How many countries in Africa have operational nuclear reactors? And just how many operational reactors are there on the continent? The answers are seven and eleven. Not many, but more than generally realised. The countries concerned are Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Libya, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa.
South Africa has three reactors – one research reactor, at Pelindaba, west of Pretoria and two pressurised water reactors which power the French-designed and built Koeberg nuclear power plant (NPP) near Cape Town. The other countries operate only research reactors, one each, except for Algeria and Egypt, which have two each. (Research reactors do not generate electricity and are much smaller and simpler than the reactors used in NPPs). But this situation is set to change quite significantly over the next 20 years.
All these countries, except Ghana and Libya, attended last month’s International Conference on Access to Civil Nuclear Energy, in Paris, as did Namibia, Senegal and Tunisia. All, except South Africa, were represented by Ministers. And all these countries, including Ghana and Libya, are interested in developing or, in the case of South Africa, expanding, nuclear power.
Indeed, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been providing assistance to Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Libya, Morocco, Nigeria and Tunisia, besides other African states, for studies regarding the adoption of nuclear energy as a means of generating electricity by these countries.
Further, during the past 20 or so months, the governments of Algeria, Libya and Tunisia have signed agreements with the government of France establishing frameworks within which France will provide these countries with the expertise necessary to allow them to add nuclear power to their national energy matrices. Egypt has had such an agreement with France for some time now – although dormant for a number of years, it has more recently been reactivated.
The agency responsible for implementing these assistance programmes is the French International Nuclear Agency (abbreviated to AFNI in French), which was set up in June 2008 and is an institution of the country’s Atomic Energy Commission. The AFNI is responsible for for bilateral relations between France and countries which are starting nuclear energy programmes. It does not handle relations with countries which already have nuclear energy. Thus, the AFNI is not involved in French nuclear energy relations with South Africa.
The main role of the AFNI is to build the nuclear capacity in the partner countries. It identifies competences that these new nuclear energy countries already have, and what they lack. Assistance is set up according to each partner country’s needs. The AFNI is a governmental organisation and not a company and is run on a not-for-profit basis. It is not an aid agency – the partner country, not France, pays for the AFNI’s services.
Algeria and Libya are at the very beginning of this cooperation process and have not yet made specific requests for assistance. Egypt and Tunisia are more advanced in the process. Egypt is seeking help in the training of personnel in the nuclear energy field. Although it signed the framework agreement with France in April 2009, Tunisia has already made specific requests of France, apparently focused on matters regarding nuclear energy infra- structure. The AFNI has responded with proposals and is awaiting Tunisian agreement.
AFRICA'S ASPIRANT NUCLEAR CLUB MEMBERS
At least four African Ministers addressed last month’s conference in Paris. “The use of energy is important, especially for countries in development,” stated Namibian Mines and Energy Minister Erkki Nghimtina. “Nuclear power plants are one of the options to produce energy and water. A growing number of countries recognise the role of nuclear energy,” pointed out Egyptian Electricity and Energy Minister Hassan Younes. “Civil nuclear power is increasingly a viable alternative to fossil fuels, which are very polluting,” affirmed Moroccan Energy, Mines, Water and Environment Minister Amina Benkhadra. “Our energy production is mainly [fossil fuel] thermal. It has been hit hard by the volatility in energy prices,” reported Senegalese Energy Minister Samuel Amete Sarr. “Alternative forms of energy, in parti-cular nuclear, will play an important role in the future.”
Egypt should have had NPPs decades ago. Younes explained that his country first considered nuclear energy in the 1960s and by the 1980s had developed ambitious plans for NPPs. However, this programme was brought to a complete halt by the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, in Ukraine.
But times have changed. “Egypt is a medium-sized energy user and a regional hub. Electricity reaches 99% of the Egyptian population. Egypt has been motivated to reconsider nuclear power because of our limited fossil fuel resources and near [full] capacity on hydropower,” elucidated Younes. “Nuclear is technically and economically viable and will help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Egypt has a programme to establish 4 000 MW of nuclear power by 2025.” (For comparison, South Africa’s Koeberg NPP has a design capacity of 1 800 MW from its two 900-MW reactors).
The Egyptian government is, in cooperation with the IAEA, taking the necessary steps to inaugurate its NPP programme, and will establish an independent nuclear regulatory authority. The country supports all initiatives to increase access to nuclear energy, provided it is done in accordance with the requirements and regulations of the IAEA and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). (Egypt signed the NPT in 1981). “Egypt appreciates the assistance from the IAEA to developing countries,” affirmed Younes.
Namibia also plans to adopt nuclear power as a source of energy over the next 15 to 20 years. “We have made a decision to build a nuclear power plant,” confirmed Nghimtina. “We’re saying it will be built in the future. It will be a long process. But we have to start preparing now. Our policy is that, by 2030, Namibia will be an industrial country, and to be an industrial country you need energy.” There is no firm target date yet for the commissioning of the projected nuclear power plant; however, this is likely to happen in the second half of the next decade, although an earlier date is not impossible.
In his address to the Paris conference, Nghimtina pointed out that “Namibia produces large quantities of uranium, but struggles to meet its electricity needs”. The country currently generates about 400 MW of electricity, but this figure falls by some 35% during the dry season because of the country’s dependence on hydroelectricity and the reduction in the river flow during the dry period.
“There is a significant shortfall between local generation and local demand,” he pointed out, with the result that Namibia imports as much as 60% of its power from South Africa and other Southern African Development Community countries. “Namibia has decided to diversify its energy mix.”
The country’s variable rainfall and frequent droughts (as well as occasional floods) were factors causing Namibia to look at the option of nuclear energy. Namibia is now seeking to create a comprehensive legal framework for nuclear energy and set up an independent nuclear regulator.
“Morocco, a developing country that is growing fast, does not have energy sources,” highlighted Benkhadra in her speech. “We would like to diversify our energy mix, including renewables and energy efficiency, but we hope, by 2020 to 2030, to have nuclear energy.”
The country’s electricity demand is increasing at 8% a year and its generating capacity will have to increase threefold to fivefold by 2030.
“We have voted a number of laws which have legislated for the [nuclear] sector,” she reported. “We intend to set up a nuclear safety commission.” Morocco believes that developing countries, provided they adhere to the NPT, must have access to the new nuclear technologies, which are characterised by greater safety and security.
The country has a nuclear study centre and, thanks to its 2-MW research reactor, some training and experience in nuclear. “Human resources are vital to the development of this form of energy,” she pointed out. “We have been working with universities and a number of our universities now have nuclear power training courses.” Moroccans are also taking practical training courses in partner insti- tutions abroad.
“We realise that launching nuclear power for electricity generation will require greater efforts still. We think that training is absolutely vital. It is part of a long-term vision. Govern-ment must take responsibility. We need to develop skills, linked with know-how transfer from [NPP] vendor countries.” Benkhadra paid tribute to the IAEA, France and the US for their support for Morocco in the nuclear sphere.
Senegal ratified the major international conventions of the IAEA in 2008 and has adhered to the NPT. The country plans on implementing an infrastructure development programme between 2012 and 2020 (until 2012 Senegal is focused on reducing its debt). Hopefully, this will see the commissioning of an NPP in 2020.
“We have already produced our first report on nuclear safety and the disposal of nuclear waste,” said Sarr. “We have established a legal framework for the use of radioactive sources. We have shown our determination to move towards civil nuclear energy in a rational way.”
The country is interested in international cooperation in order to strengthen its human resources. Sarr also emphasised that nuclear has been recognised as an alternative source of energy for Africa by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (better known as Nepad).
MODERN NUCLEAR: CAPITAL INTENSIVE AND LONG TERM
NPPs are major and long-term investments. “The timescale is almost a hundred years from planning to decommissioning,” said Benkhadra of Morocco’s NPP project.
Gérard Mestrallet, CEO of the Paris Bourse-listed French energy group GDF-Suez also stressed that a modern NPP programme would last a century, from the start of planning to the finishing of post-decommissioning clean-up. “Nuclear projects are extremely capital intensive, but their operating costs are much lower. Their construction time is two to four times longer than conventional plants, but their operational life is also much longer – two to three times longer.” Given such a timescale, some kind of government involvement or support in an NPP programme is necessary, as, over such a period, “only governments can provide stability”.
For many developing countries, the capital investments required for NPPs are very big in comparison with the size of their economies. As French President Nicholas Sarkozy pointed out in his speech opening the conference, the fact that civilian nuclear power required an initial investment of billions of euros followed by very low operating costs necessitated long-term funding at reasonable rates.
“The conditions of financing can have a major impact on the final cost of the electri- city – hence, the importance of State credit financing agencies,” stated the head of the Bilateral Relations and International Business Development Service of the French Ministry of the Economy, Industry and Employment, Jean-Marie Paugam. “France has 30 years of experience, starting from South Africa in the 1970s. We have learnt some lessons. You have to start thinking of finance very early in the process, especially countries with no experience in nuclear. Second, you need a straightforward approach. You need a good balance between debt and capital and risk-sharing between the government and the private sector.”
Paugam argued that the best solution to the financing issue seemed to be export credit guarantees from the NPP vendor countries, although, he added, this was not the only solution. An alternative was private finance backed by government guarantees.
A major problem for developing countries seeking to adopt nuclear energy was that, currently, the major international financing agencies and regional development banks did not fund nuclear projects.
In his speech, Sarkozy announced that he was going to push international financial institutions to “eliminate the ostracism of nuclear energy in international financing”. He said: “Civil nuclear energy is an economic choice . . . . Frankly, I do not understand why international financial institutions and development banks do not finance civil nuclear energy projects. The current situation means that countries are condemned to rely on more costly energy that causes greater pollution. I propose to change all this. The World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the regional development banks must make a wholehearted commitment to finance such projects.”
He also attacked the fact that, currently, countries using nuclear energy could not obtain carbon credits through the Clean Development Mechanism, describing this situation as a “scandal” and blaming it on “outdated ideology”. These carbon credits could only be used to finance the other forms of decarbon-ised energy. As a consequence, developing countries’ investment choices were distorted. “We have a complete bias in investment decisions, which impact on the poorest countries. Therefore, I propose that carbon dioxide credits be used to finance all forms of decarbonised energy under the new global architecture after 2013.
“The quasi-theological opposition between nuclear energy and renewable-energy sources is out of date,” he asserted. “We need both. Of course, nuclear energy cannot reverse climate change on its own, but it will be necessary. It is a lie or an illusion to say otherwise.”
•Keith Campbell attended the International Conference on Access to Civil Nuclear Energy in Paris as a guest of the French government.