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Is Africa about to go nuclear? As the power crunch hits an increasing number of African countries, to be gaining favournuclear energy appears in a number of states, including large oil producers such as Nigeria and Algeria.

With an eye on dwindling fossil based energy resources and still bearing the scars of energy dependency, governments of countries across Africa have made it their ambition to harness the atom and include nuclear in their energy mix. For some, nuclear build has already begun, while for others the first atom-powered watt is still decades away.


But however far down the road, an impressive number of African nations are close to signing on in the nuclear club, and soon South Africa will not be the only African member. Namibia, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Tunisia and Egypt are just a few that intend having nuclear power stations in their back yards.

The first atomic generation by Africa's nuclear newcomers is unlikely to happen much before 2017, but significant first steps are being taken towards continental nuclear-power capability and energy self-sufficiency.

The growing list of African countries committing to nuclear power is in tune with a global renaissance accepting atomic generation--now that safety concerns have given way to other worries. Global warming is pushing fossil fuels out of favour and resentment is rising at the way consumers are being held to ransom by avaricious oil-producing cartels. There is also the cost element. While nuclear build is more expensive, generation is cheaper and that makes nuclear more cost favourable in the longer term.

Bertrand Barre, chairman of the International Nuclear Energy Agency (IAEA), says it would be stretching a point to proclaim that everyone loves nuclear power, "but there has been a swing in terms of acceptance by governments and general public," he observes. "Over the last three to four years, over a very short period of time, a number of countries which weren't interested in nuclear power now say they are, and a few of those countries which decided to phase out nuclear power are reconsidering the position."

Earlier this year South Africa's national power utility Eskom was forced to disconnect its power supply to Botswana, Zambia and Namibia, bringing their core economic sectors of mining, manufacturing and services to a halt, underlining the perils of energy subordination.

The reason southern African countries are finding themselves wrong-footed in energy supply is that for decades they could rely on a flow of cheap power from South Africa, so it was easier and cheaper to buy from their neighbour rather than installing sufficient generating capacity of their own. Now, with painful lessons learned, the scramble is on and nuclear in the mix is making a lot of sense.

Nigeria, Kenya look at nuclear

Nigeria advanced its atomic power ambitions with the recent visit of nuclear scientists from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear regulatory body, to open discussions on installing West Africa's first nuclear power plant, planned for commissioning by 2017. According to Nigeria's energy ministry, the facility "is expected to generate at least 1,000MW by 2017, and will gradually increase capacity to 4,000MW by 2027". Nigeria already runs two nuclear research centres--one in the northern town of Zaria and another outside Abuja--which were set up under the supervision of the IAEA.

While Nigeria is Africa's leading oil and gas producer and the world's eighth-biggest oil exporter, it remains low in electrical power, running on less than half the national capacity of 6,000MW, with regular power cuts and the electricity infrastructure run down by years of corruption, neglect and mismanagement. Government officials say Nigeria cannot rely on its natural gas, coal and hydroelectric resources alone to meet its energy requirements and that nuclear is the vital new component for its energy requirements.

Kenya is seeking investors and technical knowledge to build a small nuclear plant to meet its growing electricity needs. According to energy minister Kiraitu Murungi, Kenya can generate 1,100MW of electricity compared with peak-time demand of 1,050MW, including emergency supplies from independent power producers.

He says Kenya needs a small plant to generate about 1,000MW initially at a cost of around $1bn, giving the country surplus latitude to become a regional electricity exporter. "The use of nuclear power for civil and peaceful uses is now accepted globally," he says, "so we in Kenya should not be afraid when the word nuclear is mentioned."

Kenya wants to add a million new connections to its electricity grid over the next five years--doubling the electricity consumer base. The government has begun holding a series of national energy conferences to discuss ways to boost cost-effective energy supply.

In his message to the recent National Energy Conference, Murungi did not mince his words. "There is a looming power-supply crisis in the country," he warned. "We have a chronic power shortage because we can't keep pace with demand. To meet it, we have to double our generation capacity to 2,030MW by 2012 and raise it to more than 10,000MW by 2030. One way of doing this is to go for nuclear power."

Go nuclear, Tanzania, Namibia urged

Tanzania is yet to make a formal claim to near-future generation of nuclear energy, but there are rising voices calling for atomic capacity. One of them is Professor Peter Msaki of the University of Dar es Salaam's physics department.

"Nuclear energy is the permanent answer to Tanzania's ailing electricity situation that consumes billions in taxpayers' money to buy from private power plants," he is quoted by Tanzania's Daily News as saying. "And with constant power rationing that most urban centres face countrywide, the importance of modern energy sources cannot be overemphasised, as it is the nucleus of socio-economic development globally."

"Tanzania's total electricity capacity by 2030 is estimated at 5,430MW," Msaki points out. "This is the sum of the current 560MW of hydropower plants along with 4,870MW from the planned energy mix. If the economic growth is projected at 10%, around 13,000MW will be required, of which some will be imported".

He adds that adopting nuclear technology is becoming increasingly easier today than before, as the plants are no longer very big following the technological advancements. Experts argue that despite initial high costs, operating costs are relatively lower than that of thermal or hydropower plants.

"One kilogram of uranium-235 is sufficient to operate a 1,000MW nuclear power station for an entire year at Tanzania's present power needs of 600MW," Msaki said. "This means that the surplus of 400MW can be exported for foreign exchange earnings."


The university's physics department has launched a nuclear science training MSc programme with four streams of 13 students each, as a way towards alleviating nuclear skills constraints. Msaki has urged the government to commit to a nuclear project "that will place the country at an immense advantage in the longer terms. In other words, Tanzania needs to think beyond election terms and make projections of 10 to 30 years ahead".

The Namibian government has decided on a nuclear future for the southwest African country and has approved the construction of nuclear power plants and agreed to allow uranium enrichment on Namibian soil.

Namibia has significant uranium reserves and the country can gain more if these reserves could have value added locally--being uranium enriched --prior to export.

Namibia, a vibrant country with 2m people, has a head start in the nuclear stakes, being the world's fourth-largest uranium producer. It imports at least 45%--around 200MW--of its energy needs from South Africa and suffered bouts of blackout when that country ran out of capacity. In Namibia, about 300MW is home-grown generation by hydro and thermal.

Namibia will now begin the task of developing a nuclear regulatory framework in conjunction with the IAEA. "New electricitygeneration capacity installation appears to have become the trend worldwide towards achieving energy self-sufficiency, of which the Southern African region, and Namibia in particular, should be no exception," says the cabinet briefing.

Other African would-be nuclear players

Algeria has signed a nuclear cooperation accord with the US, while Libya has made a similar deal with France. Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade says he is determined to build a nuclear reactor before his term ends in 2012. Guinea has opened talks with the IAEA on a nuclear energy programme after a recent discovery of uranium east of the capital of Conakry. The government of President Lansana Conte is also interested in using uranium in agriculture, medicine and industry.

Even though Algeria possesses more than enough energy supply, it has an eye on the atom and has constructed two research reactors built by China and Argentina.

Egypt began construction of a 1,000MW nuclear power plant last year, the output of which will help accelerate its GDP growth of 6%. Tunisia's Ministry of Energy has signed an agreement with France's Areva to construct a 600MW nuclear reactor at a cost of $1.14bn. Its $28.7bn economy is powered totally by fossilbased power plants.

Ghana has had a Chinese-built research reactor since 1994 and is currently considering a formal nuclear capacity. Its energy is generated by hydro, oil and gas at considerable cost.

South Africa, Africa's only self-contained nuclear-power generator, is important to add to its single reactor near Cape Town and has issued tenders for new output of 3,500MW. Although it was intended that the winning bidder would be named by April this year, it now seems probable that the programme will be put on hold until stability returns to the capital markets.
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Title Annotation:TRENDS
Comment:Is Africa about to go nuclear? As the power crunch hits an increasing number of African countries, to be gaining favournuclear energy appears in a number of states, including large oil producers such as Nigeria and Algeria.(TRENDS)
Author:Nevin, Tom
Publication:African Business
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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