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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 January 2019

Atomic future may prove a reality for Africa

Already more countries besides South Africa – the only nuclear producer on the continent – are showing interest.

A dire shortage of electricity could mean Africa’s emerging economies turn to nuclear to underpin industrial growth.

This would be a neat fit, considering Africa is where the nuclear age had its origins.

The raw material used for nuclear development during the Second World War was sourced in what was then the Belgian Congo. Africa is also where one of the world’s only natural reactors is found – geologists stumbled on a uranium deposit in Gabon that was found to have developed self-sustaining nuclear reaction aeons ago, and remained active for millennia.

Already more countries besides South Africa – the only nuclear producer on the continent – are showing interest. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director general Yukiya Amano has said more than a third of the 30 or so countries embarking on a nuclear path are in Africa.

Just this January, the IAEA conducted an eight-day review of the nuclear programmes in Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya. Kenya has already signed a deal with Kepco of South Korea and plans its first plant by 2027 at a cost of US$5 billion, while Nigeria plans plants with Russia’s Rosatom.

Cost, naturally, is a concern, especially given the fragile state of many of Africa’s economies. Some nuclear proponents feel that small modular reactors (SMRs) – mini nuclear plants such as those used in submarines – could be the way forward.

These reactors produce less than 300 megawatts of power. This should satisfy the needs of a small city and when more energy is needed, another can be added. SMRs have been talked about for years, but have yet to catch on in the West. Only a few countries so far have deployed them – China, India, Russia and Argentina.

However, the US company NuScale Power has a system that can link up to 12 mini reactors and each unit is less than 30 metres tall. NuScale submitted plans for regulatory approval for its design to the US nuclear regulatory commission on the last day of 2016.

Nuclear is in a sense already playing its part in African development. The IAEA runs a programme that uses ionising radiation to sterilise male tsetse flies. These are released and mate with females, who produce no offspring. Tsetse flies carry diseases that kill up to 3 million cattle a year, and infect thousands of humans with the dreaded sleeping sickness, says the IAEA.

In Senegal where the programme is being carried out authorities are reporting up to 95 per cent of the flies have vanished from affected areas.

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Updated: February 26, 2017 04:00 AM

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