On the continent, only South Africa today has a nuclear power plant. While African energy needs continue to increase, several other African countries are coveting the nuclear market.
Earlier this year, Princy Mthombeni, South Africa's 'nuclear lady', lamented that 'the gap between scientists and citizens is so wide that the scientific facts, particularly with regard to nuclear energy, are overlooked by rhetoric. In other words, nuclear power is unpopular today, despite its many advantages.
In the West, leaders are beginning to realize the scientific reality of nuclear energy. Fossil fuels — oil, natural gas and especially coal — are far dirtier and more dangerous than modern nuclear energy. Nuclear energy would even be cleaner than hydraulic energy and several other so-called “green” energies.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the African continent needs to increase its energy production by 700 terawatts per hour by 2040. And it is becoming increasingly clear that African states, who have put forward goals in terms of clean energy, will find it difficult to achieve energy sufficiency by relying on fossil fuels.
Worse, in the case of South Africa, Ghana, Tunisia or even Côte d'Ivoire, investing in wind turbines, solar energy or hydropower plants has now become counterproductive. However, the various States are keen to respect the constraint of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. At stake, international aid and subsidies.
But in fact, if Africa intends to develop, especially industrially and socially – 40% of African households do not have access to electricity – nuclear power may be the preferred solution.
Why Africa is struggling to develop nuclear energy
Why doesn't Africa have nuclear power plants? The answer is quite simple, although confusing. In terms of supply of raw materials - uranium, thorium or even radium - Africa acts as a supplier for the West but also as a dumping ground, despite the Bamako Convention which prohibits the import of hazardous waste on the continent. .
On the production side, Namibia and Niger are among the largest exporters of uranium in the world. As for Angola, the DRC and Morocco, they have large reserves of thorium.
It is first of all the extraction of these resources that poses a problem. With the exception of Algeria, South Africa and Angola, no African country has national experts or companies specialized in the extraction of nuclear materials.
Moreover, enriching, stabilizing and distributing nuclear energy in a safe, and above all, cost-effective way, requires technologies that no African country has today.
Finally, the cost of maintenance is very high. According to nuclear scientist Michael Gatari of the University of Nairobi, “the cost of maintaining a nuclear facility can cripple a country's budget for a very, very long time”.
There remains an immediate solution for African countries seeking to develop their nuclear sector: hire foreign companies.
Rosatom, a competitive Russian nuclear player in Africa
South Africa, for example, hired the French company Framatome for its Koeberg power plant, built between 1976 and 1984. Since then, the South African company Eskom has trained its own workforce, and it is now engineers and South African scientists who manage the plant.
However, ten other African countries seek to obtain nuclear energy before 2030. At the top of this list, Morocco, Nigeria, Algeria and Ghana which already have research reactors, used for scientific research on minerals and the enrichment of nuclear materials. But also the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya, Sudan and Tunisia.
In recent years, the Russian company Rosatom, the flagship of the Moscow nuclear industry, has established energy agreements with Algeria, Nigeria, Rwanda and Egypt for the construction of nuclear power plants. The only project currently under construction is that of Rosatom in Egypt, signed in 2017. The El Dabaa power plant was 85% financed by a Russian loan of 22 billion dollars.
For other African countries seeking to launch their own nuclear power plants, the financial crisis has delayed the establishment of projects. And the sanctions that targeted Russia in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, delayed the progress of other African projects with Rosatom. A context that could be complicated with the Russian military operation currently underway in Ukraine.
Imperatives that Rosatom seeks to circumvent via a very competitive offer. A report by the Center For Global Development (CGDEV) assured in 2018 that “Rosatom dominates nuclear exports to developing countries due to their generous funding and the training of local experts”. A transfer of technology that contrasts with the stranglehold that Western companies seek to exercise when they set up in Africa.