Zim joins other African countries to tap nuclear energy

Sifelani Tsiko-Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor

Latest moves by the Government to approve the framework for cooperation with the Russian Federation State Atomic Energy Corporation to explore possibilities for adopting nuclear energy as a source of power, demonstrates the country’s commitment to tap into nuclear power opportunities to expand its electricity production base.

This is set to break stereotypes and myths that have for decades prevented African countries from harnessing nuclear energy, despite the continent being a major producer of uranium used in the development of nuclear energy.

South Africa is the only country on the continent with a commercial nuclear power plant.

But times are changing.

Experts at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) say a third of the almost 30 countries around the world considering adopting nuclear power are in Africa.

Among the countries that are mulling the possibility of harnessing nuclear power are Ghana, Kenya, Egypt, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan, Algeria, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia.

These countries have already engaged with the IAEA to assess their readiness to embark on a nuclear programme.

Zimbabwe, too, has joined the ranks of countries that are embracing nuclear science to generate power to expand electricity production.

This is happening despite growing moves to promote solar and wind energy which could be a cheaper and greener way to boost power in the country and elsewhere across the continent.

“Cabinet considered and approved the Memorandum of Understanding between the Republic of Zimbabwe and the Russian Federation State Atomic Energy Corporation, which was presented by the Attorney-General on behalf of the chairman of the Cabinet Committee on Legislation,” Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services Minister Monica Mutsvangwa told journalists last week.

“The memorandum seeks to facilitate higher level of cooperation between the two countries in the use of nuclear energy, by laying a foundation for the execution of the agreed areas of cooperation.”

This comes at a time when several African countries have signed agreements to deploy nuclear power with backing from Russia and China.

Russia’s nuclear agency Rosatom is reported to have sealed nuclear power memoranda with scores of African countries which still suffer from severe electricity shortages due to ageing equipment, drought and rising demand.

Most of the countries want to increase their generating capacity to meet current and future power needs.

In the past, fears of public safety, cost overruns, construction delays and general fear that the country sharing nuclear technology could exert disproportionate influence over a country’s sovereignty, prevented most African countries from embracing nuclear energy.

Some energy experts also say western countries were not too keen to support African states to harness nuclear energy fearing possible development of nuclear arms.

In the late 70s and early 80s, they only supported apartheid South Africa to develop the only nuclear plant in operation in Africa Koeberg which produces 1,86GW of power.

Rich industrialised nations also argue against nuclear development in Africa citing the fact that countries such as Germany, Belgium and the US are downscaling their nuclear plans or exiting it altogether hence the continent should not exploit it.

Western critics say Africa should not move in this direction because of perceptions of increased risk following the Fukushima disaster in Japan, as well as the economic cost that goes with it.

“The cost of electricity generation from solar photovoltaic and wind technologies has come down dramatically. It already costs less than power produced by nuclear plants and renewable energy is set to become even cheaper,” an energy analysts argued.

But proponents in favour of the development of nuclear energy say China and Russia have made significant strides in the development of fourth generation nuclear technology that could reduce cost with enhanced public safety features.

China and Russia have emerged as the top countries driving to promote nuclear energy development in Africa ahead of possible bids on nuclear projects that could come from France, South Korea, United States and Japan.

In terms of trade too, China and Russia are also pushing aggressively to boost trade ties with African countries with less stringent conditions.

“China is now Africa’s most important trading partner, an important source of investment and has been making inroads there for a long time. Russia is following China in a big way too and aggressively pushing nuclear energy development as a multi-billion dollar investment opportunity,” said an energy expert in Harare.

“France, the US and other western countries have been overtaken by China. They are often seen as demanding too much in terms of conditions. But Russia is tapping into this strategic area big time surpassing China.”

Rosatom is reported to have secured more than 30 reactor supply deals in recent years and by 2019 the company said it had international projects worth US$202,4 billion in its portfolio.

The company is also reported to have more than 40 reactor construction projects outside of Russia at various implementation stages and already has working agreements with Rwanda, Uganda, the Republic of Congo and Ethiopia.

All this makes Russia the top choice in terms of nuclear energy development.

Zimbabwe has uranium deposits which could be used for many processes such as fuelling nuclear power plants, colourants and manufacturing of other products.

The country has not started mining uranium and was in the process of doing explorations to determine the extent of uranium deposits in Zimbabwe for possible commercial exploitation.

It started uranium explorations in 2017.

“In Africa, we are able to offer our latest generation PWR-type reactors the VVER-1200 which is state of the art compared to the previous generation reactors. It is 20 percent more powerful; the amount of personnel operating the reactor has decreased (by) between 30 percent and 40 percent; and the lifetime of the reactor has doubled to 60 years, with the possibility of lasting an additional 20 years,” Ryan Collyer, acting chief executive of Rosatom Central and Southern Africa was quoted saying in an energy magazine in 2019.

“Considering the energy needs and peculiarities of energy systems of some African countries, Rosatom may offer its new solution SMR nuclear power plant (NPP). Rosatom has extensive experience with small-scale reactors that we have been mastering over many years on nuclear icebreakers, making them as safe and efficient as our flagship large reactors. 

Our RITM series reactors are the most modern ones, and already have references, as they are installed on board icebreakers of a new class, the first of which is undergoing sea trials.”

Despite recent gains, more people in Africa live without electricity than anywhere else in the world due to ageing power infrastructure, drought, lack of capital and rapid urbanisation.

Nearly 75 percent of the world’s 789 million people who lack electricity live in Africa, according to an October 2020 International Energy Agency (IEA) report and of the 2,6 billion people who lack access to clean cooking, 900 million are in Africa.

While the rate of rural electrification in other parts of the world is above 70 percent, in sub-Saharan Africa it is just above 20 percent.

Energy policy failures, poor funding, corruption and sometimes political instability have hampered efforts by most African nations to widen access to electricity to the majority of its people.

And, despite widespread fears and other constraints, harnessing nuclear energy in Africa through improved investment and the right energy policies could help the continent to attain some of its global sustainable development goal of 2030 (SDG7) which seeks to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.

With adequate safeguards and the right investment frameworks, Africa could also reduce its number of people still without electricity by 2030.

This will require walking the talk and moving from memoranda to actual development of nuclear projects.

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