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The Storm in Africa’s Nuclear Tea Cup

14th December 2009

By: ISS, Institute for Security Studies


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Maendeleo, a Swahili term for development has been the catchword on most African states' agendas for the better part of two decades. It is a force that drives the poorer nations forward in an increasingly globalised and smaller world. The potential nuclear energy has to catalyze this force is tempered by the darker side of nuclear development, that is, the production of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). African countries, poised to speed up their development, need to pay more attention to the thin line between the peaceful use of nuclear energy and the development of nuclear weapons.

In Africa, the involvement of countries in international nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation negotiations continues to be fairly minor. Focused on other more pressing issues such as the alleviation of poverty, the provision of educational facilities, health care and the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons (SALW), African countries have side lined the need to actively engage and get involved in discussions on the risk posed by the threat of use or actual use of nuclear weapons.


Regarded as the corner stone of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which entered into force in 1970 and was extended indefinitely in 1995 is a treaty based on three pillars that have been designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology so as to further the goal of nuclear disarmament and promote co-operation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

With the upcoming 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the NPT, African countries can now become more actively involved in such negotiations so as to progress forward. Over the years Africa's electrical consumption has been growing at a rapid rate. In South Africa, a country that supplies approximately 60% of the rest of Africa's electricity, the recent increase in electrical consumption as well as the extension of its power grid to rural communities has left the country struggling with serious power shortages. These power shortages, in turn, affected the country's economic growth significantly from the period 2004-2007.


The lack of electricity in Africa has further served to compound the continents battle with the supply of electricity to many of its industries and inhabitants. By peacefully utilizing nuclear material and technology, Africa could substantially alleviate the continents increased appetite for electricity in the future. Identified as "one of the cleanest means of generating electrical power today, nuclear energy emits no controlled pollutants or greenhouse gases during electricity production at nuclear plants and has no impact on respiratory or other human health issues". After decades of use and continuous assessment of adequate safety measures the benefits of such an electrical source from its contribution towards nuclear science and technology for agriculture, health and medicine to food preservation, hydrology and mining indicate that the long-term effects of such an energy source could assist Africa in its development.

Nuclear energy however does come with a few fears. The environmental impact nuclear energy may have on the world has been widely debated. Some fears cited range from scenarios on possible leakages of radioactivity occurring at nuclear plants, eventually harming or killing the surrounding inhabitants, or nuclear power plants being targets of terrorist acts or sites where nuclear material could be accessed for hostile purposes. There is also a concern surrounding the dumping of radioactive waste, which needs to be safely stored for hundreds of years before it can be disposed of effectively. Carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) resulting from the use of nuclear energy have also raised considerable debate amongst many environmentalists, nuclear energy however is among those energy sources producing very low levels of CO2 from its full life cycle. Nuclear energy can therefore be closely compared to renewable energies such as wind, solar and hydro in this respect. While the short-term effects of such an energy source may be challenging the long term outcomes associated with nuclear energy could be very beneficial to Africa. Nuclear fuel can be recycled which makes the energy source sustainable; furthermore the release of low level radiation when managed correctly and effectively are highly unlikely. The production and proliferation of nuclear weapons by criminal elements can also be curbed as in order to produce nuclear weapons the use of the radioactive element plutonium is required. "Modern technologies, however, allow the separation of plutonium from reusable uranium so that plutonium and other byproducts with which it is combined can be recycled back into fuel reactors". In terms of the dangers associated with the dumping of radioactive waste it is important to note that under the Treaty of Pelindaba of 1995 declaring Africa a zone free of nuclear weapons, the dumping of radioactive waste anywhere within the zone is prohibited.

Nearly every aspect of human development such as health, agriculture, education and industries depend on reliable access to modern energy sources. African countries can no longer afford not to take the opportunity to peacefully use nuclear technology to assist its development while at the same time being concerned about nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. In Africa the peaceful use of nuclear technology to alleviate energy sources and develop a form of energy that will contribute effectively to the national interests of African countries, should be an area worth investigating.

Written by: Lauren Tracey: Consultant, Arms Management Programme, ISS Pretoria Office



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