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As an energy dense fuel able to generate a stable base load of power, nuclear power carries strong potential to alleviate energy poverty in Africa. In addition to being carbon-free and relatively inexpensive to operate, nuclear power stations can also be used for desalination and steam generation, simultaneously addressing clean water deficiencies on the continent. To date, South Africa operates the only nuclear power plant in Africa, the 1,940 MW Koeberg nuclear power station, which is owned and operated by state-run power utility Eskom. While the Koeberg plant currently produces five percent of domestic power, the South African Government has expressed intent to increase nuclear capacity to 10,000 MW.
Meanwhile, the African continent is currently home to ten operational research reactors (Algeria, Ghana, Morocco, Nigeria, among others) and several African countries have progressed with plans to commission nuclear power plants in the next decade. In February 2020, Egypt awarded a $25-billion contract to Russian state energy corporation Rosatom for a 4.8 GW power plant, which would be the first nuclear plant in the country. Tanzania also plans to utilize a subsidy from Rosatom to build a research reactor and develop commercial nuclear power by 2025, following the discovery of uranium deposits in 2018. Uganda’s Ministry of Energy has entered into agreements with Chinese and Russian investors in a bid to construct two 1,000 MW reactors by 2031, with sites being considered in Aswa, Kyoga and Kagera. Finally, Nigeria already operates a research reactor and has entered into a public-private partnership agreement with Rosatom to develop a comprehensive nuclear program, with a view to installing 4,000 MW of capacity by 2025.
“Building on South Africa’s successful nuclear energy program and the Egyptian nuclear power program currently under development, Africa can soon become a global center for nuclear energy development and innovation,” stated George Borovas, Head of Nuclear for global law firm, Hunton Andrews Kurth, exclusively to Energy Capital & Power, adding that, “With its demonstrated ability to help develop economic and society-wide benefits, nuclear energy may be the answer to the developing needs of many African countries which are facing power shortages, a lack of easily accessible drinking water and limited high-skilled, high-paying employment opportunities.”
Yet barriers to investment in Africa’s growing nuclear capacity still remain. Firstly, nuclear power plants require significant upfront costs accompanied by extended periods of construction and testing, which can be off-putting for projects in politically unstable regions. These plants also require strong local maintenance capacity and high technical expertise to ensure they run smoothly and without accidents, which requires operators to invest in local training. Secondly, the lack of a clear regulatory and financial framework for the development of nuclear power projects in Africa have made investors wary of the risks involved, such as delays in construction or volatile electricity demand. Countries like Kenya have sought to remedy this by developing a comprehensive policy regime for the establishment of a 1 GW nuclear power plant by 2035, but without adequate risk provisions, nuclear power development will be slow to roll out across the continent.
Nevertheless, robust foreign direct investment and advanced nuclear technologies have helped to open up opportunities in the sector. Chinese and Russian power developers have forged early agreements in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Sudan and Namibia, to name a few. Meanwhile, new nuclear technologies, such as small modular reactors, sealed micro-reactors and high-temperature gas reactors, are able to require less upfront capital and fewer on-site operators, while still producing the same output as larger reactors. Because of their smaller and more flexible design, these new reactors also enable their adopters to generate power without modifying existing grid structures, thereby further positioning nuclear power generation as a viable fuel source in Africa, given the establishment of comprehensive regulatory frameworks and sufficient foreign investment.