Viewpoint: Nuclear energy is critical to Africa's agenda for sustainable development

06 January 2022

Nuclear power can play a key part in addressing African energy poverty while mitigating against climate change and helping to solve the triple threats of poverty, inequality and unemployment, but policymakers, decision takers and the general public need to be educated on its benefits, says Princy Mthombeni.

Princy Mthombeni

Having been in the nuclear energy industry for more than ten years, I came to a realisation that many people do not realise the impact of energy in our daily lives and in strengthening our economies. Therefore, policymakers and those in power end up pushing energy policies that have little to no impact on the development of the life of citizens and their country. The gap between scientists and ordinary citizens remains wide, so much so that science facts, particularly when it comes to nuclear energy, are overpowered by rhetoric. In the study done by a South African research institute, the Human Sciences Research Council, in 2013, it was reported that 42% of South Africans know little to nothing about nuclear energy while 22% are undecided on whether or not they are in favour or against it. Furthermore, the study showed that only 18% of the group is unfavourable towards nuclear energy. In addition, the survey showed that the levels of knowledge, understanding and attitudes vary in line with educational levels, living standards levels, geographical location, gender and race.

Nuclear communications in Africa are not well established. It is a subject matter that is still controversial in our communities and few professionals are trained in the subject. This makes the process of reaching many people a bit difficult. However, as a nuclear communications specialist, I am always looking for opportunities to collaborate and partner with others who are well versed in the dynamics on the continent to develop communication strategies whose messaging would put more emphasis on demystifying nuclear technology through public education and raising awareness in order to change perceptions towards nuclear energy. These communication strategies are not developed in isolation, but speak to the goals of African Agenda 2063 for sustainable development by located nuclear energy as a driving force toward Africa's prosperity.

Access to quality energy remains a daunting challenge for Africa. Tighter fiscal environment only serves to exacerbate the problem for the economy of countries where there is little diversification. The African Development Bank reported that over 640 million people in Africa do not have access to energy, corresponding to an electricity access rate for African countries at just over 40%, the lowest in the world. According to research by Oxfam in its 2017 report, The energy challenge in sub-Saharan Africa: A guide for advocates and policy makers, 792 million people are forced to cook with traditional biomass on unimproved stoves. While efforts at electrification are expected to bring down the number of people who do not have access to electricity, the number of people using unimproved cooking facilities in Africa is expected to increase through 2030.

Clearly a light bulb does not constitute adequate access to energy when there are so many people that desperately need clean, affordable, reliable and equitable access to energy supply for clean water, public health and jobs. This energy crisis demands that Africa should take the opportunity to shape a better energy future for Africans. This in turn directs attention to the diversity of options emerging for progressing global net-zero carbon energy transition pathways that will benefit the most vulnerable people on the planet. Nuclear power, as a source of energy that is clean, reliable, dispatchable and baseload, is key in addressing the energy poverty on the African continent while mitigating against climate change issues. In addition, because this energy source is baseload, it will allow the continent to industrialise quickly, solving the triple threats of poverty, inequality and unemployment in the process. For a continent as youthful as Africa, with a population expected to triple in the next 30 years, it is important to make sure that policymakers, decision takers and the general public are educated regarding the benefits of nuclear energy so that we can take advantage of this energy source for the betterment of our countries and the continent at large.

There is a misplaced idea held by some people within the global community that Africa's relative lack of legacy infrastructure makes it the perfect canvas on which to paint a green energy future. This group of people are putting restrictions on the energy choices of poor countries who are continuously trapped in a state of energy poverty, socioeconomic challenges and underdevelopment.

South Africa is the only sub-Saharan African country to have achieved significant success at increasing access to electricity. However, the country's experience reveals the importance of local contextual factors, as well as the complicated ways in which local political and economic incentives play out in driving and frustrating effective management of the power sector. The scale of South Africa's success at expanding access to electricity is largely because of the country's access to abundant cheap coal. Coal-fired-power-plants provide dispatchable energy as long as the fuel is available.

Coal plays a significant role in countries such as South Africa today, and will continue to do so for many years to come. Therefore, strategies for transitioning to greener energy sources should consider the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people who are employed in this sector, and the rest of the people whose lives depend on it. There are advancements already being made in the development of small modular reactors (SMRs) which provide an opportunity that is already being explored to replace coal-powered power plants by retrofitted SMRs instead of shutting the coal-powered plants permanently. This will make sure that the local economies of communities that are dependent on coal continue to remain active and thrive. SMRs are ideal for this purpose because not only do they require less initial capital, but they are also siting flexible and scalable.

On the other hand, South Africa has been a user of nuclear technology and energy since the founding of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1957. Although many African countries have been IAEA member states since its establishment, South Africa remains the only African country to possess nuclear technology capability, which it utilises for agriculture, medical and commercial nuclear power generation purposes. Amongst many economic uses of nuclear technology, South Africa generates over 10 billion kilowatt-hours of clean baseload electricity at the Koeberg nuclear power station, situated in Cape Town, and has done so for over 30 years. The plant's owner, Eskom, reports that this is one of the lowest cost electricity generating units in its entire fleet, driving overall economic prosperity since its amortisation in the mid-1990s.

Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant is a good benchmark for African countries, with many good lessons. African states should pursue an energy mix that includes nuclear power as part of the strategy to move Africa closer to achieving its vision for the year 2063. Africa's transition to cleaner sources of electricity should be systematic and it must be done in a manner that is mindful of social and economic as well as environmental considerations. Nuclear as a source of energy will play a critical role as a bridge to achieving a green economy in a responsible way, thus meeting the aspiration of "a prosperous Africa based on inclusive growth and sustainable development", the Africa we want.

In order to achieve the full benefits of nuclear power, the African continent will require massive support from the global community, in particular the global nuclear industry. Already the IAEA is assisting African countries who are member states to develop their regulatory frameworks, develop human resources for nuclear power plants and others. This noble gesture is lauded and welcomed. However, in order for these African countries and Africa at large to realise its nuclear potential, stumbling blocks such as capital funding and barriers to financing need to be removed. In addition, more partnerships need to be developed in order to achieve skills and technology transfer while making sure that issues such as safeguards, safety and security, including counter-terrorism, are addressed to guarantee the safety of nuclear power plants. Africa with its resources is already on a path to achieve nuclear development and is already unlocking this potential on the continent. The global communities should enable an environment that is conducive to fast-track this trajectory.

Princy Mthombeni is founder and host of Africa4Nuclear.