IS IT TIME FOR AFRICA TO TAKE UP NU­CLEAR EN­ERGY?

The con­ti­nent faces a power in­fras­truc­ture deficit re­quir­ing up­wards of $90 bil­lion an­nu­ally to connect at least 600 mil­lion peo­ple to grid elec­tric­ity

The East African - - NEWS - By NJIRAINI MUCHIRA Spe­cial Cor­re­spon­dent Pic: File

Per­sis­tent power deficits and a push for in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion push Africa to­wards this source of elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tion but some urge cau­tion.

Faced with per­sis­tent power deficits, which have slowed down in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion, Africa is in­creas­ingly con­sid­er­ing new al­ter­na­tives for elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tion, in­clud­ing nu­clear en­ergy.

Across the con­ti­nent, de­pen­dence on sources like hy­dro, so­lar and wind has failed to in­crease elec­tric­ity con­nec­tions. Ac­cord­ing to the World Bank, sub-sa­ha­ran Africa faces a power in­fras­truc­ture deficit re­quir­ing the up­wards of $90 bil­lion an­nu­ally to en­able at least 600 mil­lion peo­ple to connect to grid elec­tric­ity.

East Africa has an av­er­age of 40 per cent power cov­er­age, and this has been blamed for the high cost of pro­duc­tion for man­u­fac­tur­ers as well as the high cost of con­sumer goods. Ethiopia, Egypt and South Africa are in­creas­ingly be­com­ing at­trac­tive to in­vestors due to the rel­a­tively low cost of power there.

Al­though the gov­ern­ments of Kenya and Uganda are in­vest­ing in new gen­er­a­tion sources like geo­ther­mal, coal and nat­u­ral gas, they are also con­sid­er­ing nu­clear en­ergy as an al­ter­na­tive. Al­ready, Kenya has en­gaged a con­sul­tant to find a suit­able site for its pro­posed $5 bil­lion nu­clear power plant, which is ex­pected to pro­duce 1GW in 2027.

Uganda is even more am­bi­tious: it seeks to pro­duce 4GW ini­tially.

Nu­clear en­ergy is cheap, with a tar­iff of about 6 US cents per kilo­watt com­pared with a high of 12 cents for ther­mal. Nu­clear power is re­li­able, com­pared with hy­dro, which is prone to weather changes.

“The fu­ture of en­ergy and baseload gen­er­a­tion is in nu­clear, and prob­a­bly coal and liq­ue­fied nat­u­ral gas. Kenya needs to push ahead with the nu­clear agenda to meet the coun­try’s en­ergy needs,” said the man­ag­ing direc­tor of Kenya Nu­clear Elec­tric­ity Board Collins Juma.

Mr Juma said that Kenya re­quires at least 18,000MW to be­come a mid­dle-in­come and in­dus­tri­alised na­tion. With the total in­stalled ca­pac­ity at 2,370MW, it will need to di­ver­sify its en­ergy sources to reach that tar­get.

Coun­tries in East Africa are among those on the con­ti­nent seek­ing to build nu­clear power plants driven by the need to end power chal­lenges, and ac­cel­er­ate in­dus- trial and eco­nomic growth.

Rus­sia, China and South Korea have emerged as the key ven­dors of nu­clear en­ergy, of­fer­ing to help in fi­nanc­ing the deals. The In­ter­na­tional Atomic En­ergy Agency (IAEA) has been at the fore­front of the cam­paign to sell nu­clear to Africa. Its deputy direc­tor-gen­eral Mikhail Chu­dakov told The Eastafrican that nu­clear en­ergy holds the key to in­dus­trial de­vel­op­ment.

“Africa needs to un­der­stand that so­lar and wind are good for home light­ing [but not man­u­fac­tur­ing],” he said.

Mas­sive in­vest­ments

But nu­clear en­ergy needs mas­sive re­sources to build and op­er­ate, so state-owned com­pa­nies like Rus­sia’s Rosatom, China Gen­eral Nu­clear, China Na­tional Nu­clear Cor­po­ra­tion and Korea Elec­tric Power Cor­po­ra­tion are push­ing var­i­ous fi­nanc­ing and con­struc­tion mod­els for the con­ti­nent’s cus­tomers.

The com­pa­nies have signed agree­ments and mem­o­randa with African coun­tries, rang­ing from re­search and de­vel­op­ment and hu­man re­sources de­vel­op­ment to full re­ac­tor projects. Rus­sia and China, in par­tic­u­lar, have crafted pack­ages pro­vid­ing state-backed loans, in the process al­ter­ing the dy­nam­ics of nu­clear mar­kets.

In Egypt, for in­stance, Rus­sia is pro­vid­ing 85 per cent of the fund­ing for the 4,800MW plant cur­rently un­der con­struc­tion at a cost of $21 bil­lion.

Rus­sia is also push­ing the buil­down-op­er­ate-trans­fer model, where it main­tains own­er­ship of the plant and sells elec­tric­ity to the host coun­try. Rosatom is al­ready de­ploy­ing this model in Turkey.

Ac­cord­ing to Mr Juma, al­though Kenya is yet to de­cide on the fi­nanc­ing of its plants, the mod­els avail­able in the mar­ket make the pur­suit of a nu­clear plant vi­able.

“The Rus­sian model is at­trac­tive be­cause we just need to ne­go­ti­ate a tar­iff that is rea­son­able enough to make the ven­dor re­coup their in­vest­ment then they come and build the plant, own it and op­er­ate it for some years, once they have re­couped their in­vest­ments, they trans­fer the plant to the gov­ern­ment,” he said.

He added that while crit­ics say the model is tantamount to a coun­try ced­ing sovereignty to the ven­dor coun­try, ne­go­ti­at­ing for a favourable tar­iff guar­an­tees ac­cess to cheap elec­tric­ity for years.

“For us, the bot­tom line should be ac­cess to cheap elec­tric­ity,” he said, adding that Kenya needs the nu­clear plant be­cause the coun­try has ex­hausted hy­dro while the total ca­pac­ity for geo­ther­mal, which is also cap­i­tal in­ten­sive, is 10,000 MW.

Wide­spread op­po­si­tion

But while African gov­ern­ments be­lieve nu­clear of­fers an easy way of ad­dress­ing en­ergy needs, op­po­si­tion to the tech­nol­ogy is wide­spread, some­thing that has made it dif­fi­cult for most coun­tries to achieve one of IAEA’S top con­di­tions: A gen­eral ac­cep­tance by the wider pop­u­lace.

A com­mon na­tional po­si­tion on a nu­clear plant is the top­most con­di­tion in the IAEA 19 in­fras­truc­ture mile­stones ap­proach for any coun­try pur­su­ing nu­clear en­ergy for peace­ful pur­poses.

Op­po­si­tion in African coun­tries is in­formed by the fact that some Western coun­tries like Ger­many have sig­nif­i­cantly down­scaled gen­er­a­tion from nu­clear due to grow­ing con­cerns over safety and se­cu­rity in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima dis­as­ter in Ja­pan.

“African coun­tries un­der­stand that nu­clear power is a clean and good source of en­ergy for the fu­ture. But they also un­der­stand that nu­clear has some spe­cific fea­tures that need to be pre­pared to con­struct a safe, se­cure and re­li­able nu­clear plant. As IAEA we are glad that African coun­tries are ful­fill­ing their obli­ga­tions and fol­low­ing all our rec­om­men­da­tions be­cause this is the path to­wards hav­ing a nu­clear plant,” said Dr Chu­dakov

De­spite brakes be­ing ap­plied in the West, in­vest­ments in nu­clear re­ac­tors is on the rise, par­tic­u­larly in Asia and East­ern Europe.

At the end of 2016, the total num­ber of op­er­at­ing re­ac­tors stood at 448, up from 441 in 2015 while cur­rently there are a total of 61 re­ac­tors un­der con­struc­tion, 20 of which are in China with a fur­ther 15 spread across In­dia, Pak­istan and Rus­sia.

The Me­nen­gai geo­ther­mal field in Kenya’s Nakuru Countyafrican coun­tries are seek­ing new en­ergy sources in­clud­ing nu­clear to end power chal­lenges and ac­cel­er­ate in­dus­trial and eco­nomic growth.

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