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13 May 2016 00:00
On a continent that has too often been cavalier about the future wellbeing of its people, it’s encouraging – at least from a development perspective – that South Africa is not alone in planning to build nuclear reactors.
South Africa now has the only nuclear power plant on the African
continent, comprising the two reactors at Koeberg, just north of Cape Town,
producing about 1 860MW of electricity. It also has plans, which have become highly controversial, to build six to eight more reactors or units, adding a further 9?600MW to the national grid.
But 11 other African nations have also drafted plans to go
fissile, according to Anton Khlopkov, the director of the Centre for Energy and
Security Studies in Moscow.
They are Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco,
Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Tunisia and Uganda, which constitute about
a quarter of the 45 countries worldwide that are actively considering embarking
on nuclear power programmes.
Speaking at a seminar on nuclear power in Africa at the Institute
for Security Studies in Pretoria last week, Khlopkov said this number had
dropped from about 60 before the Fukushima nuclear power disaster in Japan five
So Fukushima was a blow to nuclear power, but evidently not a
Russia is the world’s largest exporter of nuclear power, he said,
currently building 25% of the world’s nuclear power plants. The export sales of
its national nuclear corporation Rosatom were $6.4-billion last year (including
nuclear fuel and spent nuclear fuel reprocessing). Its foreign orders up to
2030 are worth $110-billion.
There are now 38 nuclear power reactors of Russian design
operating outside Russia in 10 countries, and there are 25 more that Rosatom is
contracted to build in 12 countries.
The most advanced plans for nuclear power plant construction in
Africa are in Algeria, which proposes to build two units, generating 2 400MW by 2030; Egypt, two units of 4 800MW by 2030; Ghana, one unit of 1 000MW by 2025; Kenya, four units of 4 000MW by 2033; Morocco, one reactor by 2030;
Nigeria, four units of 4 000MW by
2027 and, of course, South Africa’s 9 600MW fleet.
Rosatom is one of several national nuclear corporations bidding
for the South African contract. It is also in negotiations with Algeria, Egypt
and Morocco to build their proposed nuclear power plants. It’s not clear which
other vendors are interested in building these and the other proposed African
nuclear power plants.
That Africa needs a lot more electricity is unquestionable. As
Khlopkov said, only 24% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa now has access
to electricity. Outside South Africa, the entire installed generation capacity
of the region is only 28GW, about the same as Argentina’s.
African manufacturers now experience power shortages for an
average of 56 days a year, costing them 6% of sales revenues. The average
electricity tariff in sub-Saharan Africa is $0.13 per kilowatt-hour, compared
to a range of $0.04 to $0.08 in the developing world.
But is nuclear energy the solution for Africa?
There was some scepticism expressed at the seminar about the continent’s
nuclear plans coming to fruition, and certainly by the proposed end dates.
Political, financial and security concerns were raised as possible obstacles.
Even in South Africa, surely the most financially capable country on the
continent, the ANC government’s plan to expand nuclear power has been cast into
doubt because of fears it would overburden the fiscus.
Seminar participants expressed concern that not all the would-be
nuclear African states were politically stable enough to sustain long-term nuclear
construction and operation programmes. Other participants worried that not all
the countries had enough control of their territories to secure sensitive
nuclear material over the lifespan of the planned reactors.
And one participant even suggested that some African states with
close political ties to North Korea might deliberately leak such sensitive
material or technology to Pyongyang.
Khlopkov did not share most of these concerns, though he did
concede that if 25% of the projects were completed by due date, that would be
about the same as the global average.
Of all the plans, he believed that those of Egypt and South
Africa were the most likely to be realised. He thought that South Africa would
build at least two of its projected six to eight new reactors by 2030 – though
he rather begged the question by adding that this would depend on there being
no strong public resistance in South Africa and the security situation not
Khlopkov said he had no information to suggest that Rosatom already
had a done deal to build South Africa’s reactors, as many sceptical South
In fact, he said, the South African government might share out
the contracts, for instance contracting France’s Areva to build two new
reactors at the one site that Eskom had identified alongside Koeberg (since
Koeberg was already using Areva’s technology) and contracting Rosatom to build
new units at the other site Eskom had identified, at Thyspunt in the Eastern
Khlopkov, rather surprisingly, did not believe that Russia and
China would consider collaborating in building the South African reactors,
although all three countries are members of the Brics bloc of emerging nations,
which also includes Brazil and India.
He suggested that rather than sharing a joint strategic vision on
nuclear power, as one might have expected, Brics nuclear vendors Russia and
China would remain competitors, and would not enter into joint ventures for
fear of having their proprietary technology leaked.
Despite his confidence in Rosatom going ahead with the Egyptian
project, he conceded that this project also illustrated the security threats to
African nuclear power plans. The bombing of a Russian tourist aircraft over the
Sinai desert last year by a local affiliate of the Islamic State could delay
the project, he said.
Training local personnel to the level necessary to operate
nuclear power plants was also a concern, he said. Though some Middle East
states were building nuclear reactors almost entirely reliant on foreign
technological expertise, it was not ideal.
“If the foreigners leave in a hurry because of a security crisis,
who will shut down the reactors?” he asked.
Khlopkov proposed that South Africa should “proliferate” its good
nuclear expertise and experience to the rest of Africa, by establishing
regional training centres to share and pool resources.
Institute for Security Studies senior research fellow Noël Stott
said that although Africa was technologically ready to go nuclear, the
financial and security concerns were real. He said South Africa apparently
wanted to finance its new nuclear power plants on the so-called
build-own-operate model, meaning the foreign corporation that built the plants
would retain ownership and would operate them itself. It would then recover its
costs by selling the electricity to Eskom.
That seems likely to be the same model other cash-strapped
African countries would prefer. But, as Stott pointed out, Khlopkov had made a
point of saying that Russia had tried this model before but was unlikely to do
so again, as it was too risky financially.
Stott thought African states were in any case unlikely to meet
their deadlines because of the many hurdles they still had to cross, not least
negotiating safeguard agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency
He also believed the fears of deliberate leaking of that nuclear
technology from some would-be African nuclear states to North Korea, because of
strong political ties between them, were not entirely unfounded.
Another nuclear expert from the institute, Nicolas Kasprzyk, was
more sanguine. He forecast that Kenya would be the first African country
outside South Africa to acquire nuclear energy. He said the country had made
the most progress, including its advanced negotiations with the IAEA and its training
of nuclear technicians.
Kenya should also be able to manage the financing aspect, as it
had integrated its nuclear plants into its wider industrial and economic
Kasprzyk said there was controversy in Kenya over the security
threat posed to its proposed nuclear power installation by al-Shabab, which has
already carried out several terror attacks in Kenya because of its military
intervention in Somalia.
But, he said, it was not unprecedented for a country to run
nuclear power plants while managing security risks – even if that was not ideal – and he believed Kenya could do the same.
He did note that North Korea’s security relations with some
African countries had already raised flags at the United Nations, such as its
attempts to sell sensitive ballistic missile technology to Egypt. But he said
he did not believe there was a real risk of sensitive nuclear technology going
from new African nuclear power states to North Korea.
“Nonetheless, there is clearly a need for African countries which
acquire nuclear technology to establish a strict, nonproliferation regulatory
framework with the IAEA,” he added.
If building a nuclear power plant is nothing else, it is a signal
of seriousness by a state. The high costs, long construction times and even
more distant operating horizons and payback schedules of nuclear power stations
require great commitment and a long-range view of development.
Whether all these plans on the African continent come to fruition
remains to be seen.
Peter Fabricius is an Institute for Security Studies consultant
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