Africa’s pursuit of nuclear power

By Igor Khripunov | November 28, 2007

In Africa, nearly every aspect of human development (health, agricultural, educational, or industrial) depends upon reliable access to modern energy sources. Therefore, it’s worth investigating whether nuclear power can safely alleviate energy shortages and optimize an energy mix consistent with the national interests of African countries.

Several African nations, including Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Namibia, and Nigeria, are seriously considering nuclear power. Indeed, “nuclear renaissance” has become a catchphrase worldwide, but there’s hardly a consensus regarding nuclear power’s benefits. Every country’s energy mix involves a range of national preferences and priorities that are reflected in national policies. Hence, these policies represent a compromise between expected energy shortages, environmental quality, energy security, cost, public attitudes, safety and security, available skills, and production and service capabilities. Relevant national stakeholders must take all of these into account when formulating an energy strategy.

Energy shortages

With only two nuclear power reactors on the entire continent, both located at Koeberg, South Africa, nuclear power constitutes only a fraction of Africa’s energy mix. Still, South Africa accounts for 60 percent of all of Africa’s energy production. (Africa as a whole generates only 3.1 percent of the world’s electricity.) Ironically, due to increased electricity consumption and the extension of its power grid to rural constituencies, this relatively developed country has struggled with serious power shortages the last several years.

Furthermore, coal power, the country’s traditional energy buffer, is facing rising costs associated with more stringent air-pollution standards. As a solution, South Africa is considering an ambitious expansion of nuclear power, which involves the pebble-bed modular reactor (PBMR)–the South African design reportedly much safer and proliferation-resistant than the design of the current generation of reactors. It hopes to install about 24 units with a total capacity of 4,800 megawatts by 2025.

Elsewhere in Africa, electricity production is unacceptably low. The glaring contrast in energy production between sub-Saharan Africa and North America speaks to the inability of some African governments to provide basic services to their citizens and support development projects.

Uneven regional distribution of energy resources significantly contributes to the energy crisis. Of the 53 countries in Africa, a limited number have large energy potential. Hydropower potential is the most evenly spread, but the highest concentration is on the Congo River. Oil and gas are mostly concentrated in Algeria, Nigeria, and Libya; coal is mostly found in southern Africa; and geothermal potential exists in eastern Africa. Together with South Africa, the Maghreb countries (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania) account for more than 80 percent of Africa’s electricity generating capacity. As a result, in the absence of adequate trans-African resource-sharing arrangements and infrastructure, many African countries suffer from scarce energy resources and must pay high prices to import energy.

Nuclear power

The attitudes of African decision makers, experts, and public about nuclear power range from negative/cautious to positive/enthusiastic. Supporters perceive nuclear power as a “silver bullet” that would allow the continent to demonstrate both technical progress and prowess.

The search for cleaner energy sources such as nuclear is also motivated by widespread concern that Africa is more vulnerable than other regions to climate change. Some of the serious consequences of climate change in Africa could include desertification, food shortages, epidemics, insufficient water supply, coastal erosion, and increased refugees. A study by the University of Pretoria estimates that crop failure due to rising temperatures could cost $25 billion.

Abundant uranium resources also drive the push for nuclear power. According to a 2005 International Atomic Energy Report (IAEA) report (PDF), Africa maintains 18 percent of the world’s known recoverable uranium resources. Most operational mines are located in Niger, the Congo, Namibia, and South Africa. Prospecting and other preproduction work is being performed in Botswana, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Gabon, Guinea, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Mozambique, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Uranium is increasingly perceived as an important part of a country’s national wealth and as a political tool equal to oil and gas. And African countries with uranium deposits don’t simply want to ship ore and yellowcake to industrialized nations; there’s a growing sentiment that energy-starved Africa is destined to take advantage of its uranium to help rapidly establish a thriving, contemporary economy.

For example, South African officials increasingly talk about the need to ensure that its abundant uranium resources are exploited for the benefit of the country rather than for that of foreign companies. Its August 2007 draft nuclear energy program outlines a complete nuclear fuel cycle to support the expansion of nuclear power generation and the ability to develop a uranium enrichment capacity. South Africa had stopped enriching uranium in 1997 following the dismantling of its apartheid-era nuclear weapons program, but it reportedly has some residual capabilities.

Constraints to nuclear power

A nuclear power infrastructure includes manufacturing facilities, complex legal and regulatory frameworks, expanded institutional measures to ensure safety and security, and appropriate human and financial resources. These arrangements would require careful planning, preparation, and investment over a 10- to 15-year period. Nuclear power plants also require a large, upfront investment–usually $2 billion to $3.5 billion per reactor. These are daunting tasks and requirements for any country.

And sadly, a prevalence of interstate conflicts, ethnic strife, insurgencies, corruption, and crime create a hostile environment in some African countries for the safe and secure implementation of nuclear power. Examples of such risks are abundant. Heavily armed Nigerian insurgents continue to disrupt oil production in some parts of that country. As recently as April, armed men attacked a uranium prospecting camp maintained by the French company AREVA in northern Niger, killing a security guard and wounding three other people. In the Congo, only a thin barbwire fence protects Africa’s first nuclear research reactor, which possesses a “totally outdated” control room and an unguarded radioactive waste storage building. Through decades of war, dictatorship and political upheaval, the Congo has repeatedly been accused of illegally selling its natural uranium or not preventing smuggling schemes. As recently as November 2007, armed gunmen gained access to a major nuclear research facility in South Africa and reached the emergency control room before guards chased them away. Subsequently, instilling law and order must be a prerequisite for nuclear power development.

Technically speaking, safety and security assistance comes from international institutions. The IAEA is working with its African member states to enhance nuclear security by improving controls and detection equipment, upgrading physical protection, and providing emergency assistance and training staff. For their part, African states must get more closely integrated into the international regimes. For example, 23 African states still haven’t fulfilled their obligation to conclude comprehensive safeguard agreements under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And only 25 African states acceded to the 1987 Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material. Worse yet, just two have ratified the convention’s 2005 amendment, which contains 12 fundamental principles of nuclear security.


Since Africa hasn’t achieved economies of scale, the most rational approach to nuclear power would start with small reactors whose output would better match existing grid capacity. One such reactor is already on the market: A Russian floating nuclear power plant, operated by a Russian team and, by cable, connected to a country’s grid. (It’s in discussions to sell such reactors to Namibia.) The reactor for the floating plant would be based on the original reactor designs for nuclear submarines. More largely, Russia is offering medium-sized nuclear plants to Egypt, Morocco, and Namibia, planning to sell downblended weapons-origin uranium as reactor fuel to these countries, and hoping to participate in Namibia’s uranium mining projects.

Another reactor on the market is the PBMR. South Africa wants to export its design to its neighbors, while China is rapidly finalizing a somewhat different PBMR design that it will attempt to export to developing countries. Hungry for natural resources, China has launched a massive campaign to exploit Africa’s riches, focusing on Niger as a strategic source of uranium. As a fledging giant with a self-sustained nuclear record, India is also highly visible in uranium-rich African countries (Zambia to name one), offering to help develop nuclear strategies and policies and hawking its competitively priced pressurized heavy water reactor. Finally, Iran is making generous offers to share its expertise of “using nuclear power for peaceful purposes.” Iran has targeted Algeria, a high-profile state in good standing with the IAEA, as a useful partner in the ongoing standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program.

Meanwhile, African countries are demonstrating an increased interest in regional cooperation as a way to establish the required economies of scale for nuclear power generation. This cooperation may involve interconnected grids, collective facilities, cooperative education and training programs, shared expertise in safety and security, and common management practices and skilled labor pools. In this sense, regionalization is looked upon as a useful mechanism for money, efficiency, and reliability. However, an important caveat: Such arrangements can yield expected results provided a climate of trust between participating countries exists–not always the case in Africa.

African countries are poised to benefit from nuclear power in many ways. But nuclear power is not a quick way to fix the continent’s problems. In order to succeed, African governments must go beyond the traditional framework of a technical program and apply considerable effort toward ameliorating the problems that plague their industrial infrastructure, public governance, educational system, and other institutions in the public and private sectors. If well organized, the pursuit of nuclear power could become a rewarding endeavor for the continent and serve the needs of its people. But the international community must be aware that a lack of expertise, oversight, and safety and security measures could increase the likelihood of nuclear proliferation or terrorism both within and outside the continent.

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