Chronic shortages of power affect the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. Almost 620 million people—60 percent of the region’s population—lack access to electricity according to the African Development Bank. Even those who in theory have access face very high prices for insufficient and unreliable supplies.
This lack of power matters: Countries with electrification rates of less than 80 percent consistently have a lower per-capita gross domestic product than other countries, and more power is crucial if Africa is to meet basic development goals.
But how the situation improves is important, too. Should electrification focus on off-grid or on-grid solutions? Should it prioritize fossil fuels or renewables? What is the appropriate role for governments, regional entities, the private sector and community initiatives?
How these questions are answered will play a big role in the long-term sustainability of the region’s emerging power infrastructure as well as—thanks to implications for fossil fuel use—the well-being of our entire planet. It also will help determine the extent to which sub-Saharan African nations can meet the greenhouse gas targets they set for themselves as part of the United Nations climate negotiations process.
The focus on tackling the electricity supply deficiency in Sub-Saharan Africa has been on renewable energy over the last decade. In particular, the potential of solar and wind energy has been most loudly heralded as the solutions for the hundreds of millions of Africans without access to any electricity. The ability to use innovative, off-grid delivery systems with better energy storage technology without the need for fossil fuels, has been an almost irresistible narrative for most of us.
And yet, it’s never been that simple. There are still limitations to renewable energy today if we’re hoping or expecting African countries to urbanize and industrialize at scale.
An article in the latest edition of Issues in Science and Technology argues nuclear energy should be given serious consideration by African governments and points out that at least 11 African countries already do. South Africa is the only one that already operates a commercial nuclear plant, but others including Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia are at different stages of preparation.
Even advocates of nuclear power rarely suggest it should be the primary source of electricity but a viable, stable option to consider alongside others
While most of these programs have some involvement of Russia’s nuclear power company Rosatom or China, the authors argue the United States’ private nuclear energy companies could play a vital role in bringing some of these programs to fruition. It would need the US government to allow this to happen though.
So, why nuclear? The case is often made of its energy density which, even in small quantities, can supply power to millions of people and industry. Also, once a plant is built it can supply “cheap, reliable electricity for 40 to 60 years.”
But yes, of course security and safety are right at the top of everyone’s long list of concerns when it comes to nuclear power in developing countries especially since they have few resources and limited technical expertise. The recent story of the panic by US authorities to remove highly enriched uranium from a research reactor in Nigeria, shows how edgy the world would be without proper checks in place.
Still, like with renewable energy, there has been much innovation with nuclear over the last decade. There are smaller, safer, more efficient, and, in some cases, much more affordable nuclear reactors available today if the African governments were to explore this option. The traditional large-scale light-water reactors will often be too expensive for most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.
It’s worth noting even advocates of nuclear power rarely suggest it should be the primary source of electricity but a viable, stable option to consider alongside others. (