/ 16 December 2023

East African countries going for nuclear – why it’s a bad idea

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A kite surfing protester at the Koeberg Alert Alliance protest against a proposed 16km nuclear evacuation line and the safety of Koeberg Power Plant in Bloubergstrand on December 16, 2021 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Brenton Geach/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

The East African region has the fastest-growing population in Africa. Between 2013 and 2017, its growth rate was twice the continental average.

It is also experiencing strong economic growth. Its sub-Saharan share of GDP has risen from 14% in 2000 to 21% last year.

Such growth translates to higher electricity demand. 

Among a variety of new energy proposals is building nuclear power plants. 

Earlier this year, Uganda announced plans to construct a 2 000-megawatt nuclear plant 150km north of Kampala, with the first 1 000MW operational by 2031. 

Rwanda also recently signed a deal to build a nuclear reactor, while Kenya and Tanzania have made similar announcements.

It is in many ways tempting for these countries to build nuclear power plants. Even a single large-scale nuclear reactor would typically double national electricity generation capacity. 

In addition, it is technology that is — in theory at least — able to provide a constant electricity output, independent of weather, season or time of day.

Nuclear power has historically been perceived in many quarters as confirmation of high technological status and proof of national respectability, despite many of the world’s technologically and economically strongest nations having shut down their nuclear plants. Germany and Italy are examples.

But choosing the nuclear path carries several risks. 

The costs of constructing, maintaining, and later decommissioning, a nuclear plant make this one of the most expensive forms of electricity generation. The actual cost is invariably a lot higher than originally announced.

Along with that, the construction period is usually many years longer than declared at the start. 

In addition, safety issues can never be discounted when dealing with nuclear energy, as the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan amply illustrated.

There are two arguments against new nuclear as considered by East African countries. 

The first is financial. The construction cost of a new nuclear plant typically stands at about $5 billion per 1 000MW. The cost of a 2 000MW build in Uganda would be of the order of that country’s annual total tax revenue. As such, the project would rely on massive loans, which also come with considerable interest.

The second is the risk of complete political and economic dependence on the nuclear build sponsor country. France, South Korea and China are building a small number of nuclear plants outside their borders. China is now part of the Ugandan nuclear project.

But the country that has been by far the most aggressive in promoting itself as an international nuclear plant developer is Russia. In 2019 it had already secured nuclear cooperation agreements with 18 African countries, with several more concluded more recently.

To circumvent the prohibitive costs, Russian nuclear developers have offered to provide comparatively low-interest financing where repayments only kick in several years after the start of construction and continue for several decades thereafter. 

The drawback is the country develops a strong long-term dependence on Russia to meet one of its most basic needs — electricity provision.

The situation has been made more risky by the uncertainty of Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine. The fallout from this war may well ruin, and lead to the complete overhaul of, the Russian state. 

This would result in the disruption and ultimate termination of projects already in progress, with the loss of all funding and resources invested up to that point.

In view of the financial risk and high cost and because, as global experience has shown, it typically requires 10 or more years to set up a nuclear plant from project approval to electricity production, East African countries should pursue alternatives.

New medium-scale solar, wind and geothermal power-generating facilities will probably dominate the expansion of East African electricity generation capacity in the coming decade as they are cheap in comparison. 

Typical construction time scales are also much lower than nuclear or hydro megaprojects.

Take hydropower generation, which uses the natural flow of moving water to produce electricity, for example. This source of power has been the most significant in East Africa for decades. 

Building more dams is both time consuming and, at times, controversial. Nevertheless, major projects using this technology are still being built. An example is the 2 115MW Julius Nyerere hydropower station in Tanzania.

Solar power — the conversion of energy from sunlight into electricity — has an extremely low footprint in the region at the moment. Yet it is now one of the cheapest forms of electricity generation. Most countries in the region have extensive areas suitable for harnessing this source.

Wind farms can be considered in regions and some are already in operation, such as in Kenya’s Lake Turkana region.

East Africa furthermore has the Rift Valley and its volcanic activity in places. 

This offers the opportunity for geothermal power, a technology that converts the intense underground heat associated with cracks in the Earth’s crust to electricity. 

This is already the leading electricity generation mode in Kenya and could be developed elsewhere.

Given all these factors, investing in a large and expensive nuclear build with uncertain completion time frames that could end up being way more expensive than projected is, ultimately, simply not worth it.

This article was originally published by The Conversation.