Africa’s Nuclear Energy Ambitions: Leapfrogging into the Unknown

May 4 , 2019
By Desta Mebratu (Prof.)

Ethiopia recently joined a group of African countries in signing cooperation agreements for the development of a nuclear industry sector. Most of these agreements consist of the two distinct but inter-related components that require qualitatively different attention.

The first component focuses on building national capacities for the application and use of nuclear science and technology. This is a very positive development that needs to be pursued by any country, as there are multiple benefits that could be gained from the application of nuclear science and technology in health, agriculture and industry sectors. However, the construction of a nuclear power plant for energy generation is also included in these agreements under the disguise of civilian or developmental application of nuclear science and technology.

Experience from other countries has shown that, under all conditions fulfilled, development of a sound nuclear power sector requires a minimum of 10 to 15 years. This could take much longer for most African countries as they lack some of the basic economic, institutional and technological prerequisites. However, the aggressive campaign that is being pursued by the countries that own these technologies and the increasing tendency of some African countries to jump on the bandwagon seems to compromise the acceptable norms and procedures for nuclear safety.

This will lead to major national, regional and global threats and needs to be debated openly. There are several key issues African countries need to be cautious about when signing up for such package deals in the area of nuclear power generation.

One of the false arguments used for the promotion of nuclear energy is based on the claim that it is the cleanest form of energy and contributes to the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere from power generation.

It is true that nuclear energy has one of the lowest carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy generated. However, the threat from its radioactive waste is of an existential proportion, which will automatically disqualify it from being the cleanest form of energy. For those who claim it to be the safest technology, they only need to reflect on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011 to understand the dangerous possibilities.

Even if the technological advances made in recent years have made it much safer technically, the trigger factors from natural and human-made disasters are still high. For several reasons, these triggering factors are more pronounced in regions like the Horn of Africa, where human-made and natural disasters such as earth quakes are still high.

The other misleading justification that is being told by promoters of nuclear energy is that country’s like Ethiopia cannot rely on their huge hydropower generation potential because of the change in rainfall patterns that will be caused by climate change. It is true that climate variation has already become part of our reality and will continue to be a major threat in the coming decades unless appropriate measures are taken by the international community.

However, there is so much that could be done in the area of ecosystem adaptation and catchment rehabilitation to contain and possibly reverse the impact of climate change. Such measures will create multiple economic and social benefits by way of job creation and livelihood provision to local communities besides ensuring the sustainability of hydropower generation.

Development in African countries has been influenced for decades by trends of incidental leapfrogging that is supply-driven by external factors. Most of these developments, which were more of transplanting rather than transforming, resulted in isolated pockets of change that benefited the few at the expense of broad societal benefits.

Ethiopia and other African countries who recently decided to build nuclear power plants need to avoid making such major mistakes, which will result in stranded assets that will incur huge costs for generations to come.

PUBLISHED ON May 04,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 992]

professor at Stellenbosch University in South Africa and a fellow of the African Academy of Sciences.

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