Growing Opportunity for Nuclear in Africa, But Big Obstacles Remain

A response to "Atoms for Africa"

Atoms for Africa is a rare, rigorous, and much needed analysis of the potential role of nuclear power in achieving Africa’s energy goals and of the challenges it will need to overcome. Nothing is more telling than the story of six African countries (Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Sudan, Uganda, and Zambia) which plan to deploy some 13 GW of nuclear power over the next 12 years. Today these countries have a total installed generation capacity of about 1.8 GWe, with only a single country operating nuclear power. The report asks whether such expansion is feasible. On the one hand, nuclear power can quickly add (or replace) 70% or more of the electricity generation, even in countries without any nuclear plants. France did it in 20 years (1960-1980), Sweden in 15 (1965-1980), and Belgium in just 10. On the other hand these were all wealthy, stable democracies in Western Europe. Are the conditions in Africa similar? Or can they be?

In 2011, I proposed several simple criteria for determining whether a country is capable of launching a civilian nuclear energy program. These criteria were derived from the experience of those countries that historically introduced nuclear energy and included, in a nutshell, the size of the country’s economy and its electricity grid as well as its quality of governance and political stability. At that time, I judged that no African country fulfills these criteria. Sah and colleagues reiterate this judgement, but argue that next generation nuclear power technologies, such as small modular reactors, high-temperature gas reactors, floating reactors, and sealed micro-reactors may ease some of these constraints.

Naturally, such innovations may be able to overcome some of the limitations which I identified. However, we know that new technologies usually emerge in the “core” (typically advanced industrialised countries) and are only subsequently deployed in the “periphery.” Thus, it is not very likely that new nuclear power technologies will first take hold in African countries, though they can help accelerate the uptake of nuclear power in the longer term. Still, there are at least three factors which can make nuclear programs in the six African countries more feasible than it would seem.

First, though the current grids of all these countries are too small to reliably absorb electricity from a modern nuclear reactor, these grids are rapidly expanding with or without nuclear. For example, Nigeria’s electricity grid is at the moment 7 times smaller than Sweden’s, although its GDP is only 30% smaller and its population is 20 times larger. It’s no wonder that Nigeria, then, with help from international donors, has plans to expand its electric grid from the current 5-6 GW to 20 GW in the next 4 years. As I showed in my 2011 analysis, historically, the expansion of electricity grids occurred in parallel with the deployment of nuclear power. For example, electricity production doubled in Sweden and quadrupled in France alongside their nuclear expansion in 1965-1980 and 1960-1980, respectively. This expansion was even less radical than is currently expected in Africa.

Second, many European countries were able to accomodate large nuclear power fleets because of their interconnections with other countries. If African countries are able to build interconnections with their neighbours, they effectively increase the size and reliability of their own grids. If electricity interconnections and electricity trade emerge in Africa it can accelerate introduction of nuclear power.

Finally, and probably most importantly, the feasibility of nuclear power in Africa can be affected by a factor that is mentioned in the report but deserves more attention: the involvement of foreign actors, first and foremost Russia. The report notes that Rosatom, the export arm of the Russian state-owned nuclear industry, plays a key role in the nuclear power plans of the six African nations. Rosatom is not only active in Africa. It is currently completing the construction of a nuclear power plant in Belarus and is also constructing power plants in Iran, Hungary and Bangladesh. In our recent analysis we show that Rosatom is likely to dominate future supply of nuclear reactors, power plants and fuel supply.

Rosatom is powerful because it helps aspiring nuclear newcomers to overcome financial and technological limitations by offering a build-own-operate model where the Russian state takes on financing (and associated risks) of the plants as well as provides not only the construction, but also operation of the plant and the complete fuel cycle. Training or provision of personnel, safety regulations and all such details are included. All the host country has to do, in addition to securing a site, is to guarantee sales of electricity. This may not be easy to do in Africa, but it is also not as challenging as amassing the expertise necessary for nuclear power plant construction.

Read the report: Atoms for Africa: Is There a Future for Civil Nuclear Energy in Sub-Saharan Africa?