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Electricity pylons carry power from Cape Town's Koeberg nuclear power plant on August 13, 2015 [File: Reuters/Mike Hutchings]

Can nuclear energy play a role in Africa’s climate transition?

I was following activist messaging and protests around the COP26 proceedings rather closely, with a particular focus on whether African interests are being fairly represented in discourse.

As a nuclear policy analyst, I found COP26 remarkably interesting in many ways. Thanks to the relentless activism of nuclear disarmament organisations, there is a growing appreciation of the interlinkages between nuclear war and climate change as dire existential threats that require immediate attention. Both threats are “man-made”, and if unmitigated, wield the potential to extinguish human existence on earth.

Neither of these existential threats can be averted in isolation. After all, what good would come of achieving net-zero greenhouse emissions, only for humanity to be plunged into another environmental catastrophe as a result of even a “limited” nuclear war?

While the activist messaging about nuclear weapons has been quite straightforward – nuclear weapons must go – wider issues of nuclear technologies and their implications for climate change have elicited more complex and nuanced conversation: one where the simple and straightforward arguments are much more difficult to identify – let alone convert to political ammunition for activist purposes.

Out of this conversation, three distinct strands of nuclear activism have emerged, peddled by different organisations and groupings.

First, there are those who wholeheartedly support the intense deployment of nuclear power plants, positing that COP26 climate objectives are unachievable without the inclusion of nuclear power in the energy mix. The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are some of the more credible voices that have taken this stance. The director general of the IAEA, Rafael Grossi, has even gone as far as explicitly stating: “Nuclear energy is part of the solution to global warming, there’s no way around it.”

Unsurprisingly, nuclear energy lobbyists have been very quick to latch on to this viewpoint, as a way of securing their organisational interests and market share. All in all, there is hardly any discussion of nuclear weapons, or associated proliferation risks of such a massive nuclear rollout.

A second camp features organisations that explicitly reject the idea of nuclear power as a viable decarbonisation solution. Greenpeace, for example, criticised French President Emmanuel Macron’s announcement to build new nuclear reactors as a way of meeting its carbon emission targets and keeping energy prices “under control”, arguing that the plan was “disconnected from reality”, and that “we don’t need nuclear power to tackle climate change”.

Some nuclear disarmament organisations, in support of this strand of activism, have sought to leverage their broad base of support for nuclear weapons abolition, to push against nuclear energy. For example, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has issued a petition, calling on the UK government to end all nuclear energy production immediately.

In addition to raising concerns about nuclear explosions and fallout, haphazard radioactive waste dumping, environmental contamination and uranium mining, this strand of activism also raises valid concerns about the entanglement of civilian nuclear projects with military applications, and the utilisation of the civil energy infrastructure to conceal the true costs of nuclear weapons programmes.

Given the increasing synergy between nuclear and climate activism, it is becoming more evident that the discursive space for more nuanced positions is rapidly vanishing. It is becoming too easy to overlook the silence of a third camp, which has always supported nuclear disarmament and is not wholly against nuclear energy production. Unsurprisingly, many in this camp are African.

In discussions concerning pathways to achieving net-zero and global-zero greenhouse emissions, we must not overlook the developmental interests of the African continent. After all, African nations are responsible for less than 4 percent of global carbon emissions, and yet, the continent is particularly vulnerable to the expected impacts of global warming. Additionally, about half of Africa’s rapidly growing population remains without access to reliable, affordable electricity – a situation that has been termed “energy poverty”.

Any sustainable pathway forward has to consider the growing energy demand on the continent. The fact that Africa is home to rapidly expanding populations and economies, and laden with the infrastructural development burdens needed to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change, means that we should be striving for a high-energy future for Africa while simultaneously curbing carbon emissions.

This requires the rapid development of electricity grids, and the exploitation of renewable and low-carbon energy sources at scale, and not just to quell Africa’s domestic and industrial energy demand today. According to research conducted by the Third Way, in partnership with Energy for Growth, it is estimated that Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Kenya and Rwanda will have increased energy demands of 804 percent, 939 percent, 3368 percent, 1684 percent, and 4866 percent respectively.

These projections are likely to increase if one factors in additional infrastructural development requirements to mitigate the impacts of global warming. In this projection, South Africa is the only country in Africa expected to see a reduction in its energy demand, at -27 percent.

Keeping in mind the complex and dynamic issues I have raised so far, I will borrow Kenyan activist and scientist Rose Mutiso’s words to serve as a reminder to our policymakers and activists: “… make no mistake: the world cannot expect Africa to remain in energy poverty because of climate change.”

In our musings and deliberations about how to secure a sustainable and green future, we cannot afford to impose simplistic solutions to Africa’s developmental interests. We need to move beyond the absolutist framings of nuclear energy’s role in our future energy mix, and we need to take a considered and informed look at the role nuclear energy could play in Africa.

Moving beyond absolutist discourse will require greater sensitivity to the expressed and implied wishes of the many African countries which have been supportive of multilateral disarmament diplomacy so far. For some context, take Ghana for example. Ghana has long been a supporter of nuclear disarmament, and played a pivotal role in the organisation of protests against French nuclear weapons tests in the Western Sahara in the 1960s. Ghana also signed the Nuclear Ban Treaty, although it is yet to ratify it.

The country’s activism in nuclear disarmament has also been coupled with strides towards infrastructural development and readiness programmes for nuclear energy by 2030. There is also a vibrant community of young professionals that propose nuclear energy as a viable solution to its energy poverty.

Nigeria is another example of a country that does not view nuclear disarmament and nuclear energy as mutually exclusive. It is both a state party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and the Nuclear Ban Treaty.

In a statement issued by the Executive Secretary of the African Commission on Nuclear Energy, to the IAEA’s 65th general conference, it was noted that “more than 12 African countries are considering the inclusion of nuclear power to their energy mix strategy”. A 2020 Wilton Park survey found that there was broad agreement among African policymakers, diplomats and scholars, behind the recommendation that the next NPT review conference be leveraged to create awareness about Africa’s continuing interests in peaceful uses of nuclear energy and nuclear technologies.

Yet, aside from South America, Africa is home to the largest number of signatories to the nuclear ban treaty and has played a significant leadership role in nuclear disarmament. Africa is also a nuclear weapons-free zone, as indicated in the Treaty of Pelindaba. The point I am making here is that nuclear disarmament advocacy is a broad collective of diverse interests, and the crude stigmatisation of all things nuclear energy might be seen as another paternalistic dismissal and erasure of African interests.

Pro-nuclear disarmament and pro-nuclear energy are not mutually exclusive ideas. In fact, it has been a long established view which has in many ways driven African nations’ support for nuclear disarmament for at least four decades.

For nuclear energy advocates, lobbyists and supportive governments, I think the time has come for more honest messaging and analyses about the true costs (financial, environmental and human) of nuclear energy.

Africa is home to vast and untapped natural resources, with significant renewable energy potential. At a first glance, given the required speed of deployment of solutions to mitigate Africa’s energy poverty, I think it is prudent to propose that African nations prioritise and utilise its readily available renewable energy potential. Nuclear energy should be seen as a solution of last resort.

Existing nuclear reactor designs are particularly vulnerable to project and cost overruns, in addition to proliferation concerns which are amplified given Africa’s current security landscape. Pending the development and deployment of viable and cost-effective small modular reactors (SMRs), I fear that existing nuclear reactor designs might perhaps be much more attractive to leaders and politicians who value “white elephant projects”, and see nuclear energy as a particularly attractive option and cash cow in this light.

There also has to be clarity about the potential for radioactive contamination, at the uranium extraction and processing phases of operation, but also with regards to nuclear waste management. For the former, the protection of humans and environments around extraction sites, presents a governance problem that cannot be wished away.

If dangerous uranium extraction practices at sites in Niger, Gabon and Madagascar are potentially replicable, then I believe that nuclear industry is best kept away from the continent. There are no shortcuts for due diligence and good governance. For the latter, there exists a need to develop and standardise sustainable means of radiological waste management, before any conversation about nuclear reactor deployment can be seriously considered.

Recently discovered techniques of deep geological repositories, such as those utilised by the Onkalo spent fuel repository in Finland might be a viable candidate in this regard.

In summary, there is a plethora of pertinent questions and concerns surrounding the implementation of nuclear energy projects in Africa, and some of these problems can be overcome with technological innovation. However, many of the most pressing concerns are political problems which can only be mitigated by stronger, more transparent, more inclusive and more accountable governance frameworks. And these concerns must be comprehensively addressed beforehand.

While Africa should not be expected to sacrifice its prospects for future economic development because of climate change, the continent should also not be hastily turned into a dumping ground for experimental or problematic nuclear technologies and techniques. – Aljazeera

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