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Africa looks to nuclear power

Nuclear power holds promise for 10 African countries now in pursuit of building their own nuclear plants. Wind and solar solutions aren't reliable enough, planners say, nor do they offer adequate electricity.

By Drew HinshawCorrespondent / April 2, 2010

Two nuclear reactors at the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station, near Cape Town, came online in 1984 and ’85. The nation is working on smaller-scale reactor design as much of energy-starved Africa looks toward a future with nuclear power.

Rodger Bosch/Afp/Newscom/File

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Dakar, Senegal

Last month, Senegalese Energy Minister Samuel Sarr slipped off to a conference in Paris for an extraordinary announcement: His country is hoping to enrich uranium and build shimmering Homer Simpson-style cooling towers over a landscape where erratic power outages have long forced homes and businesses to rely on generators and candles.

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Senegal is hoping to do it by 2020. And the former French colony has company.

Today, South Africa's two nuclear power reactors stand alone on the continent, but by the end of the decade, that could very well change. Several less-developed African nations are speeding up plans to modernize their economies through heavy reliance on nuclear power.

Beyond transformers and electrical grids, however, nuclear power requires the less-tangible infrastructure of workplace safety regulation, government oversight, anticorruption measures, stable governance, and antiterrorism controls – all things that many African nations are infamous for not having.

"It is not a technical challenge," says Igor Khripunov, associate director for the Center for International Trade and Security in Athens, Ga. "Building nuclear power is a nationwide challenge."

Ten African countries pursuing nukes

In February, Nigerian authorities pursued talks with Iran for an exchange of nuclear know-how.

The oil giant is joined by Uganda, which passed nuclear laws in 2008 and hopes to have a plant by 2020, and by Kenya, whose government is seeking $1 billion for its own plant.

Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt have pledged to go nuclear by 2020 and are considered the likeliest to do so.

Ghana's cabinet had vowed to bring a plant on line by 2018, until the new government scrapped the plans.

And Niger – the country whose bountiful uranium has powered the nuclear age abroad and funded civil war at home – was soliciting South African support for its own plant, before February's coup spiked the idea.

The energy conundrum

For Africa, energy is not a problem easily solved. Much of the continent lacks the rail infrastructure or the regional integration to haul in coal, or the purchasing power to consistently provide fuel to oil- or natural-gas-fired power plants. But once a costly nuclear plant is built, the uranium costs are comparatively minor.

Africa needs more electricity in order to progress. Nuclear plants are costly to build, but are clean and relatively cheap to refuel. To guard against accident and terrorism, though, nukes require stable and capable governments, both of which are in short supply.

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