Nuclear energy: Is Africa ready for a revolution? By SANDRA CHAO in Nairobi | Tuesday, February 12  2013 at  12:28

US President Barack Obama meets then-acting Nigeria President Goodluck Jonathan in Washington in this April 11, 2010 file photo during a summit on nuclear energy. Safety remains a key concern over whether Africa is ready to tap nuclear energy.  

The appeal of nuclear energy seems to have finally caught on in Africa, with a flurry of activities around its development underway in several countries even as debate over whether the continent is ready continues to swirl.

The World Bank estimates that 550 million people in sub-Saharan Africa--and growing-- do not have access to electricity, and in a bid to cut this deficit, many countries are in different stages of developing nuclear energy.

Algeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt Ghana, Libya, Morocco and Nigeria have already set up research nuclear reactors while countries like Kenya and Tanzania have shown keen interest in setting up power plants and training scientists in nuclear energy.

Namibia, the world’s fourth largest uranium producer, is yet set up a nuclear power plant partly because it lacks a nuclear energy policy, but it hopes to have one fully operational by 2018.

While the Tanzanian parliament has approved the production of electricity through nuclear power, Ghana’s nuclear bill has received cabinet approval and is awaiting debate in parliament. The latter plans to use its significant uranium deposits.

Uganda is developing a nuclear communication strategy by 2014 that would enable it dispel fears among citizens and help meet its plan to harness nuclear energy by 2025.

Nine potential sites for the construction of a first nuclear power plant in Sudan have been identified and the country hopes to introduce 4,400 MW of nuclear electricity into its national grid by 2030.

Sharp divisions

These developments notwithstanding, debate over whether Africa is ready for a nuclear energy revolution continues to cause sharp divisions in various quarters. While many agree that the continent is in dire need for nuclear energy to meet a debilitating energy deficit, there are those who hold the opinion that the continent is just not there yet and needs to instead focus on renewable energy.

Dr Rai Markandey, the chair of global parliamentarians of UN Habitat told the Africa Review that the continent did not have the financial capacity to set up nuclear plants.

"Setting up the power production plants and managing their day to day running is an expensive venture which some African countries cannot afford. There is also the ultimate risk of the nuclear waste leaking into the public; do countries have the capacity to contain such once it happens?” he posed.

His fears are grounded in recent history. In 2011, Japan’s Fukushima nuclear complex exploded after a major earthquake, causing a leak of nuclear waste and raising questions globally over the safety of the same.

Delegates to the 23rd Africa Regional Cooperative Agreement for Research, Development and Training Related to Nuclear Science and Technology (AFRA) on June 25, 2012 in Mombasa.

Much closer home, South Africa’s Koeberg nuclear power station in 2010 had a radiation contamination during maintenance work affecting 100 people, though the levels were reportedly too low to cause much harm.

The Eskom-run plant is one the two nuclear reactors that have been generating electricity for close to three decades now, some of which is exported to other countries. South Africa, which is looking to introduce a third nuclear power plant in the next two years, has also had its share of criticism despite being a pioneer in the field. The country’s department of energy acknowledges that most of the nuclear headlines in the media are associated with major disasters, increasing fear among people.

An idea's time

But the spokesman for Kenya’s nuclear electricity project, Basett Buyukah, said that the use of nuclear electricity by African countries was an idea whose time had come.

"Nuclear energy can help us fill in the deficit that we have in electricity production and help us eradicate the perception of the 'Dark Continent'," he told Africa Review.

"Most countries have realised that nuclear electricity is useful, practical and cost efficient in the long term. Solar and wind cannot be able to provide the standard baseline during the peak hours of electricity consumption because they are fairly unstable but nuclear can easily supplement,” he said.

Mr Buyukah said that governments needed to show their commitment towards exploration of nuclear energy by laying down the necessary legal framework and undertaking to educate the public and debunk the stereotypes associated with nuclear energy.

"Nuclear energy cannot be used as a primary source of electricity on its own, it has to be complemented by other forms like geothermal, solar and wind so that there is a larger energy pool to rely on rather than just hydroelectricity,” he said.

Most countries are still heavily dependent on fossil fuels and hydro for electricity production, but the high costs of these traditional means have often driven up inflation and the cost of living.

Countries that do not produce oil often leave their economies vulnerable to the fluctuating global trading prices, barely getting any reprieve when the price per barrel drops.

According the September 2012 issue of the Africa in Fact journal, using nuclear energy in electricity production has several advantages for Africa including that is is tiny in mass and easy to transport.

A file picture taken on July 9, 2008 shows French nuclear giant Areva' subsidiary Eurodif uranium enrichment plant in the Tricastin nuclear power center in Bollene, southern France.

The small quantity also enables countries to set up nuclear power plants close to the driven demand eradicating the need for long transmission lines.

No infrastructure

The issue adds that the energy source is reliable and does not produce any carbon dioxide emissions, though the continent lacks the infrastructure to set up nuclear power plants as well as the human resource personnel to operate them.

The International Energy Agency estimates that between 200 and 1,000 scientists and engineers trained in nuclear science are needed to run a nuclear plant.

While looking towards the future in terms of energy production is good, Dr Markandey says that the continent needs to focus more on safer forms of renewable energy.

"Governments need to set up policies that facilitate both research and investment of these forms of renewable energy. Solar energy for instance has been greatly underexplored despite being readily available in sub Saharan Africa,” he said.

According to a report released last year by the UNEP finance initiative, Financing renewable energy in sub-Saharan Africa, governments and policy makers need to create a level playing field in addition to providing easy market access in order to attract the private sector into investing in renewable energy.

Most private investors, the report notes, are afraid to invest in renewable energy sector because of the political and regulatory investment risks involved. The poor state of the overall energy sector and the obsoleteness of the technologies employed are further quoted as some of the reasons for the stunted growth.

Private investment

Dr Markandey says that the costs of renewable technologies are still expensive for many people in the continent.

"The private sector needs to come along and invest in the research of the renewable technologies in order to bring down the costs of production and governments introduce subsidies then ultimately the technologies will be affordable to the common man,” he said.

At the moment most of the exploration of nuclear and renewable energy is done by foreign investors. This poses a great threat as spare parts for some of the gadgets used to harness wind and solar energies are not locally available.

"With nuclear energy as with other forms of renewable energy we need to have transfer of technology from the developed countries to Africa in order to ensure that we have the human and technical capacity to sustain energy production.”

"Fossil fuels will provide energy for probably another 35 years or so and after that the continent will plunge into an energy mess if alternative clean and safe sources of energy are not sought,” said Dr Markandey.

It is a debate that will continue.