Home » THE PROSPECTS OF NUCLEAR ENERGY AS A SOLUTION TO POWER CHALLENGES IN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA

THE PROSPECTS OF NUCLEAR ENERGY AS A SOLUTION TO POWER CHALLENGES IN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA

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With only 83 gigawatts of installed energy capacity, Sub-Saharan Africa has continued to struggle to achieve the sustainable development goal of ‘clean and affordable energy.  Two out of 3 homes and 58 per cent of health care centres still lack commercial electricity. The region relies heavily on hydro, thermal and solar plants. However, their distribution networks are plagued with poor voltage profiles. This is associated with inadequate dispatch and control infrastructure, fragile grid networks, frequent system collapse, and high transmission losses.

It is undeniable that electricity is a prerequisite for industrialisation.  And countries seeking more it are looking to nuclear energy as the next alternative.  Britain recently announced more investments in nuclear energy technology while France continues to consolidate on the gains of nuclear power with about 70 per cent of her electricity from that source. Today, more than 450 nuclear power plants are functioning in about 30 countries, accounting for about 10 per cent of the world’s electricity.

In order to address concerns about climate change and still generate sufficient power for industrialisation, it is time to consider nuclear energy technology for sub-Saharan Africa.

Current Electricity Situation in Sub-Sharan Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa is rich in diverse forms of energy resources. There are abundant oil and gas reserves in the western parts while huge hydropower potentials could be found in the central regions. Yet, the region has severely underdeveloped power infrastructures.  It is estimated that only 47.9% of the region’s population had access to electricity in 2019, compared with the global average of 90%. This figure may continue to decline as the region is battling to address more pressing issues like poverty eradication and access to good health care. It is therefore not surprising that all 48 countries in the region together generate the same amount of power as Spain, despite having more energy resources and a population that is 18 times more.

Financial aids to the region mostly target poverty eradication and education with very little going to the power sector. In the rural areas, energy is mostly used in the unprocessed form which is potentially harmful to both humans and the environment.  This is a practice that hinders attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals seeking clean energy and climate action.

Benefits Of Nuclear Energy

The benefits of Nuclear Energy are enormous, some  of which are:

Research and Development.     Specialised nuclear reactors are used to produce radioactive isotopes for research centres and industries.  In medicine, they are used for the treatment of certain cancers and other applications. Breeder nuclear reactors produce and recycle plutonium which can be used as nuclear fuel for more energy production.

Low Operational cost.        Although nuclear power plants have high initial cost, the running costs are considered amongst the lowest in its category.  It has been found that the cost of producing electricity from nuclear fuel is much lower than the cost to produce electricity from gas, coal, or oil unless those resources are located near the power plant they supply. Nuclear energy also has the added benefit of facing comparatively low risks for cost inflation unlike fossil fuels which are affected by political and economic factors.

High Energy Density.           During nuclear fission, about 8,000 times more energy is released than from the same amount of fossil fuels in a combustion process. This high energy density and makes the plant to require less fuel per KWh thus reducing the amount of waste generated.

Environmental Consideration.             The Nuclear fission process does not produce harmful gases like carbon dioxide, nitrogen and sulphur oxides which harm the environment. Alternatively,  combustion of fossil fuel not only releases harmful gases but also produce toxic heavy metals like arsenic, lead and mercury which are non-biodegradable and remain harmful to the environment  for as long as they exist.

The Drawbacks of Nuclear Energy Technology

The use of nuclear energy is still a controversial issue in many countries and the reasons revolve around cost, safety, waste and security threats.

High Initial Cost          Special licences and materials are needed for the construction of a nuclear power plant. Purchasing and installing these equipment would require reasonably large amount of funds. Contractors may be employed or personnel trained to manage the facility. Either way, a country willing to enjoy the benefits of nuclear energy must be prepared to bear the high initial cost of owning a nuclear power plant.

Safety       Public anxiety about nuclear energy stems directly from safety and the fear of exposure to radioactive material. The negative effects of past accidents have not helped in resolving this perception.  Nuclear energy hazard, is not only be detrimental to the health of plants and animals but could render an entire area inhabitable for times to come.

Nuclear Waste           Nuclear waste, when not properly handled or disposed, could constitute an environmental hazard. The cost of ensuring proper disposal of these wastes could also take its toll on a nation’s budget. In 1988, a $2 billion repository was built in New Mexico by the USA for the storage of radioactive waste. This may be a dauting task for some African countries to achieve and makes nuclear waste management an issue for consideration.

Security Threat           Another global concern is the use of nuclear technology to produce weapons. Nuclear weapons are 1000 times more destructive today than the atomic bomb used by the USA in 1945 against Japan. If such weapons land in the wrong hands or used by warring countries, the result could be devastating.

The Way Forward for Sub-Saharan Africa

The current energy profile for sub-Saharan Africa has without a doubt failed to inspire industrialisation in that region. Some companies that were lured to the area by the abundance of natural resources have fled partly due to electricity challenges.  A world bank report says that businesses lose about 29 billion dollars annually due to poor electricity in Nigeria. This is just an example of many of such instances across the region. South Africa for now is the only country in the region with a nuclear facility that contributes to commercial electricity. This may just be the reason she is ranked highest in total installed electricity of 20240 gigawatts hour of electricity.

The benefits of nuclear energy, as examined earlier outweigh the drawbacks. With the right mindset and expertise these drawbacks could be contained.  Also, past tragedies of nuclear mishaps have been documented and stricter policies enacted by concerned countries to ensure such disasters do not re-occur.   With dwindling oil prices and uncertainty over fossil fuels, and for a firm statement in favour of climate action, then it is time for sub–Saharan Africa to embrace nuclear energy technology.

 

Reference/Attribution:

1.     Trading Economics, ‘Electricity Production by Country/Africa’ https://tradingeconomics.com/country-list/electricity-production?continent=africa, accessed 11 May 22.

2.      SAIIA, ‘Is nuclear part of the answer to sub-Saharan Africa’s electricity shortage, https://saiia.org.za/research/is-nuclear-part-of-the-answer-to-sub-saharan-africas-electricity-shortage/ , Accessed 11 May 22.

3.      WNN ‘Viewpoint: Nuclear energy is critical to Africa’s agenda for sustainable development’, https://www.world-nuclear-news.org/Articles/Viewpoint-Nuclear-energy-is-critical-to-Africas-ag, accessed 11 May 22.

4.   NuclearPowerYesPlease.org, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

 

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