In pursuit of power: Nuclear power in Africa

22nd October 2010 By: In On Africa IOA

Nuclear power and nuclear weapons have been a contentious issue for decades and there is little consensus regarding the benefits and perils of nuclear power. The threat of nuclear war and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction have played a large part in dissuading the development of nuclear power options to replace high carbon dioxide emitting technologies such as coal-based power plants. However, in recent years we have witnessed rising expectations regarding the role of nuclear power as a source of electricity. This is largely due to the rapidly increasing global demand for energy, the sustained nuclear safety and productivity record of the last twenty years, and of course, nuclear power's advantages in terms of its minimal greenhouse gas emissions.(2) Moreover, with the global use of electricity projected to increase by 160% by 2050, embracing nuclear technology seems less like a choice and more like an essential obligation.(3)

 

In Africa, nearly all facets of human development are dependent upon access to reliable, modern and cheap energy sources.(4) Therefore, it is worth investigating whether Africa has a nuclear future. This paper addresses the preceding question and also investigates Africa's nuclear capabilities and ambitions in light of the merits, limitations and challenges associated with expanding nuclear electricity production in African states.


Going nuclear - The merits and limitations of nuclear power

 

Over the last two decades, there has been a nuclear power renaissance that has been facilitated by a number of factors. The first of these is the desire to diversify fuel sources and reduce the global reliance on fossil fuels. Dependence on fossil fuel imports carries high risks of disruptions from political, geographical and commercial events, among others. On the other hand, nuclear fuel - though also needing to be imported and transported in most cases - due to its high energy density, can be effectively stockpiled, thus mitigating the effects of supply shocks. (5)

 

The second factor concerns the need to mitigate increasingly volatile fuel markets and costs, given the low dependence of the price of nuclear-produced electricity on the price of uranium, which is used to produce nuclear energy. Unlike other electricity generation plants in which the price of fuel is the major cost, construction accounts for most of the costs in nuclear power generation. This means that nuclear plants are much more immune to fuel costs and therefore more efficient.(6) In addition, with future advances in technology, further decreases in the costs of nuclear power can be expected.(7) Thirdly, there is the need to mitigate climate change and air pollution by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, specifically carbon dioxide. Nuclear power is a low-GHG emitting technology and the global utilisation thereof would make a significant contribution to the mitigation of GHG. Indeed, direct emissions from nuclear plants are approximately the same as those from wind and solar energy plants, while indirect emissions from nuclear plants are estimated to be lower.(8)

 

Aside from the benefits of nuclear power, the perils or limitations of nuclear power revolve around several basic concerns, including safety, nuclear waste disposal, and nuclear weapons proliferation. With regard to safety, the greatest concern is of a nuclear accident happening, such as that seen at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986. This could have serious consequences in terms of exposing the public to radiation as Chernobyl did, with hundreds of thousands of people affected by the radiation released from the explosion. However, according to the multi-agency Chernobyl Forum, only "56 deaths could be directly attributed to the accident, most of these from radiation or burns suffered while fighting the fire. Tragic though those deaths were, they pale in comparison to the more than 5,000 coal-mining deaths that occur worldwide every year".(9) Therefore, relatively speaking, nuclear power is a safe option.

 

Moreover, the occurrence of a nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in the United States of America (US) in 1979 showed how, with the appropriate safety measures in place, the risks of nuclear disaster are relatively low.(10) At Three Mile Island radioactive materials did not penetrate the barriers created in anticipation of such an event. Indeed, safety science has evolved considerably since the first nuclear reactors were developed, including sophisticated systems and provisions, which effectively diminish the risk of a nuclear accident.(11) However, while objective estimates of safety based on hard facts can be made, nuclear power plants are in the end run by human beings and they are therefore subject to human error. The risk of a nuclear disaster can never be completely ruled out and this for some is still too great a risk to run.

 

A second concern lies in the problem of the effective disposal of nuclear waste. As yet, no country in the world has yet developed a system for permanently disposing of it. The nuclear fuel cycle produces a number of different radioactive products. The most serious of these are spent fuel and high-level waste and the problem lies in ensuring that this waste can never come into contact with the public. The most widely favoured method of disposal is putting the waste into containers and isolating it geographically.(12) The challenges of effectively disposing of nuclear waste remain a serious impediment to the expansion of nuclear power, even in light of the fact that spent fuel can be reprocessed and that used fuel significantly decreases in radioactivity over time.(13)

 

The most serious concern is the risk of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, which emerges with the development of nuclear energy solutions, as the example of Iran has recently shown. According to Adamantiades and Kessides(14) the spread of nuclear technology "will give more countries the ability to make reactor fuel - or, with the same equipment and a bit more effort, bomb fuel". There are two links between nuclear power for civilian use and that used for explosive applications, namely uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing. A way in which nuclear weapons proliferation can be avoided is through instituting an international system of fuel supplier countries and user countries, whereby supplier countries such as the United Kingdom (UK), the United States (US), France and Russia would sell fuel to user countries and also commit to removing and storing the waste products and spent fuel. This would effectively mitigate the chances of proliferation as user countries would forgo the construction of fuel producing facilities (including the enrichment of uranium and spent fuel reprocessing).(15) Questions about the proliferation of dangerous nuclear technologies do not have easy answers, nor can the scope of this paper afford to delve into the complex political nature of nuclear weapons proliferation. Rather, keeping the above merits and limitations of nuclear power in mind, this paper now turns to the issue of nuclear power in Africa.

 

Nuclear power in Africa thus far...

 

In comparison to the rest of the world, Africa has lagged behind considerably when it comes to nuclear technology. The exception is South Africa, which is home to the only two nuclear power reactors on the continent - Koeberg-1 and Koeberg-2.(16) Nuclear power therefore constitutes only a tiny fraction of Africa's total energy mix. However, many African countries have indicated that they are eager to commence civilian nuclear programmes to meet the rising demand for power throughout the continent. Indeed, the recent Nuclear Power Middle East and North Africa 2010 conference held on 28 and 29 September 2010 witnessed the increasing interest of many African states in nuclear power solutions. This conference offered a platform for African and Middle Eastern states to gain in-depth insights into embarking on and investing in nuclear power systems and solutions.(17) Another motivation for increased investment in nuclear power on the continent is the concern that Africa is more vulnerable than other regions to the consequences of climate change which include desertification, food shortages, epidemics, insufficient water supply, coastal erosion, and increased refugees".(18)

 

While Africa has no real record of nuclear power, bar South Africa, there is clearly an interest in pursuing nuclear technology as a solution to the continent's power woes. The nuclear aspirations of countries across Africa include the following plans. Algeria plans to build its first commercial nuclear power station by approximately 2020 and to thereafter build another one every five years. Algeria has large uranium deposits, as well as two nuclear research reactors, but no uranium enrichment capacity as yet.(19) In 2007, Egypt announced plans to build a number of nuclear reactors to meet the rising demand for power. China, Russia, France and Kazakhstan have all offered to cooperate with Egypt in building them. The US has also indicated its willingness to aid Egypt in its nuclear programme, provided Egypt gives up the right to enrich uranium and reprocess spent fuel.(20) The Kenyan energy minister announced in 2008 that the country was seeking investors to build a small nuclear plant to meet the growing electricity needs.(21) Libya has been in negotiations with Russia regarding a deal in which Russia will build nuclear reactors for the North African state. In this deal, Russia would aid Libya in designing the civilian nuclear facility, as well as in developing and operating it and providing the fuel.(22) Namibia is one of three African countries besides Niger and South Africa that is producing uranium and it also has plans to build a nuclear plant to supply electricity to both the domestic market and the region. The Namibian government is setting up a regulatory system with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to provide the legal framework to build the nuclear plant.(23) Niger, one of the world's largest uranium producers is also planning to build a nuclear power station and it has asked South Africa to aid it in doing so.(24)

 

As mentioned previously, South Africa is currently the only African country with operational nuclear reactors. These reactors generate approximately 5% of the country's electricity and have been in operation since 1984. While the South African Government's commitment to the future of nuclear technology is strong, the country is currently experiencing severe financial constraints to the extent that construction of the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) has been cancelled. Since 1993, Eskom, South Africa's utility provider has been developing the PBMR in collaboration with other companies.(25) The modular reactor is an interesting prospect as instead of building a massive 1000-megawatt plant, modules each producing around 100 megawatts can be built, which is particularly attractive to developing countries such as South Africa because of the much lower capital costs involved.(26) In September 2010 it was announced by the South African Government that they would no longer be investing in the PBMR even in light of the country's current and future serious electricity shortages.(27) Another aspect of South Africa's nuclear history is its record of being the only country to ever have developed nuclear weapons and voluntarily given them up. South Africa embarked on a nuclear weapons programme in the 1970s and it had a nuclear device ready by the end of the decade. The country terminated its nuclear weapons programme in 1990 and in 1991 it signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.(28)

 

Most African states are embarking on nuclear power programmes in order to provide electricity for their citizens. Africa's future as a nuclear-powered continent seems to be a matter of ‘when' and not ‘if'. However, there are a number of challenges associated with Africa's pursuit of nuclear power and these will be discussed in the next section.

 

A nuclear Africa?

 

There are a number of key impediments to the construction of nuclear power plants and the provision of nuclear power. The first and possibly most serious concern is contextual. Africa has a long history of interstate conflict, ethnic strife, insurgencies, corruption and crime, among others. These are serious risk factors that need to be taken into account as the absence of a safe and secure environment for the development and implementation of nuclear power could be disastrous on a national, regional and international level. As Khripunov(29) notes: "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 US$ 2 billion to US$ 3.5 billion per reactor. These are daunting tasks and requirements for any country". In an African environment which includes many of the nefarious features described above, the prospect for the safe and successful development and operation of nuclear power plants does not seem likely. Indeed, in South Africa, which has the only two nuclear reactors on the continent, there have been a number of security incidences. In 2007, armed gunmen gained access to a major nuclear facility in the country and were even able to reach the emergency control before guards chased them away.(30) This incident, in one of Africa's most stable countries, indicates that instilling law and order and security must be a prerequisite for nuclear power development.

 

A related concern is that of nuclear waste management. African countries are notorious for their lack of responsible waste management practices. Indeed, many African countries have willingly become dumps for toxic waste from the EU and the US.(31) This raises a red flag, calling into question African state's willingness and ability to dispose of toxic waste in a responsible manner. Nuclear waste, as mentioned above, is extremely hazardous and the disposal thereof is one of the greatest global concerns, even in highly developed states.

 

A third concern for Africa is the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation. With conflict being rife all over the continent, the possibility of African state's pursuing nuclear weapons as a means to settle scores and win conflicts is a real and pressing issue that is intricately connected to African state's desire for civilian nuclear power.(32)

 

There are a number of ways in which these concerns can to an extent be mitigated. As mentioned above, the implementation of a system of nuclear fuel supplier countries and user countries would greatly alleviate both the danger of nuclear weapons proliferation and the issue of nuclear waste disposal in Africa. This type of system would be highly efficient in Africa as African states would be able to reap the many benefits of nuclear power, but would not have to take responsibility for nuclear waste management and they would also not have the capacity to develop nuclear weapons.

 

Another approach to nuclear power in Africa would be to start with small reactors whose output would better match existing grid capacity. In this regard, it has been suggested that a Russian floating nuclear power plant, operated by a Russian team and connected by cable to a country's grid could become a feasible option for Africa. This technology is based on the original reactor designs for Russian nuclear submarines.(33) A second, smaller-scale option on the market is the PBMR, recently abandoned by South Africa, which is far less capital intensive than more conventional options.

 

Another way in which nuclear technology can be better pursued in Africa is through increased regional cooperation. This would allow the establishment of the required economies of scale for nuclear power generation and would be a more cost-effective route of ascertaining cheap electricity throughout Africa. African countries are demonstrating an increased interest in regional cooperation that may involve interconnected grids, collective facilities, cooperative education and training programs, shared expertise in safety and security, and common management practices and skilled labour pools.(34)

 

Concluding remarks


This paper discussed the benefits of nuclear power as a solution to many current global problems. This paper also noted the perils of nuclear power, which as Chernobyl has shown, can be disastrous. While African countries stand to benefit enormously from nuclear power, it is not a quick fix for Africa's energy problems. Indeed as Khripunov(35) concludes: "In order to succeed, African Governments must go beyond the traditional framework of a technical programme 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 organised, the pursuit of nuclear power could become a rewarding endeavour 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". Nuclear power is a double-edged sword, with both great benefits and great perils attached. Africa is poised to embark on its nuclear journey, the navigation of which will hopefully be successful.

 

Written by: Catherine Pringle(1)


NOTES:

(1) Contact Catherine Pringle through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Africa Watch Unit (africa.watch@consultancyafrica.com).
(2) Mohamed ElBaradei, ‘Nuclear Technology: Serving Sustainable Development', International Atomic Energy Agency, 09 January 2007, http://www.iaea.org.
(3) Deutch, J. M., & Moniz, E. J., 2006. The Nuclear Option. Scientific American, 295(3), pp. 6.
(4) Igor Khripunov, ‘Africa's pursuit of nuclear power', Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 28 November 2007, http://www.thebulletin.org.
(5) Adamantiades, A., & Kessides, I., 2009. Nuclear power for sustainable development: Current status and future prospects. Energy Policy, 37, pp. 5150.
(6) Ibid.
(7) Patrick Moore, ‘Going Nuclear: A Green Makes the Case', The Washington Post, 16 April 2006, http://www.washingtonpost.com.
(8) Adamantiades, A., & Kessides, I., 2009. Nuclear power for sustainable development: Current status and future prospects. Energy Policy, 37, pp. 5150.
(9) Patrick Moore, ‘Going Nuclear: A Green Makes the Case', The Washington Post, 16 April 2006, http://www.washingtonpost.com.
(10) Ibid.
(11) Adamantiades, A., & Kessides, I., 2009. Nuclear power for sustainable development: Current status and future prospects. Energy Policy, 37, pp. 5159.
(12) Deutch, J. M., & Moniz, E. J., 2006. The Nuclear Option. Scientific American, 295(3), pp. 6.
(13) Adamantiades, A., & Kessides, I., 2009. Nuclear power for sustainable development: Current status and future prospects. Energy Policy, 37, pp. 5159.
(14) Ibid.
(15) Deutch, J. M., & Moniz, E. J., 2006. The Nuclear Option. Scientific American, 295(3), pp. 6.
(16) Igor Khripunov, ‘Africa's pursuit of nuclear power', Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 28 November 2007, http://www.thebulletin.org.
(17) ‘The leading nuclear power event in the Middle East and North Africa', Nuclear Power Middle East and North Africa 2010, http://www.nuclearpowermena.com.
(18) Igor Khripunov, ‘Africa's pursuit of nuclear power', Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 28 November 2007, http://www.thebulletin.org.
(19) Daniel Fineron & Simon Webb, ‘Factbox - Nuclear power plans in Africa, Middle East', Reuters, 29 December 2009, http://www.reuters.com.
(20) Ibid.
(21) Ibid.
(22) Ibid.
(23) Ibid.
(24) Daniel Fineron & Simon Webb, ‘Factbox - Nuclear power plans in Africa, Middle East', Reuters, 29 December 2009, http://www.reuters.com.
(25) ‘Nuclear Power in South Africa', World Nuclear Association, September 2010, http://www.world-nuclear.org.
(26) Deutch, J. M., & Moniz, E. J., 2006. The Nuclear Option. Scientific American, 295(3), pp. 6.
(27) ‘Nuclear Power in South Africa', World Nuclear Association, September 2010, http://www.world-nuclear.org.
(28) Ibid.
(29) Igor Khripunov, ‘Africa's pursuit of nuclear power', Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 28 November 2007, http://www.thebulletin.org.
(30) Ibid.
(31) Paul Redfern, ‘EU, U.S. Dumping Toxic Waste in Continent', AllAfrica, 05 July 2010, http://allafrica.com.
(32) Deutch, J. M., & Moniz, E. J., 2006. The Nuclear Option. Scientific American, 295(3), pp. 5.
(33) Igor Khripunov, ‘Africa's pursuit of nuclear power', Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 28 November 2007, http://www.thebulletin.org.
(34) Ibid.
(35) Ibid.