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Remedying the energy crisis : The nuclear option

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Remedying the energy crisis : The nuclear option

The African Union (AU) views nuclear energy as a key solution to enhancing electricity access across the continent. Despite its environmental, safety, and economic advantages, nuclear energy adoption in Africa encounters several challenges.

Nuclear potential to bridge the energy gap

The African Development Bank (AfDB) estimates that nearly 640 million people in Africa lack access to electricity. Without timely energy infrastructure development, this number could rise by 2030. The African Energy Commission (AEC), a specialized AU agency, recommends using nuclear power to bridge this energy gap.

Uranium production in Africa

Africa boasts significant potential for nuclear power, largely due to its abundant uranium resources. Based on 2022 data from the World Nuclear Association, four African nations emerge as primary producers of this mineral.

  • Namibia

Namibia emerges as Africa’s top uranium producer, securing the third position globally with 5,613 tonnes in 2022. Notably, in 2013, its production stood at 4,323 tonnes, showcasing a significant increase of 1,290 tonnes over nine years.

  • Niger

Niger, Africa’s second-largest uranium producer, holds the seventh global position with 2,020 tonnes in 2022. Nevertheless, the country faces economic challenges, as it led the rankings in 2013 with 4,518 tonnes of uranium.

  • South Africa

South Africa rounds off the top 10 with 200 tonnes of uranium production. Despite this figure being notably lower than other African nations, South Africa stands out as the sole country on the continent with a nuclear power plant.

  • Malawi

Malawi holds the second position in the global ranking of uranium producers by the World Nuclear Association. However, data from 2015 to 2022 is unavailable for Malawian production. Its standing in this ranking is attributed to its substantial production in 2013, totaling 1,132 tonnes.

Clean energy : Low greenhouse gas emissions

While nuclear power is clean and low-carbon, it’s not renewable. Nonetheless, experts view it as a significant opportunity to enhance electricity access and combat climate change. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), nuclear energy has prevented over 70 gigatons of carbon emissions in the last five decades. Its ongoing utilization prevents more than one gigatonne annually.

Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) indicate that 3.2 million people succumb to illnesses annually due to the use of polluting fuels and technologies. Hence, it’s crucial to regard nuclear power as a dependable and sustainable energy source.

An alternative to fossil fuels

Nuclear energy holds promise in addressing energy challenges while aligning with Africa’s energy transition goals. Moreover, it presents a more environmentally sound alternative compared to fossil fuels, which often receive significant funding despite their environmental impact. By replacing 20 % of coal-fired power generation with 250 gigawatts of nuclear power, emissions could be reduced by 2 gigatons of CO₂, amounting to 15 % of the power sector’s annual emissions.

Despite the ongoing investment in fossil-fired projects, Africa possesses considerable potential for renewable energy production. Nuclear power, alongside options like hydroelectricity, stands as a key opportunity to expedite the continent’s energy transition.

Challenges of nuclear power in Africa

Shaukat Abdulrazak, from the IAEA’s Africa Division, asserts that nuclear power demands a sustained commitment spanning at least 100 years and robust national leadership. Nevertheless, debates endure regarding the safety and viability of such projects. Concerns are exacerbated by past nuclear disasters like Fukushima, which amplify apprehensions among African populations.

Nuclear infrastructure challenges

The underutilization of nuclear energy in Africa stems from a combination of factors, including limited technical expertise and infrastructure, as well as significant uranium exports to Western nations. For instance, Niger alone supplies 25 % of the European Union’s uranium imports.

Despite these challenges, certain African nations have initiated steps in this direction. Burkina Faso has reportedly entered into an agreement with Russia for the establishment of a nuclear power plant, while Mali has also inked a deal with the Russian government to advance its civil nuclear sector.

Feasibility of a nuclear project in Africa

As per the IAEA’s guidelines, the network capacity of a reactor should ideally be ten times larger than that of the planned power plant. For instance, generating 3,000 megawatts of nuclear power necessitates a plant with a capacity of 30,000 megawatts. However, Micro Reactors (MRPs) typically produce approximately half the megawatts of conventional reactors. To overcome this limitation, deploying multiple small modular reactors (SMRs) and nanoreactors emerges as a more viable option for transforming nuclear power in Africa.

Unlike traditional pressurized water reactors (PWRs), factory-produced SMRs require lower initial investment and fewer infrastructure adjustments. Additionally, experts highlight that the latest generation of reactors enables broader accessibility to nuclear power across African countries. These advancements facilitate quicker construction, enhanced safety, and reduced costs.

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