In Quotes: Lassina Zerbo on nuclear energy and Africa

11 July 2023

In an interview for the World Nuclear News podcast Lassina Zerbo, the former head of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization and current chairman of the Rwanda Atomic Energy Board, set out his views on the prospects for nuclear energy in Africa in the years ahead.

(Image: CTBTO)

Here is an edited transcript of parts of the World Nuclear News podcast, which you can also listen to via the embedded player below or on any podcast players.

The importance of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization 

I would say, as an organisation, it's one of the pillar of the Non Proliferation Treaty. We can talk about peaceful use of nuclear energy but it has always been that frontier, between the peaceful use ... and the work is important because it does stop countries from conducting nuclear test explosions in the search to develop nuclear weapons and as such, it does keep the framework of the peaceful use of nuclear energy together with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and other organisations dealing with the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.


What would you see as the main benefits new nuclear energy could bring to Africa?

I would say industrial development. Energy is very scarce in Africa, we have a shortage of energy. South Africa is the only country to have an operating nuclear power plant and Egypt is following soon. Industrial development goes with energy and when energy is expensive like in my country, Burkina Faso, where electricity is one of the most expensive in the world, industrial development will be difficult to achieve. So the key is to have the energy to help developing countries to have access to industrial development - and then industrial development will help with the economy and also the day-to-day improvement of our population's life.

What needs to change for more peaceful nuclear energy to be in place across countries in Africa?

I think the main thing that needs to be changed in Africa and the developing world is mentality, and making clear to people the difference between atomic bombs and nuclear energy, the peaceful use of nuclear energy. There is also the institutional framework that was set for the African Development Bank, World Bank and some other institutions where it was clearly said that they shouldn't get involved in nuclear. But nuclear issues at that time, post World War Two, was mainly about nuclear weapons, not the peaceful use of nuclear energy. I think that's something that we still have to work on to change the mentality so that people see the benefit of nuclear energy.

Is this reflected in public opinion?

I think things are changing with education, capacity building and the effort of some developing countries to get students to be more and more involved in nuclear science and technology. I think communication and social media is helping ... innovation, science and technology has brought nuclear energy and nuclear issues to be close to the safety that was the main issue in the beginning. Innovation, science, technology and the improvement in safety and security - I think those are issues that we really have to to take into account.

What difference will small modular reactors make?

We shouldn't forget that the issue of small modular reactors started very long ago, but political issues sometimes, or often, put some technological innovation to bed because people have difficulty accepting or understanding that nuclear energy should be seen as a green energy, or that nuclear energy in terms of how things have evolved is a lot less risky. Those are the issues that have been an impediment to the development of the peaceful use of nuclear energy and small modular reactors, with the safety and security aspect that they are bringing today, will be a game changer.

What about non-electricity applications?

Non-electricity applications, such as the IAEA's Rays of Hope under the leadership of Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, includes medical aspects and other scientific issues and improving the shortage of water with desalinisation. There is also the integration of hydrogen production and I'm sure in the years to come we'll see more innovation and scientific development to help change minds, and then get the peaceful use of nuclear energy rising to a point which we might have thought would be impossible.

What is the current position in Rwanda?

Under the leadership of President Kagame, there is the vision for a small country like Rwanda to make sure energy is accessible and affordable to all, and I'm working on that, not just for energy but also nuclear science and technology centre - capacity building and capacity development is key, with safety and security integrated into what we do on a daily basis and also a regional framework. I see Rwanda as a pilot country in many respects, we can see how we can cooperate with others and spread that across the continent. I am on the Nano board and we are working on a feasibility study - there are 100 acres given by the government for nuclear science and technology. In Rwanda we have engaged in training people, to build an education and training centre and make it accessible to students and people regionally and our aim is to have a ministerial round table discussion where we bring those in Africa who are interested in this field to talk, to work together to combine efforts in order to go as quickly and as best as possible to achieve the peaceful use of nuclear energy in the continent.

What is the message to international organisations and the international industry?

There is a big competition in term of innovation, science and technology, especially with the small modular reactors. We just have to get going. We just have to work on capacity building and capacity development and then countries will have to make the choice about what's the best and most cost-effective way to approach the individual issue as a country or as a region - I think nuclear energy is too big to be a single country focus, I think it has to be more a regional issue and I would encourage regional institutions to get involved in that process so that when you talk about establishing a nuclear power plant, be it a traditional one or a small modular reactor, that it goes not on a country-to-country basis because I don't think each African country will have its nuclear power plant, but I think it will work on a sub-regional or regional basis.

Africa is a major producer of uranium, what further potential do you see?

Many people are asking themselves why a country like Niger would be a big producer of uranium and yet doesn't even have a nuclear power plant ... it is becoming a topic of discussion among the youth and, you know, Africa is a young continent. This is a topic where they want to be involved, they want first to understand, and then they want to see why our leaders haven't thought of it long ago ... to make the use of our resources, especially uranium, to focus on how Africa can use it for its own benefit while thinking about cooperating with the rest of the world in terms of supplying uranium ... or bringing the technology to be local and using what we have to produce electricity for the benefit of our population.

How to explain the relative lack of nuclear power plants in Africa, historically?

I would say it was because of international attitudes to the proliferation risk, but things have changed and we have standards today, we have the International Atomic Energy Agency and many other institutions working on standards and in the institutional framework. Security and safety have evolved and technology has changed and the mentality will have to change. The international community will have to change accordingly and then let the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and the development of nuclear power plants and the small modular reactor be more democratic, if I can use this word, than it has been in the past. My dream is to see energy everywhere and energy for all in Africa in the developing world.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News