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African countries start mulling nuclear energy

October 22, 2019

Moscow is sure to tout nuclear energy at the Russia-Africa Summit, selling it as a solution for the continent's power supply woes. So just how concerned should we be about its intentions and Africa's readiness?

Südafrika Atomkraftwerk Koeberg nahe Kapstadt
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/EPA/N. Bothma

Southern Africa's ongoing drought has had a devastating impact on the region's power supply. Water levels at Kariba Dam, which straddles Zimbabwe and Zambia and generates significant amounts of electricity, are at the lowest in years.

Both countries have now turned to South Africa to import power, even though the region's biggest country and the continent's most industrialized nation, South Africa, is unable to meet its own energy needs.

Nearly 600 million Africans do not have access to electricity. With growing populations and rising demand for power, African governments are desperate for solutions. In 2016, the Zambian government signed an agreement with Moscow to support it as it explores nuclear technology. And the energy-hungry country isn't the only one.

A map of Africa, with countries that have signed nuclear technology framework agreements with Africa highlighted

Nuclear technology and know-how will be high on the agenda at the Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi. There's a whole panel discussion on how it could contribute to development in Afric. The discussion will feature the CEO of Rosatom, Russia's state-backed nuclear energy company, and the head of the Zambia Atomic Energy Agency, Roland Msiska.

The ongoing drought has provided Msiska with an opportunity to promote nuclear energy as an alternative to hydropower in the country. And African proponents of the technology could be just what Moscow needs.

Moscow seeks new partners

Two years ago, Rosatom's CEO reportedly said the state-backed entity needed to start earning more money through commercial projects abroad. Russia is one of the countries taking the lead in forming these partnerships exploring nuclear energy with African countries because it is one of the main exporters of nuclear energy, says the World Nuclear Association's Jonathan Cobb.

Egyptian President El-Sissi and Russian President Putin
Egyptian President El-Sissi, as African Union chairperson, and Russian President Putin are the co-chairs of the Russia-Africa Summit Image: AFP/A. Nikolskyi

Shifts in the world's geopolitical dynamics may also have given Moscow more reason to look for new markets for nuclear technology.

"The Russian Federation is under European Union and US sanctions still, so it is trying to diversify its economic partnerships," says Chatham House's Alex Vines.

And African countries offer that opportunity, partly due to the lack of infrastructure.

"It would be an entry point for a very long partnership with an African government because of the scale of the infrastructure that would be necessary for a nuclear facility," Vines explains.

Russian expertise and technology could potentially be needed at every stage: from educating engineers and technicians to construction, operation and decommissioning of the nuclear reactors.

This looks like a long-term project, and could take several years for other countries to be ready.

"This is an initial relationship that [Russia, China] are building up," says Jonathan Cobb.

Different stages of nuclear energy in Africa, based on information from the World Nuclear Association

"They may be the vendors for reactor technology at a later date, but we are talking several decades into the future," Cobb adds.

Egypt could become the next country after South Africa to launch a nuclear power reactor, but even that could take years despite the fact that construction begins next year.

Nuclear energy investment expensive

Many experts believe that nuclear technology doesn't make sense for African countries because of the amount of investments required. Alex Vines points to the lack of regulatory bodies and challenges regarding maintenance and inspection of infrastructure — issues also raised by the International Atomic Energy Agency's assessments of some countries in Africa.

The decisive factor for many African governments could be cost. Many of them already have high debt burdens. Building nuclear power plants is expensive and unpredictable, says Hartmut Winkler, a professor of physics at the University of Johannesburg.

"There's plenty of examples around the world where construction [for nuclear plants] just keeps dragging on and on," he explains. "The worst thing is that the cost could balloon and that the time period for completion could be underestimated."

Low water levels at the Kariba Dam have led to widespread power outages in Zambia and Zimbabwe Image: picture-alliance/WILDLIFE/Harpe

Perhaps these concerns played a role in the cash-strapped South African government's recent decision to scrap plans for Russia to help it build another nuclear power plant. Vines says the project's link to the corrupt government of former President Zuma may also have contributed. The South African government canceled the plan because it was too expensive. But other African countries may be enticed by Russia's offers

"There may be a number of elites, particularly host governments, that may be very interested in the incentives that the Russians provide in the short- to mid-term, without really considering the long-term implications," Vines explains.  

Russia is already backing providing more than 80% of the funds needed to build the continent's second nuclear power plant (worth more than $25 billion=€22.5 billion) for which construction will begin next year in Egypt. And if other African governments sign up for nuclear reactors, they may very well find themselves tied into a very long-term relationship with Moscow. 

*Rosatom did not respond to questions on the plans for nuclear energy in Southern Africa. And the Zambian goverment was not forthcoming with information. 

Chiponda Chimbelu DW Journalist
Chiponda Chimbelu Business journalist and member of the the Editorial Council