With electricity demand rising in Africa's growing economy, can countries look to add nuclear to the energy mix?
Africa's issues with electrification are well-documented and have been parsed thoroughly. Several of the problems lie in harnessing the continent’s plentiful energy sources. Traditionally, the continent has leaned towards the use of fossil fuels1. Presently, fossil fuels (natural gas, oil, coal) make up as much as 77% of Africa’s electricity generation, according to the International Energy Administration (IEA). Fossil fuels have, however, been unable to sufficiently power the bulk of the continent on a consistent and sustainable basis: Sub-Saharan Africa’s electrification rates consistently fall below 50%.
There remains the option of African countries making up their electrification deficit using renewable energy. Hydropower is already a mainstay of Africa’s electricity mix; numerous large rivers can be harnessed, and the sector already contributes nearly 17% to Africa’s electricity supply. Other renewable sources lag significantly. Only concentrated and photovoltaic solar power comes close to 5%, with wind providing about 3%.
The yet-developing status of Africa puts it in a place where it could and should explore all energy sources, as most energy technology has reached maturation. The question then becomes: can nuclear energy contribute significantly to electricity generation on the continent?
Electricity is generated from nuclear power by harnessing the energy that is released during the splitting of radioactive atoms, often uranium or plutonium – known as fission – to drive turbines in a power station. Nuclear power has many pros and cons, its reliability and efficiency make it an attractive option for combating the African electrification dilemma. Let us examine a few factors that apply to nuclear power, and how they can affect the use of nuclear energy in Africa.
Nuclear power in Africa
As of the time of writing, only one African country has a functioning nuclear power station – South Africa's Koeberg 1 & 2. The reactors are both pressurized water reactors – a reactor technology that utilizes the heating of highly pressurized water by fission reactions, after which the heated, high-pressure water is used to drive turbines.
The Koeberg reactors, which are in Cape Town and have a combined net capacity of 1,860 megawatts, began to supply electricity to the South African grid in 1984 and have operated at near-peak capacity since then. They are presently responsible for 5% of South Africa’s electricity supply. While no other country has a functional nuclear power plant, two have announced plans to add nuclear to their energy mix.
In 2015, Egypt signed an agreement to build a 4,800 MW nuclear power plant in El Dabaa, about 320 kilometers northwest of Cairo. The nuclear plant will be comprised of four 1,200 MW VVER reactors, a variation of the PWR. Construction on Units 1 & 2 began in 2022 and the project will cost US$28.75 billion in total, with Russian state corporation, Rosatom, in charge of building the plant. The project will be co-financed by Russia and Egypt, with the European country providing 85% through a state loan of US$25 billion. Egypt will provide the remaining 15% in the form of installments. The Russian loan has a repayment period of 22 years, with an annual interest rate of 3%
Uganda aims to have the first of its Buyende Nuclear Power Plant twin reactors connected to the grid by 2031. The East African country has some of the highest deposits of uranium on the continent. Uranium is the main fuel source for nuclear energy. As a result, the country aims to take advantage of the plentiful resource – uranium deposits in Uganda are estimated at 52,000 square kilometers. The 2,000 MW-Buyende Plant will be built by South Korea's Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power at the cost of US$9 billion.
Nuclear energy comes with a lot of advantages. A nuclear plant, once built, can supply power for 60 to 80 years, with the only interruptions likely to be for maintenance. Efficiency is high, and nuclear plants are often massive generators, with most modern generators having a base level of 1,000 MW. The technology is emissions-friendly, as there are no carbon emissions. Whether it can be called “clean energy” is still up for debate though; there are other embedded emissions and the need for cooling reactors is known to raise the temperature of nearby water bodies.
The challenges of nuclear energy are such that they can severely affect African countries. The capital cost of constructing a nuclear power plant is very high – a single 1,00 MW power plant can cost anything between US$2 to US$5 billion, depending on variables such as availability of fuel and reactor site. In addition to high capital costs, nuclear plant construction often demands lengthy timelines, often ranging between five to ten years.
While it must be stated that electricity from nuclear is not any more expensive than that from fossil fuels, there is a significant period between investment and revenue returns, which will deter investors. Considering the substantial capital costs, most African countries cannot afford nuclear installations without borrowing or signing bilateral agreements with wealthier nations.
Africa also has a framework problem. There is recognition across the continent that most sub-Saharan countries have no expertise in nuclear energy and will lack the regulatory frameworks to manage the risks that come with the technology. It is for this reason that Uganda approached the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for guidance in the safe application of nuclear technologies.
Installing nuclear energy mandates the installation of new transmission infrastructure, traditionally a bane of electricity systems in countries such as Nigeria. A country seeking to install nuclear must also have sufficient skilled personnel to oversee the running and periodic maintenance of the facilities. Locals must be trained, as the country cannot rely wholly on foreign expertise. Finally, safety concerns remain scarce with nuclear energy. While these are often overblown, nuclear accidents are devastating when they do occur. Considering the unstable political situations in a lot of African countries, nuclear stations might become targets for vandalizing, which could lead to incredibly dangerous leaks.
Despite the challenges, there is still opportunity. Several African countries possess significant uranium deposits. As of 2020, the five largest known recoverable uranium deposits belong to the following countries:
Namibia – 448,300 metric tons (MT);
South Africa – 320,900 MT;
Niger Republic – 276, 400 MT;
Botswana – 87,200 MT;
Tanzania – 58,200 MT.
Namibia and Niger are some of the world’s leading producers, with the latter country being the main supplier of France, Europe’s most nuclear-intensive country. Only two of those five countries - South Africa and Botswana - have up to 70% of their populations enjoying access to electricity. Only 19.3% of Niger’s population has access to electricity.
The challenges listed above may impede these countries’ ability to install nuclear power. While fuel is abundant, access to finance and technical expertise may scupper any plans. Financial constraints are particularly problematic, as these countries may not be creditworthy enough to access the huge loans required to carry out expensive infrastructural development.
Countries like Nigeria may possess the ability to access finance, and the country has already contacted Rosatom about the possibility of developing nuclear. However, regulatory issues, corruption, and a general lack of urgency can mean that project development timelines extend for too long, increasing the cost of an already-expensive venture.
It doesn’t look like any African country is set to join Egypt and Uganda in developing nuclear infrastructure any time soon. Nevertheless, the potential is there, and interest exists both within and outside the continent. Nuclear cooperation agreements between African countries and more technologically advanced nations can be signed to build expertise and import technology. Regulations can be developed with the aid of the IAEA, and structured long-term loans might help create routes to finance.
Most importantly, countries must carefully evaluate their specific circumstances and act accordingly. While nuclear may seem an attractive option, it will always remain smarter to make use of resources within your country: hydropower if you have rivers, & solar power for areas with high solar irradiation. It is also crucial that countries engage with their citizens on the benefits and potential risks of nuclear energy, and find a way to achieve political stability for the sake of the infrastructure and their citizens.