Julius Kaliisa is completing an MSc in African Studies at Linacre. A former junior researcher and policy analyst at Rwanda’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Julius is interested in the intersection of climate change and nuclear energy policies in Africa. In this article he explores ‘Africa’s Nuclear Energy Transition and Its Role in Climate Change Mitigation.’

According to the International Energy Agency (IAEA) and African Development Bank, over 700 million people globally don’t have access to reliable, abundant, and affordable electricity, most of whom are Africa’s population. Given Africa’s progressive population growth, SME development, industrialisation aspirations, and pursuit of clean energy, the number of people without access to electricity in Africa is even expected to increase by 2050. Looking at the installed energy capacity in countries such as Rwanda, with approximately  ‘225’ (MW) and Ghana, with about5,300’ (MW), which envision a middle-income status by 2030, the load-shedding challenge is imminent and pauses the main barrier to their envisioned economic growth aspirations.

Alternatively, the World Resources Institute studies show that the annual global carbon GHG emissions have surpassed 50GT, and a large proportion of the emissions come from the energy industry. It is even worse for African countries relying on fossil fuels to meet their energy demands and financially depend on the Global North for a clean energy transition. To substitute fossil fuel with clean energy, several African countries’ primary potential alternative energy sources are hydropower, solar and nuclear energy, inter alia. However, given the ever-increasing energy demand, hydropower and solar energy sources cannot bridge Africa’s energy crisis because they have limited generation capacity and are also affected by climate change. For instance, the generation capacity of hydropower sources in Ghana has so far declined from contributing 80% to less than 40% of Ghana’s energy mix. In addition, over 65% of Ghana’s hydropower generation capacity has already been exploited, including Akosombo and Bui Dam. For Ghana, dependence on hydropower has resulted in several power crises, including the 1981—1983 power crisis caused by drought that severely hit  Ghana in the early 1980s.  

As this suggests, nuclear energy is the only viable, affordable, climate-friendly and abundant enough to bridge Africa’s energy poverty at the least carbon emission cost. In addition, in this regard, the nuclear proliferation theory that is often applied while studying Africa’s nuclear energy transition should be read against the grain to include the Africanist perspective. In fact, historically Africa has been a critical player in the evolution of nuclear power technology. The Uranium (U-235) used in the Manhattan Project to create atomic bombs—‘Little Boy’ dropped on Hiroshima and ‘Fat Man’ dropped on Nagasaki during WW11 was extracted from the limitedly studied Shinkolobwe mine in DRC. Yet up to today little is known about Shinkolobwe because historically the USA, didn’t want Soviet Russia to learn about it. Also, African countries such as Ghana’s pursuit of nuclear power dates to the early post-independence period when Nkrumah denounced nuclear imperialism, viewed Africa’s nuclear ambition as unifying for new African states, denounced French Nuclear Bomb tests in the Sahara, and argued for allowing African access nuclear power for peaceful civil use. Ergo, this demonstrates that Africa’s pursuit of nuclear power is not new and is for good intentions, including facilitating economic growth and bridging the energy crisis. This does not disregard raised concerns around nuclear power technology development such as environmental concerns, proliferation, and high upfront costs, but instead calls for a rigorous further study on the feasibility of Africa’s nuclear energy transition.

Meanwhile, pursuing nuclear power development with mainly Russia’s and China’s support is not new regarding nuclear power cooperation concerns. Russia is not only one of the leading state vendors in Africa’s nuclear energy market but also in several Asia and Eastern Europe nuclear energy markets. In Africa, Russia’s ROSATOM has already signed over sixteen intergovernmental nuclear cooperation agreements with African countries like Egypt and Ethiopia. Once completed, Egypt’s El Daaba NPP, currently under construction, will be the leading example of a Russia-supported nuclear power project on the African continent. The El-Daaba nuclear power plant is expected to generate around 4800 MW—almost equivalent to Ghana’s current installed generation capacity.

Therefore, several other African countries are likely to follow with the success of the Egypt-Russia Nuclear Cooperation project. In this regard, it is imperative to emphasise that Africa-Russia Nuclear Cooperation is not new as Eurocentric scholars tend to interpret it, but instead, dates to the postcolonial period. Pan-African Kwame Nkrumah envisioned nuclear power as a foundation for  Africa’s unity and intellectual independence in science and research. Moreover, it is correct to argue that Russia inherits a comparative advantage in the nuclear energy market over the alternative state vendors such as the USA, Canada, France and South Korea. Regarding drivers of Africa’s nuclear power transition, is that besides energy applications, nuclear technological development will be used in health sectors—for radiation therapy; in agriculture—genetic modification and pest control; and water desalination vital for the people with no access to clean water.

Based on the above-explored nuclear upsides that have often been undermined due to studying Africa’s nuclear energy transition from an Afro-pessimist viewpoint, my current research at Oxford intends to explore both nuclear downsides and upsides objectively and nuancedly.  Then establish a SWOT analysis of Africa’s nuclear power transition and the feasibility of adding nuclear to Africa’s energy mix. Indeed, challenges gyrating around adopting atomic energy in Africa, such as upfront costs, variant weather conditions, political volatility, foreign relations, and management concerns, are worth further research. Finally, African member states interested in nuclear power transition should embody unity through African regional arrangements and engagements with relevant continental bodies such as the Africa Commission on Nuclear Energy to enhance financial independence and Africa’s bargaining power in the international arena. As well as openly collaborate with international bodies such as the UN-IAEA to ensure international standards are met.  On the other hand, nuclear newcomers like Rwanda, have much to learn from Ghana’s nuclear energy transition, given its long-term experiences in nuclear energy technological transition and development.