Motivation for Strengthening and Establishing Nuclear Energy Programmes in Sub-Saharan Africa

Motivation for Strengthening and Establishing Nuclear Energy Programmes in Sub-Saharan Africa


Simbarashe Mangena

Access to plentiful, secure, and environmentally benign energy is both paramount and fundamental to the development of Africa. According to global energy and utility firm ENGIE, currently, only 37 percent of Africans have access to electricity, with the rural access rates substantially lower than the urban areas. The African Development bank postulates that the electricity access rate in the region ranges slightly above 40 percent and is the lowest in the world.

With the exception of South Africa, the energy consumption per capita is a paltry 180kWhagainst 13000kWh and 6500kWh per capita of the United States and Europe respectively. This significantly large energy deficit, coupled with a high vulnerability to climate change, is a grotesque impediment to the sustainable growth and development of the continent. In this vein, the advent of nuclear energy becomes a key component in the portfolio of energy technologies that will catapult Africa in the trajectory of sustainable economic development.

According to the World Nuclear Association Information Library, 16 countries out of the 48 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are embarking on nuclear power programmes. Despite the fact that current nuclear power plants on the market operate at a capacity of 1GW and above, thus exceeding sustainable capacities for many African countries, small modular reactors and advanced nuclear technologies have the potential to significantly improve the feasibility of adopting the technology on the continent. Notwithstanding the fact that the 16 embarking countries have sourced for reactor designs in compliance with what is currently available on the market, the latter presents an opportunity for the establishment of new nuclear energy programmes in Africa in the not too distant future. Through smaller reactor sizes and modest designs, these new nuclear technologies could be economically and technically feasible.

The establishment of a nuclear power plant is inherently a subset of a nuclear energy programme. This implies that a nuclear energy programme encompasses a plethora of applications of nuclear science and technology with benefits such as:

  1. Employment Creation:

According to the Rosatom Overseas online brochure, construction and operation of nuclear power plants provide economic growth and creates new jobs: 1 job in nuclear power plant construction creates 10–15 jobs in related sectors.

  1. Energy Efficiency and Reliability

Richard Rhodes opines from statistics in the US in 2016, the average capacity factor of a nuclear power plant is 92.3%, this implies that they can be operated at full power for 336 days out of 365 days in a year. The remaining 29 days will be periodically spread for maintenance. In contrast, hydroelectric systems have an average capacity factor of 38.2 % (138 days per year), wind turbines 34.5% (127 days per year), and solar electricity arrays only 25.1% (92 days per year). Thermal and natural gas plants generate electricity about half the time for reasons such as fuel costs and seasonal and nocturnal variations in demand. This analysis clearly shows the capabilities presented by nuclear as a steady baseload power source that will enable optimal production and indeed sustainable development.

  1. Carbon-free Power Generation

Nuclear energy generation will significantly reduce the carbon footprint of the continent consistent with the global consensus regarding climate change.

  1. Enhancement of Applications of Nuclear Science & Technology

Nuclear energy programmes have the potential to strengthen the use of radiation in the health sector by promoting the establishment of radiopharmaceuticals industry on the continent. Africa is hard hit by the global cancer scourge with most of her countries incapacitated and under-resourced to meet the growing demand for medical radioisotopes. In the agricultural sector tsetse/pest control, food irradiation for increased shelf life, plant mutation breeding using radiation can also be strengthened. In the consumer product sector, manufacturing of radiation sources for mining and industry will be established within the region, creating employment opportunities. Capacity building in the education sector and deed economic development are also required. All these technologies and expertise are currently being imported. It is important to note that whilst these applications can be established without NPPs, the implementation of a nuclear power program is the pinnacle of radiation technologies, thus providing credible assurance and confidence of the commitment towards radiation safety and security to the international community thereby paving the way for the development of these technologies.

Complementing the massive strides that have been made in the continent towards non- proliferation, as evidenced by the ratification of the Non-Proliferation Treaty by almost all the countries and more than half have ratified the Additional Protocol, the establishment of a sustainable nuclear energy programme in Sub- Saharan Africa is definitely on the table.

Simbarashe Mangena is an Inspector at the Radiation Protection Authority of Zimbabwe.