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The New Times – Rwanda
By: Gitura Mwaura
A fair number of African countries are at varying stages of acquiring nuclear energy, an indication they might be ready for it.
Of the regional economic communities on the continent, East Africa leads with four countries – Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda – having expressed some interest.
Other countries, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), include Egypt, Ghana, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria and Sudan, which have already engaged with the organisation to assess their readiness to embark on a nuclear programme.
Algeria, Tunisia and Zambia are also mulling the possibility of nuclear power.
Most of these countries are also in various stages of liaison with one of the major nuclear energy development organisation in the world, the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation (ROSATOM).
Rwanda is among the latest in the group, having just entered into an agreement with Rosatom.
The agreement is comprehensive and includes the development of requisite infrastructure, construction of a Centre for Nuclear Science and Technology and nuclear power plants in Rwanda.
It also covers fundamental and applied research, including development and cooperation in nuclear technology applicable in industry, medicine and agriculture, as well as in education, training and retraining of specialists for the nuclear industry.
Like all the countries with intent to go nuclear on the continent, one does not see doubt in Rwanda’s bid. It should be expected all is going to pass as specified in the agreement.
This is despite long-standing concerns, foremost amongst which is the costliness and often acknowledged difficulties to finance such projects, and environmental costs due to nuclear waste and should anything go wrong. Thus, there are issues of safety and, consequently, an apprehensive public whose acceptance must be secured.
There is also a time factor. If any of the countries were to commission the construction of the prevalent Third Generation nuclear plant today, it would take no less than ten years to complete – and more likely 15 years or more.
As things stand, none of the East African countries, including some of the others on the continent, are ready just yet to commission such a plant. Operational nuclear plants are therefore a bit distant in the future.
But there’s a major electricity gap. Africa’s population now stands at around 1.3 billion, with well more than half in Sub-Saharan Africa without access to electricity.
This means that ongoing efforts to increase uptake of the cheaper renewable energy options such as solar and wind technologies must continue. This is inevitable, combining it with a mix of energy options as is happening in India.
Observe that, with a population almost similar to Africa’s at 1.37 billion, India is set to achieve 100 per cent household electricity connection this year, according to the World Nuclear Association.
However, though the country’s nuclear energy production may appear paltry at only 2.6 per cent, perhaps the bigger lesson is how the country applies nuclear technology in medicine and agriculture.
In agriculture, nuclear applications are used to combat pests and diseases, increase crop production, protect land and water resources, ensure food safety and authenticity, and increase livestock production.
In medicine, it is widely used in diagnosis as well as treatment of chronic diseases such as cancer and cardiac disorders.
This makes part of the case why African countries should go nuclear as agriculture remains the mainstay of many of the countries, and given their health burden that feeds medical tourism in India.
There’s possibly another urgent reason, as articulated by the director of the Nuclear Power Institute at the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission.
“Energy is the backbone of any strong development,” he was quoted saying in a UN analysis on Africa’s readiness for nuclear energy. “And where do we get energy from? We have hydro, thermal, fossil fuels, and we have local gas—but these are dwindling. They are limited; fossil fuels could run out by 2030. And, the prices are volatile.”
The majority of nuclear reactors currently in operation are Generations III and III+. Fourth Generation plants under development, and include small modular reactors (SMRs) that are much cheaper and take a much shorter time to install. They are also more flexible to install according to growth in demand.
Countries around the world, including in Africa, have their eye on the SMRs with China, Russia and Argentina expected to have commercially installed SMRs by 2020.
Crucially, principles guiding the development of Fourth Generation nuclear energy systems are aimed at addressing some of the key concerns, particularly as they relate to sustainability and economy, as well as safety and reliability. This should lower the costs, environmental and economic.
These issues continue to be discussed for safer more productive technology, such as at the XI International Forum on nuclear energy (Atomexpo 2019) concluded this week in Sochi, Russia.
Along with the above challenges and application in agriculture and medicine, ATOMEXPO 2019 dwelt on “global issues of carbon-free energy, responsible approach to the environment and natural resources, ‘green’ investments and international partnership for sustainable development.”
Though addressing all the issues will take a while, Africa is arguably ready for nuclear energy.