Africa explores nuclear energy as climate-friendly way to ease power shortfalls

By Joseph Maina

August 8, 2022

Although South Africa is the only African country producing nuclear power commercially, other governments on the continent are exploring nuclear energy as a climate-friendly alternative to fossil fuels.

At least another 10 African countries were considering nuclear power as of 2018, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the organization that promotes the peaceful use of nuclear energy.  Besides the potential to generate electricity, nuclear technology is seen as a way to address food security and other development challenges in the continent of 1.2 billion people.

More pointedly, in recent times a growing number of African countries have shown interest in developing nuclear power programs to augment existing power shortfalls.

Some 600 million people in the continent do not have access to electricity and around 900 million people lack access to clean cooking fuel, notes the 2019 Africa Energy Outlook. Nuclear energy is further touted as a crucial add-on to Africa’s energy mix as it ties into United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7, which calls for access to affordable, reliable and sustainable modern energy.

SDG 13  calls for taking urgent steps to combat climate change and its impact, while the continued use of firewood as a source of heat by both rural and urban dwellers has a negative impact on SDG 15 , which addresses the management of forests to halt biodiversity loss.

“The need to look at nuclear energy as a major component of Africa’s future energy mix is imperative, as it does not emit greenhouse gases during operation,” observed a policy briefing published by the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), advocating for nuclear power generation in the continent.

Fossil fuels comprise the lion’s share of Africa’s current energy generation mix with hydropower making the only meaningful renewable energy contribution, notes Africa Energy Review 2021. Oil and natural gas top the list at 38 percent and 29 percent respectively, with coal coming third at 22 percent. Hydro  generates just 6 percent and nuclear a paltry 0.7 percent.

Despite recent shift within the renewable energy mix to accelerate solar and wind technologies, these remain small at 1.6%.

Experts have sketched an optimistic portrait of nuclear power in the future of the continent’s power matrix.

“There appears to be potential for nuclear to supply Africa with clean baseline energy and bypass coal, oil, and natural gas generation — these fuel sources pose issues not only environmentally, but also logistically due to a need for constant fuel supply,” opines a study published by the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

Kenya, in East Africa, has acknowledged the potential benefits of adopting nuclear power and has taken the policy decision to include it as a technology option in its national energy policy.

“Clean and sustainable energy is essential for Kenya’s sustainable development and is considered one of the infrastructure enablers of the socio-economic pillar of Vision 2030,’ asserts a study commissioned by the country’s Nuclear Power and Energy Agency. “Besides the reliability and predictability that nuclear power offers in the electricity markets, it also has non-climatic environmental benefits and minimizes the impact on human health as it emits practically no local or regional air pollutants. Among the power generation technologies, nuclear has the lowest external costs in terms of damage to human health and the environment.”

Africa also has an abundance of uranium, a critical raw material for nuclear energy programs. Namibia and Niger are among the top six global producers of uranium, with South Africa and various other countries also producing the commodity in smaller quantities.

Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria and Sudan have engaged with the IAEA to assess their readiness to embark on nuclear programs and Algeria, Tunisia and Zambia are also mulling the use nuclear power. The Union of Comoros recently finalized drafting a comprehensive national nuclear law.

Uganda President Yoweri Museveni proclaimed that Africa in general is interested in nuclear power for electricity generation upon receiving an IAEA mission report this past May affirming his country’s readiness for a nuclear plant .

Some 46 African states are among the 175 member states currently comprising the IAEA. Membership has also been approved for Cabo Verde, Guinea and The Gambia.

African states began deploying nuclear science to address local developmental needs as far back as the mid-1960s, when it was  being used in plant production and protection studies. It was used to  support cocoa, peanut and rubber research in Ghana, research in groundnuts and sorghum in Senegal and olives in Tunisia. Nuclear technologies also found application in preserving foodstuffs — a critical step in mitigating post-harvest losses — as well as in industrial and medical application, research and training.

Currently, Africa has an active nuclear science and technology sector that includes several research reactors and governments on the continent have shown significant interest in joining Cape Town, South Africa, in starting commercial nuclear programs.

The South African project began in 1984 with the Koeberg Power Station, which has two 900 MW Pressurized Water Reactors (PWR)and accounts for 5 percent of the nation’s annual electricity.

In 2021, South Africa launched the procurement process for a new 2,500-megawatt nuclear power plant. The push for new nuclear generating capacity is expected to help the country shift away from coal and towards less carbon-intensive means of generating electricity, Reuters reported.

Nuclear science and technology has also been cited as one way of managing the constraints to agricultural production and productivity in Africa. These technologies have transformed agriculture at the small-to medium-size family farms and commercial farms. Plant mutation breeding and associated biotechnologies have led to accelerated development of climate-resilient and high-yielding varieties of food security and fodder crops. Nuclear science and technology has also been used in ensuring food safety and quality, with examples in routine isotopic and analytical techniques used to examine food traceability and authenticity, contaminants and residue analysis, as well as the use of irradiation methods to control chemical hazards in food.

The technology has also been deployed to assess water availability and quality, with drip irrigation and smart fertilization projects guided by nuclear technology undertaken in West Africa.

Nuclear technology has also been applied in the control of various pests and diseases affecting animals and humans, a notable case being the development of sterile insect technique (SIT) to eradicate tsetse flies and animal and human trypanosomiasis.

The Joint FAO/IAEA Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture highlights some of the milestones that have been achieved in the deployment of nuclear and related technologies in agriculture. One such project is the control of cassava brown streak disease in Uganda using nuclear techniques.

“Conventional breeding methods have been too slow to produce varieties that can withstand the disease, so the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) in Uganda turned to a nuclear-based breeding technique and is teaming up with the IAEA and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to develop cassava varieties that are both resistant to the virus and high yielding,” the IAEA states.

Image: Nuclear reactor cooling tower in Cape Town, South Africa. Photo: Shutterstock/e2dan