Africa Rising: Nigeria plans to build nuclear power plants

Africa could be home to an unlikely boom in nuclear power plant construction, as Nigeria plans to join South Africa as the continent's second nuclear nation.

Africa Rising is a weekly look at business, investment, and development trends.

At least 10 African countries harbored ambitions to be the continent's newest nuclear power – until Japan's March 11 earthquake shook the idea off the shelf. Six months and roughly 16 billion barrels of consumed crude oil later, has Africa's nuclear race begun anew?

On the same Thursday afternoon last week, both the largest and second-largest economies in sub-Saharan Africa's – growing rivals Nigeria and South Africa – announced new nuclear programs. South Africa's cabinet will consider tens of billions of dollars worth of new nuclear power plants, said Energy Minister Dipuo Peters.

South Africa, Africa's top economy, holds the only set of nuclear stacks on the continent. That's why South Africa's decision renders Nigeria's – to build just one – all the more astonishing to an industry still reeling from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami that broke cooling systems at Japan's Fukushima I nuclear plant and sent seething radiation floating across the Pacific Ocean.

Nigeria was among the aspiring nuclear states that dropped plans after Fukushima. But on Thursday, President Goodluck Jonathan publicly asked the country's Atomic Energy Commission to move forward with plans to become Africa's second nuclear nation.

"It's a big vote of confidence," said Dr. Kelvin Kemm, a nuclear physicist and CEO for South African energy consultancy Stratek. "We're going through an emotional phase."

When the phase ends, Africa, the world's poorest continent, could be an unlikely boom region for builders of nuclear power plants.

"I see Africa as the main nuclear growth area in the next few years," Dr. Kemm says. "Africa needs electricity fast, and therefore it's open to suggestions. There's nowhere else that's this open."

But not everyone is that open.

Strides in more environmentally friendly electric stations – particularly solar plants – have drawn international interest to Africa, a continent flush with sun, breeze, and rivers up for damming.

China, already building three hydro-dams on the continent, will start six solar plants in Africa this year, and plans to build at least one in 40 African countries. Private consumption of Chinese-built solar panels has also increased in Africa – Nigeria included.

"[Nuclear plants] are already dinosaurs," said Cape Town Branch Coordinator Muna Lukhani of South Africa's green energy advocacy group Earth Life Africa. Referring to the steam-powered turbines central to most plants, he adds: "Nuclear power is an extremely expensive and dangerous way with which to boil water."

Expensive, sure: But less expensive by the plant.

For starters, the nuclear industry has been rocked by a second quake, the global economic downturn, which has shifted interest away from US and Europe, towards developing countries that need smaller reactors, cheaper, now.

Of the roughly 60 designs for nuclear, many of the more recent blueprints envision centers a tenth of the size of the 2,000 megawatt plants of the 1970s. By 2014, Bill Gates and Toshiba Corps – the laptop company – are aiming to start production of nuclear mini-reactors compact enough to sit in a hot tub.

These safes are so safe, Kemm says, that he would gladly "live in a tent next to a nuclear reactor for the rest of my life." Many of these plants require "no more than a half dozen highly-skilled individuals" to operate, he says. Plus, "these are small nuclear reactors," he adds. "You can scatter them wherever you want."

"Any African country can do it," he says.

Certainly, physicist Imoh Obioh on President Jonathan's Atomic Energy Commission thinks Nigeria can.

"Our plan is mainly to expand Nigeria's electricity generation base from fossil fuels (oil and gas) to include renewables and nuclear," Mr. Obioh wrote in an e-mail to the Christian Science Monitor. "This is to make sure that Nigeria gradually strives to attain energy security."

For Igor Khripunov, Associate Director for the Athens, Georgia-based Center for International Trade and Security, it's less a question of could than should.

"For Nigeria, there's no compelling reason to start generating electricity by building nuclear power infrastructure," he said citing the country's oil wealth, its horrid reputation for corruption, and the fact that its grid might not easily support a plant.

"Other considerations are behind their decision," he adds. "It's prestige, that's how I can interpret it."

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