Why nuclear power for Africa doesn’t make sense

nuclear power

Hartmut Winkler
According to International Energy Agency figures, Kenya, Sudan and Zambia are primarily dependent on hydroelectric power. A 2.4GW nuclear plant would double their electricity production. Nigeria’s dominant energy source is gas, and here it would take a 4.8GW nuclear plant to double its capacity

OVER the last few years reports have surfaced of a range of African countries planning nuclear power plants.

At the moment, the only nuclear plant in operation in Africa is South Africa’s Koeberg, producing 1.86GW of power. This, according to some African leaders, is about to change. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni recently made the astonishing statement that his country is planning 30GW of nuclear power by 2026. That equates to 16 times the current total of nuclear energy on the entire African continent.

Uganda’s is only one of a number of countries interested in nuclear power. Russia’s nuclear agency Rosatom has boasted that it’s concluded nuclear power memoranda of understanding with Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Sudan and Zambia. Uganda is also on the list.

Most African countries suffer from severe electricity shortages. The majority need to double their generating capacity to meet current needs.
According to International Energy Agency figures, Kenya, Sudan and Zambia are primarily dependent on hydroelectric power. A 2.4GW nuclear plant would double their electricity production. Nigeria’s dominant energy source is gas, and here it would take a 4.8GW nuclear plant to double its capacity.

Of the countries with Rosatom agreements, only Egypt has any concrete plans in place. A site for a 4.8GW nuclear plant has been identified at El Dabaa, on the Mediterranean Sea, and building is understood to be imminent. In the other countries, the location and scale of the projects have yet to be determined.
Elsewhere in the world countries like Germany, Belgium and the US are downscaling their nuclear plans or exiting it altogether. The reasons include perceptions of increased risk following the Fukushima disaster in Japan as well as economic factors.

The cost of electricity generation from solar photovoltaic and wind technologies has come down dramatically. It already costs less than power produced by nuclear plants and renewable energy is set to become even cheaper.

Given that South Africa has shelved its nuclear plans on affordability grounds, surely less resourced African countries would find investments like this even more difficult?

The loan agreements
Nuclear power agreements are notoriously shrouded in secrecy. But it’s possible to get a sense of Rosatom’s plans for African nuclear contracts by examining recent examples where details of mutual commitments have become public.

A deal struck with Bangladesh provides a useful benchmark against which to understand other deals that have been done with Russia. In the case of the 2.4GW Rooppur nuclear plant, Rosatom is providing most of a US$ 12.65 billion loan. This only covers the estimated construction costs. Interest accrual, possible cost overruns, operations and decommissioning are likely to amount to more than double of this initial outlay. That makes a total cost of roughly US$ 30 billion likely. Egypt’s earlier mentioned El Dabaa project has a similar funding arrangement. Here Rosatom has given a loan of US$ 25 billion, which again is projected to only cover construction.

For both Rooppur and El Dabaa, the annual interest for their loan is around 3%. In addition, the loan is structured in a way that ensures repayments only start 10-13 years after the loan is made, to continue in annual instalments for 22-28 years thereafter.

The country receiving the nuclear plant initially pays very little, but when the repayments kick in, the country’s fiscus and electricity consumers are suddenly faced with a massive burden that most African economies will never be able to meet. By then the 3% annual interest could have increased the amount owed by as much as 40%.

The nuclear industry also has a history of cost overruns and construction delays. A country may therefore face a situation where it needs to service a higher-than-expected debt while being unable to recoup funds from electricity sales.

What is equally concerning is that the debt then places Russia in a position where it is able to exert disproportionate influence over a country’s affairs.
Zambia is eyeing a nuclear plant on the scale of Bangladesh’s Rooppur. The plant is expected to cost US$ 30 billion. Given Zambia’s total annual budget is US$ 7.2 billion this is clearly unaffordable. If one were to scale the Rooppur cost from 2.4GW to the 30GW nuclear power plants proposed by Museveni, the figure would be 15 times Uganda’s annual GDP of US$ 24 billion.

Cheaper options
Are there cheaper alternatives to nuclear power to alleviate energy shortages in Africa?
A great deal of hope was placed on the 40GW Grand Inga hydroelectric scheme on the Congo river. But the project isn’t going to come to fruition soon due to funding challenges.

The most promising solution seems to be through multiple small-scale power production initiatives, typically in bio-energy, solar heaters and photovoltaic modules. These provide cheaper electricity than nuclear and are in addition good job creators. With its extensive agricultural sector, all of Africa has great bio-waste energy potential.

Kenya has shown that there are excellent geothermal energy extraction possibilities along the Rift Valley.
Many countries, including Egypt and Kenya, enjoy ample sunshine, making them ideal for solar power generation. With the right incentives, these could drive an African energy generation boom. — theconversation.

 Hartmut Winkle is a professor of physics at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa.

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  • Mnaizi

    If you google nuclear electricity plants maps in google image you get the information about thousands of nuclear electrical plants around the world. Mostly concentrated in Europe, Eastern USA and Japan but also spread around the world. France has hundreds of them. So there’s thousands of nuclear electrical plants around the world. As of today, it’s ok to evalate the cost and security concern of such plants. Security risk (including environmental pollution by waste) are a great and serious concerns. Solar and hydro energy are more viable alternative. In the future, it’s possible to imagine nuclear energy becoming cheaper and safer. At that time (when innovation make nuclear energy safer and cheaper), it may be time to re-evaluate the potential of nuclear energy. As a scientist, it’s hard to avoid the possible great advantage of harnessing the electrical potential of regular matter (the nucleus of every atoms). Nuclear energy is based on the fact every single molecule in the universe and our body is densily packed with energy. Maybe in the future, it would be possible to harness this “nuclear” energy in a safer and cheaper way, so it’s important for humanity (and the country) to continue study nuclear energy and it’s potential for the future or specific application. What is truly great about nuclear energy is that small amount of matter have the potential to generate tremendous amount of energy. With more research and innovation it’s possible it will cost less and be much more safe. We can even imagine possible portable nuclear energy used in our cell phones, cars, irrigation compressor/motor, to power our houses, etc. This possibility must be pursued for the good of humanity and the country.

    At the moment, hydro energy and in particular Solar energy seems to be the way to go. Solar energy is becoming cheaper and cheaper. Zimbabwe has the advantage of having a great solar coverage with many hours of sun throughout the years. It would be great for Zimbabwe and Africa to see more photoelectric cells plant manufacturer in the country since it could provide a important form of energy for Zimbabwe, hard to reach areas in the country. Africa should be at the forefront of Solar energy research, innovation and use. There’s always need to maintain those solar energy systems as well as integrating new innovation, increase efficiency, etc, so Zimbabwean manufacturers have the perpective of being viable for a long time in one of the most basic need (electricity). As solar energy, becomes more and more efficient, we can even imagine houses becoming self-sufficient in electricity production. Elimitating all the overhead lines and the necessicity for large plants. So both solar and nuclear energy (or even other types like Neutrino based energy production) have great potential for now and the future and must be pursued.