Nuclear technology could transform Africa's energy security and help solve wider development challenges, Shaukat Abdulrazak, new chair of AFRA, tells SciDev.Net.
[NAIROBI] Nuclear power in Africa is largely unexploited, with only a few countries making use of the technology.
South Africa leads the way: its two nuclear power stations have a combined capacity of 1,500 megawatts, and a third 20 megawatt reactor is used for research purposes. Algeria and Egypt also have research reactors and another one is under construction in Morocco.
- African countries should integrate nuclear technology into their energy plans
- Obstacles include public fears and a lack of skilled experts
- Initiatives are underway to address these challenges and mainstream nuclear technology
Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Sudan are among countries that have shown an interest in harnessing nuclear energy, but most countries are restricted by the high costs involved in establishing plants, which can be as much as US$4 billion per plant.
Concerns about handling a new and complex technology, and public fears about nuclear hazards have added further constraints.
The African Regional Cooperative Agreement for Research, Development & Training related to Nuclear Science and Technology (AFRA) is a body formed under the auspices of the Austria-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and hosted within the IAEA headquarters.
It focuses on African projects on nuclear science and technology. Kenya is one of the 38 member states that have been participating in AFRA activities since 1991.
Shaukat Abdulrazak, head of Kenya's National Council for Science and Technology and the former deputy vice-chancellor of research and extension at Egerton University in Kenya was appointed AFRA chairman in October 2012.
Abdulrazak talks to Maina Waruru about Africa's potential in the nuclear energy sector.
What is the extent of nuclear use in Africa and what are the challenges to its implementation?
Most African countries are beginning to embrace the peaceful application of nuclear science and technology, especially in medicine, agriculture, industry, water and research.
But only South Africa has included nuclear energy in its energy mix, although countries such as Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria and Sudan are considering harnessing nuclear energy to meet growing demand.
Africa often experiences electricity shortages because of growing domestic and industrial demand leading to high energy costs and frequent blackouts.
The continent also lacks skilled and well-trained people in nuclear power technology — another of the many significant obstacles to nuclear energy for countries across Africa.
To address these issues, most African states that are looking to introduce nuclear power, like Kenya, have embarked on human resources development through education and training, provided in well-established institutions in Africa, Europe and the United States.
AFRA and the IAEA have also helped by offering fellowships, scientific visits and training courses in the field of peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology.
Public acceptance of this new technology is very important and most countries are now raising awareness among the public and relevant stakeholders on the importance of embracing nuclear energy.
Does Africa have the potential for nuclear energy?
Africa has a great nuclear energy potential. Countries such as Namibia, Niger and South Africa have uranium minerals and ore that can be processed as fuel for nuclear power plants. Africa has sufficient water and land for nuclear plant construction and, compared with other regions, it is relatively unaffected by earthquakes.
Nuclear energy has many advantages if countries adopt IAEA guidelines on infrastructure and adhere to the treaties and conventions on nuclear energy to ensure the efficient development of safe and secure nuclear energy programmes. The advantages of nuclear include a reduced and stable energy price, national energy self-reliance and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as industrial growth and development.
A nuclear power project involves unique challenges, including safety and security, capital investment, long-term waste management and disposal, non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and public trust. But these challenges are being addressed in many countries.
What is the state of nuclear science in Africa and has the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan been a deterrent for African countries?
Besides undertaking capacity building and public awareness, African countries are signing relevant conventions and treaties on the peaceful utilisation of nuclear science and technology.
Globally, there are 437 operational nuclear plants and 67 are under construction, despite the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident in March 2011. Energy demand has not changed and conventional energy sources are inadequate.
The Fukushima Daiichi accident was caused by a massive earthquake and tsunami, which resulted in a power failure and consequently a meltdown of the nuclear reactor, releasing dangerous radioactive materials into the environment.
The accident has encouraged countries with nuclear power plants to come together with those interested in nuclear power to share ideas and best practice on the safety and security of plants.
What are your plans as head of AFRA?
My goal is to enhance the contribution of nuclear science and technology to meet the developmental needs and interests of member states.
Developing human resources and managing nuclear knowledge remain key factors to be addressed in the application of nuclear science and technology for socioeconomic development in Africa.
I intend to ensure effective and efficient programme delivery and to promote commitment, responsibility, accountability and teamwork. I will work closely with the AFRA committees, national coordinators and the IAEA to institute good governance and excellence in management of AFRA activities.
I will also work to ensure continued interaction with decision-makers, civil society, the operators and consumers of nuclear technology and the general public to create awareness on the benefits of the peaceful application of nuclear science.
Is AFRA well-funded and does it have the right technical capacity for its mandate?
AFRA receives funding from member states, the IAEA and other organisations and partners in the nuclear industry, but it still faces major challenges. These include limited financial resources, a shortage of qualified skilled human resources and a lack of or inadequate nuclear infrastructure.
However, I am optimistic that with support from the three AFRA committees — management, partnership building and resource mobilisation, and high-level steering — we will mobilise enough resources to support AFRA activities and ensure the maximum utilisation of available opportunities.
These opportunities include training, fellowships, scientific visits, donations of equipment, cooperation and involvement with regional and international organisations, with the aim of sharing ideas and best practice in nuclear science.
African governments are also very supportive and at present all 38 AFRA member countries support the organisation's activities on nuclear science and technology to enhance economic growth and development. The support is both political and financial through annual contributions.
How expensive is nuclear energy technology and can Africa afford it?
The cost of building a new nuclear plant depends on the level and type of electrical power produced. For a 1,000 megawatt nuclear power plant, the cost ranges between US$4 billion and US$6 billion. Joint financial ventures with credit agencies such as banks, and financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, offer a support for the financing of plant construction, and this is the direction that countries should take due to the huge amount of capital required.
Africa is sometimes said to fear new technologies. Do you think attitudes to nuclear science will be any different?
Fear of nuclear technology is one of the most difficult obstacles to achieving public support for projects. This is not unique to Africa. In countries such as Germany, anti-nuclear activists have prevented the further development of nuclear power plants.
It is important to note that all types of technology have their challenges and nuclear technology is no exception.
In order to win public acceptance and support, African leaders should take the first step in raising awareness that nuclear power is clean, safe, secure and reliable.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.
Q&A's are edited for length and clarity.