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Environment

What happens to nuclear waste from power plants?

African countries looking to invest in nuclear energy as a source of clean electricity should consider Europe's struggles with disposing of radioactive waste.

Seventy years after the nuclear age began, no country has built a place to safely store its waste, a report published this week warns, raising concerns for governments mulling nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels.

More than 60,000 tons of highly radioactive waste in the form of spent nuclear fuel rods are stored in interim sites across Europe, according to the World Nuclear Waste Report, some in old facilities that are running out of capacity and are expected to be used for decades longer than planned. Finland is the only country building a permanent repository underground for nuclear waste that emits large amounts of radiation for tens of thousands of years, according to the report published by the Heinrich Böll Foundation — which is affiliated with the German Green party.

"We are talking about time frames that are beyond the human scale of what we can think of," said Arne Jungjohann, political scientist and lead editor of the report. "We still don't know where to put the waste safely in a way that nobody will get harmed, that it is not vulnerable to terrorist attacks, that it is not being stolen to build nuclear bombs."

Read moreRussia's floating nuclear plant sets sail for the Arctic

At the dawn of the nuclear age, radioactive material was diluted and dumped in the environment, before governments moved towards containing it securely underground. But projects from the 1960s onwards only met high safety expectations "to a very limited extent, if at all," according to the report.

That raises difficult questions for developing countries looking to get into nuclear.

Japan Fukushima nuclear disaster tsunami

A tsunami sent the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan into meltdown in 2011

A deserted room after the Chernobyl disaster

Pripyat in Ukraine became a ghost town after the reactor in the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded in 1986

Nuclear Power in Africa

Africa's urban population is set to double in the next three decades, massively boosting demand for infrastructure and energy. Just half of Africans had access to electricity in 2017, compared to a global average of 88%, World Bank data shows.

Eager to connect citizens with electricity grids, but anxious to avoid high-emissions of Western countries, some governments are exploring nuclear as a way to supply cheap and stable energy.

South Africa is the only country on the continent that currently operates a nuclear plant, but about a dozen others are considering, planning or building them, according to the World Nuclear Association. Several countries — Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia — have signed partnership agreements with Russian nuclear energy company Rosatom, a paper published in the journal Issues in Science and Technology found earlier this year, and others have contracts with China.

Infografik Nuclear agreements in Africa

As well as increasing the sheer volume of electricity they generate, African states are also keen to make their supply more reliable. Countries such as Nigeria and Ghana struggle with power outages that see citizens turning to back-up diesel generators that pollute the air.

Nuclear energy could play a supplementary role in Africa, said Precious Akanonu, research fellow at the Centre for the Study of the Economies of Africa. "Until we gradually wean out of fossil fuel dependence... nuclear energy would be useful to avoid overdependence on one source that is vulnerable to shocks."

Nuclear power has divided environmentalists. Some see it as a vital part of the transition away from fossil fuels, and, as such, a necessary tool to curb CO2 emissions and avoid catastrophic global warming. In countries such as Germany, where the government pledged to phase out nuclear energy after the Fukushima disaster in 2011, critics suggest the loss of nuclear has kept the country hooked on coal and on track to miss its CO2 pledges under the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

But attempts to deal with nuclear waste have so far faltered. Excluding Russia and Slovakia due to poor data, the report found that just four countries — France, the UK, Ukraine and Germany — are responsible for more than half of Europe's nuclear waste, and none have yet found a deep underground store to hold it over centuries.

Nuclear power plant in Cape Town, South Africa

South Africa is the only country in Africa operating a nuclear power plant

The Heinrich Böll Foundation report found many governments underestimate the cost of storing waste and decommissioning reactors, with inconsistent rules shifting the financial burden from plant operators onto future generations of taxpayers.

Read moreGermany demolishes cooling tower of former nuclear power plant

Unsolved nuclear waste is the "defeating argument against entering into the nuclear age," said Rebecca Harms, a former Member of the European Parliament who was behind the report. "African countries should consider the nuclear legacies which have been created during the last 50, 60 years and for which we have no solutions."

Demand for energy in Sub-Saharan Africa is set to rise by 60% in the next two decades, but nuclear sources are projected to meet only a small fraction of this, according to the Africa Energy Outlook 2019, a report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) published on Thursday.

"What we see in the future economic development of sub-Saharan Africa will be powered by a mix of renewables and natural gas," said Kieran McNamara, senior energy analyst at the IEA and co-author of the report. "Nuclear just doesn't feature."

Watch video 05:47

The search for nuclear waste storage solutions

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