grown to become one of the most dependable power generating sources in the world.
Currently, France is the world’s leading nuclear generating nation, enabling it to licence its technology to developing countries looking for new energy sources.
Despite the technology being in existence for more than five decades, Africa has been slow to embrace it, instead preferring hydropower, thermal and lately in some countries geothermal as electricity generating sources.
Sub-Saharan economies are now looking at setting up nuclear plants to supplement their traditional power sources. The continent, with large deposits of uranium, is turning to nuclear power because of its low carbon footprint, emissions and running costs.
South Africa, the only country in Africa that has an operational nuclear power generator, is ramping up its nuclear projects by constructing a new and bigger reactor, pushing nuclear technology to a new level on the continent.
In East Africa, Kenya and Uganda are making progress in nuclear technology with both currently involved with the pre-feasibility study of their nuclear energy programmes, while Democratic Republic of Congo’s nuclear plan is in limbo, after it shut down its reactor in 2004 due to overheating, lack of spares and unwillingness by the US to send parts.
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Egypt, Niger, Ghana, Tanzania, Morocco, Algeria and Nigeria have also begun the rollout of projects in this sector.
In May, South Africa announced that it will procure a nuclear fleet to generate 9,600MW of power at a cost of $100 billion. The country’s installed nuclear generating capacity of 1,830 MW from its two reactors at Koeberg. These plants were commissioned in 1984 and will be closed in 2025.
A fortnight ago, South African Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Petterson said that the country’s Treasury and Department of Energy are working on a funding model and time frame for the new phase of the project, expected to commence next year.
“We are still on course with our plans to construct an additional eight new nuclear plants by 2023 to produce 9,600MW,” Ms Joemat-Petterson said.
Kenya is also planning to construct nuclear power plants that it hopes will generate a minimum of 4,000MW from 2023.
“We have no option but to embrace nuclear early enough to avoid starting the process long after we have exhausted geothermal sources,” Energy Principal Secretary Joseph Njoroge said.
The key question, however, is if the countries on the continent can afford the costs of setting up nuclear plants. Nuclear reactor costs run into billions of dollars but the main cost is in the initial investment and the plant itself. It is a long-term form of energy, with reactors operating for close to 60 years producing electricity with minimal maintenance.
For instance, Nigeria is looking for $32 billion to construct four nuclear plants. However, the project is shrouded in controversy as the country is currently facing a financial deficit, with other key infrastructure projects pending.
Ochilo Ayacko, the chief executive of the Kenya Nuclear Electricity Board, said that the country will need at least $20 million to put up its 4,000MW plants. Uganda is also facing financial hurdle as it seeks to join the nuclear club. According to an AF-Consult Switzerland report, Uganda will require $26 billion to have an installed capacity of 4,300MW from nuclear energy by 2040.
James Isingoma Baanabe, Uganda’s acting Commissioner for Energy Efficiency and Conservation, said it will take the country at least 20 years to build its first nuclear plant, mostly because of financing.
“A nuclear plant is capital intensive; it requires careful planning by the government. I believe we can manage to have one in the next 20 years,” Mr Baanabe said.
Five years ago, Tanzania invited bids to construct its nuclear plant, with South Africa’s South Areva, being touted as a front runner. However, little came of this as the country slowed down in its nuclear bid because of financing challenges.
For most nuclear projects, security is key, as emerged at a recent nuclear terrorism conference held in June in Helsinki, Finland.
Safety of reactors
Last year, Niger saw militants from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb attack the Somair uranium mine owned by Areva, killing 26 people.
In April, the Nigerian government announced that it was downscaling its uranium stockpiles and beefing up security around the proposed sites of its nuclear reactors.
“The best protection of the material from non-state actors like Boko Haram will be the immediate conversion to low grade uranium,” former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan said.
Kenya is also facing insecurity from Somali Al Shabaab militants who have in several occasions tried to blow up power plants in Garissa and northern Kenya. Securing these facilities is a key concern in the preliminary report handed to the Kenyan government by Josi Bastos, the International Atomic Energy Agency team leader.
“We have observed grey areas on which the country needs to work, key among them being prescribing the minimum security and safety of plant and machinery,” Mr Bastos said.
Despite Africa looking the nuclear power way, some developed economies are scaling down on this form of energy due to global concerns about effects of carbon emission and radioactive disposals on the environment.
Germany, for instance, has shut down seven of its 17 plants due to such concerns. In 2000, nuclear power contributed 30 per cent to Germany’s national grid.
This dropped to 16 per cent last year and the country hopes to reduce this to zero in the next seven years. Environmental groups like Greenpeace have argued that nuclear power comes with hidden carbon emissions but none of these groups have come out strongly to oppose any African nuclear power project.