Africa looks to Russia for nuclear technology

Kenya’s ambassador to Moscow Hillary Kyengo sign documents with Rosatom deputy director general Nokolay Spassky on the use of nuclear energy. PHOTO | MIKE OWUOR 

From the simplicity of its first facility, Russia’s nuclear technology has since the 1940s developed to become among the most elaborate in the world.

Last year, the country celebrated the 70th anniversary of its nuclear industry, a feat that has caught the attention of Africa.

Thus, at the recent AtomExpo 2016 in Moscow, several countries signed agreements with Rosatom, the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation.

Nigeria, Kenya and Zambia signed separate deals with Rosatom while Namibia, Egypt and Ghana reaffirmed they would continue with their agreements.

Even though there are research reactors in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Libya and Nigeria, South Africa is the only African country that generates nuclear power into its national grid.

The country, whose two Koeberg plants produce five per cent of its electricity needs, has plans to boost its capacity by a further 9,600MW despite environmental and cost concerns.

A factsheet on the World Bank’s website notes that “Africa’s largest infrastructure deficit is to be found in the power sector” be it in terms of capacity, supply or consumption.

“The 48 countries of sub-Saharan Africa (with a combined population of 800 million) generate roughly the same amount of power as Spain (with a population of 45 million),” the factsheet notes.

Prof Vladimir Artisyuk, a director at the Rosatom Central Institute for Continuing Education, told The EastAfrican “Russia would be nowhere without nuclear technology.”

Prof Artisyuk explained that by seeking to use the technology for peaceful purposes, it would “obviously stimulate the economies of African countries and dramatically increase the technological knowledge base that will benefit other sectors.”

Dr Kelvin Kemm, chairman of the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation said that despite the “vigorous debate,” there was no doubt nuclear power would remain a key component of his country’s energy mix.

At a session on the “Future of Nuclear Power Engineering: The New Players,” African countries cited the huge cost of building the plants, safety concerns and the management of waste as the key issues they wanted addressed first. Security of the plants was also a concern, especially with the increasing terrorist threat.

International Atomic Energy Agency deputy director Mikhail Chudakov said the organisation was working closely with developing countries to put the proper infrastructure in place.

“More developing countries want to add nuclear power to their energy mix. But this should be based on their individual needs and safety considerations,” said Mr Chudakov.

Kenya Nuclear Energy Board acting chief executive Collins Juma told The EastAfrican that a memorandum of understanding signed with Russia on the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes was a big step in a long process.

“I would not say we have reached a point where we have settled on the technology but when we do, safety will be the top priority whether we are talking of Russian, American, Chinese or French technology,” said Mr Juma.

Kenya has over the years indicated the need to diversify its energy sources from hydropower — whose capacity is strained by growing demand and unpredictable weather.

Since 2013, the aim has been to raise installed generating capacity from the current 2,000MW to 5,000MW with projections of 17,000MW in 2030. Nuclear is considered a viable option for achieving this but there have been steps towards boosting renewable sources such as geothermal, solar and wind.

Last year, Kenya Nuclear Energy Board signed an agreement with China that broadly covered training and technical support. The Chinese have been promoting their Hualong One technology and there was speculation Kenya would turn East for the building of its first nuclear reactor. There are also co-operation agreements with Slovakia and South Korea, which are limited to training of students.

China has been making inroads in the region with the most recent being the signing of an MoU with the Sudan Electricity Ministry last month to build nuclear reactors. But Russia, through Rosatom, is banking on its long experience in the technology.

In East Africa, Rosatom already has operations in Tanzania’s uranium mines. The mineral, in its various forms, is used to fuel nuclear reactors. While the Russian corporation has its regional centre in Johannesburg, it appears to be on an expansion drive.