Nuclear Energy: Africa has better alternatives

While discussing the “Electrify Africa Act’, in a House foreign affairs meeting recently, US congressman Jeff Duncan, came up with a proposal for Africa to power small cities and large neighbourhoods using nuclear power (small modular reactors).

While discussing the “Electrify Africa Act’, in a House foreign affairs meeting recently, US congressman Jeff Duncan, came up with a proposal for Africa to power small cities and large neighbourhoods using nuclear power (small modular reactors).

The ‘Power Africa Bill’ came in response to a $7 billion spending for ‘Power Africa’ announced by the Obama administration last year, to deal with the power scarcity on the black continent, where it is estimated that 85 per cent of the rural population use kerosene lamps or firewood to be able to light their houses at night and cook food, while in Sub Saharan Africa, two thirds of the population have no access to energy.

The foreign affairs committee passed the “Power Africa’ bill though it does not mention anything to do with nuclear power.

The Power Africa Initiative will be implemented by the US government in partnership with its private sector, and a point here that worries energy analysts is that though the US government is not likely to support nuclear power projects in Africa, the US Export-Import Bank is likely to support private companies to start nuclear power plants in Africa.

The good spirit of the Obama administration initiative to ‘Power Africa’ is more than welcome and, if implemented, will save lives in rural health clinics that cannot stock lifesaving vaccines and essential drugs.

It will power rural boarding schools where students cannot read at night; it will, in general, improve conditions of living in rural homes; it will improve African economies by boosting industrial production.

However, the debate that is going on now among concerned Africans and well-wishers, is whether Nuclear power is the best option for Africa now, where there are vast potential of safer and renewable energy sources  and wide gaps in terms of human resource in as far as handling nuclear energy is concerned.

Duncan’s proposal is looked at as many other ‘well-presented proposals’ from Western countries, and supported by world respected institutions like the World Bank, USAID, and many others, which do not serve the very interests of the recipients.

If you have read the book, Confessions of An Economic Hit Man, by John Perkins, then you will understand very well the raw deals usually pushed on developing countries like African states.

The African experience with nuclear energy is not encouraging. South Africa is the only African country with two commercial nuclear reactors built in 1980s, but only one – at Koeberg – is operational serving a meagre 5 per cent of the country’s energy needs.

The reactors have over the years been on and off, registering more failures than successes. The safety of such nuclear reactors is of great concern on a continent that does not boast of a good number of nuclear scientists to manage the facilities.

It would require importing expensive western world Nuke scientists to handle, while at the same time creating markets for nuke technologies from the same countries; the reason some observers suspect the proposal by Congressman Duncan only serves to benefit such interests.

There is also the fear factor for the unknown. Questions like supposing some ‘bad intentioned nuke scientists’ with terror motives get access to the proposed nuclear power facilities in Africa, would the ingredients and technologies at their disposal enable them to secretly carry out uranium enrichment and subsequently develop nuclear weapons? 

Nuke experts should help to explain to what extent this is likely or not likely to happen.

On the contrary, the African continent has vast potential of hydro, geothermal, wind, solar and natural gas, biogas etc, that the Power Africa Initiative can support to boost domestic and industrial power needs for the rapid economic growth taking place in Africa.

The population of Africa is growing very fast and so is the urbanisation rate. It is estimated that by 2030, about 50 per cent of all Africans will be city residents which will drive energy demand growth and consumption. Currently, less than three out of every 10 Africans have access to electricity.

The Obama administration’s Power Africa Initiative would be well focused if it supported Africa’s mega power projects that can make a difference by turning around the energy poverty of the continent.

DRC’s “Grand-Inga” hydro-power project, expected to be the world’s biggest with a capacity of 40,000MW if completed, is capable of supplying power to the entire sub-Saharan Africa, with twice as much energy as the Three Gorges dam in China, which is today the world’s largest hydro power plant.

Ethiopia has a 45,000MW hydro-power potential and is currently constructing a 6,000MW Grand renaissance dam on river Nile. Kenya has a potential of producing 10,000MW of geothermal energy, but with less than 10 per cent installed capacity.

Rwanda has huge amounts of methane gas in Lake Kivu with 120 to 250 million cubic metres estimated to be generated annually, while Tanzania recently made discoveries of huge amounts of natural gas.

There is also an amazing solar power potential in Africa where, on average, every country receives 325 days per year of bright sunlight; and some studies claim that solar power in Africa is capable of providing the entire world’s energy by using a small part of the Sahara Desert.

These are a few examples that can provide safer and steady energy supply to Africa than the highly risky nuclear sources. The Power Africa Initiative is undoubtedly well intentioned and good for Africa.


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