Government ministers and officials from several countries in Africa discussed the potential of nuclear power in supporting sustainable development and the transition to clean and reliable energy as the IAEA released a new publication on climate change and nuclear power at a side event during the 66th IAEA General Conference today.
The event, 'Supporting the Energy Transition in Africa,' showcased the 2022 edition of Climate Change and Nuclear Power, which is updated every two years and provides a wealth of technical information and data about the benefits of nuclear power in contributing to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This year's publication features a chapter on nuclear power in Africa, about which IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi held a wide-ranging discussion with representatives from Egypt, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa at the event today. "Everywhere I am hearing this global conversation about energy security, climate change and nuclear power, and whether by virtue of changes in circumstance, climate or security needs, it is quite clear that nuclear now has a place at the table," Mr Grossi said. "What I like about this discussion, is that there is no discussion without Africa. The Africans have said themselves [...] 'we need to contribute, and we need our own specific analysis of how this nuclear jewel is going to be used for African economies.'"
According to the new publication, about 600 million people and 10 million small businesses in Africa have no reliable source of electricity, and increasingly, connection to a national grid is no guarantee of electricity supply. Blackouts are becoming more frequent, and in sub-Saharan Africa, the World Bank reports that almost 80 per cent of businesses suffer from power outages, greatly curtailing their activities. Meanwhile, Africa's energy demand is increasing twice as fast as the global average, largely driven by urban population growth.
Against this backdrop, several countries in Africa are exploring the possibility of adding nuclear power to their energy mix, with Egypt recently starting construction on its first nuclear power plant. South Africa, the only nuclear operator on the continent with two reactors totalling almost 2000 MWe, is considering long term operation of the Koeberg nuclear power station and expanding its nuclear power programme.
Egypt, the host of the next UN climate summit, or COP27, in November, recently broke ground on the first of four 1200 MWe reactors it plans to build at El-Dabaa on the Mediterranean coast. "Egypt opted for nuclear power because it provides a steady source of energy that lasts for decades," said Mohamed H. El Molla, Egypt's Resident Representative to the IAEA.
Through its Milestones Approach, the IAEA supports around 30 so-called nuclear newcomer countries in Africa and around the world in their efforts to develop the necessary infrastructure for a safe, secure and sustainable nuclear power programme. Ghana has been working with the Agency for several years, including an IAEA-led Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review (INIR) mission in 2017.
"Ghana is looking to introduce nuclear power to provide the necessary diversity of baseload to ensure energy security for our future demands," said Kwaku Afriyie, Ghana's Minister of Environment, Science, Technology, and Innovation. "Our hydropower potential is almost exhausted, and so our interest in nuclear is to make sure we have energy for our transition and development." While 40 per cent of Ghana's power comes from hydropower, it accounts for 17 per cent of all electricity generation in Africa and rising, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). In countries such as Uganda, Zambia and Malawi, the share of hydropower generation exceeds 80 per cent.
Hydropower is low carbon and goes a long way to meeting net zero commitments, but as climate patterns are changing, so too is the availability and reliability of water supply. And Africa is particularly vulnerable to these changes. The IEA predicts that in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Morocco, Zambia and Zimbabwe, climate change will cause a considerable decline in hydropower capacity by the end of the century. Many other nations will suffer from unpredictable fluctuations in their hydro supply.
If electricity demand keeps growing and climate change causes a lower output of hydropower, countries will be able to secure baseload electricity only through fossil fuel sources or nuclear power. But according to the World Bank, the public finances of developing African countries have worsened amid the COVID pandemic, leaving many unable to fund large infrastructure projects themselves.
"That means international financing will be vital," said Henri Paillere, Head of the IAEA's Planning and Economic Studies Section, which produces the biannual publication. "Establishing special economic zones with tailored economic regulations built around local, reliable infrastructure would be one way to attract foreign investment. Such zones could then serve as clean energy hubs that would benefit surrounding communities and act as a catalyst for energy transitions on a national scale."
New technology like small modular reactors (SMRs), with lower upfront costs and easier financing than traditional reactors, may provide one option and be a better fit for the small electricity grids found in many African countries, participants heard.
As countries in Africa consider or embark on nuclear power, Mr Grossi stressed they would have the Agency's full support. "The IAEA will be with you every step of the way," he said.