Viewpoint: Sub-Saharan Africa and nuclear energy

23 April 2018

The following is an abridged version of the Atoms for Africa report published last week by the Center for Global Development and co-authored by Abigail Sah, Jessica Lovering, Omaro Maseli and Aishwarya Saxena.  

In the face of increasing concern about human-caused climate change, there is an urgent need for a global transition to clean energy. Yet in many parts of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa, there is also a need for significant increases in energy consumption to improve human development. One pathway to meet these twin challenges of alleviating energy poverty and minimising greenhouse gas emissions is nuclear energy.

Despite being home to a diverse range of energy resources - from oil and gas in the west to strong hydro-potential in more central regions - Africa still lays claim to severely underdeveloped power sectors in most of its sub-Saharan countries. Instead, the region faces a power infrastructural deficit requiring upwards of USD90 billion annually to resolve.

Taken together, the 48 countries that make up sub-Saharan Africa generate approximately the same amount of power as Spain, despite having a population that is 18 times larger. As of 2012, the sub-Saharan 48 had a mere 83 GWe of total grid-connected generation capacity, with South Africa alone accounting for more than half of that.

Access to electricity

The International Energy Agency's Africa Energy Outlook - a Special Report in the 2014 World Energy Outlook series - indicates that some 625 million people in Africa do not have access to electricity, while another estimated 730 million Africans on the continent use dirty and potentially hazardous fuels to cook. Furthermore, average per capita residential electricity consumption was placed at 317 kWh per year. Yet despite these meagre numbers, between 1990 and 2013 only USD45.6 billion was invested in the power sector - that is, half of what is required annually. Sub-Saharan Africa has therefore found itself in a situation where its rapidly growing population, expected to reach 2.8 billion by 2060, urgently requires innovative energy solutions capable of guaranteeing a sustained growth in energy supply.

Historically, many emerging economies have turned to nuclear power to meet energy deficits, and there is immense potential for nuclear to provide a clean baseload source of energy to meet Africa's large energy deficit while also minimising carbon emissions. Fossil fuel power plants like oil, coal, and gas not only pollute but must have a constant delivery of fuel, which can be a challenge where transportation and pipeline infrastructure is underdeveloped.

There is the argument that, since nuclear power plants (NPPs) have fewer siting constraints due to the small size and extremely dense fuel, they could be located closer to load centres to avoid the transmission costs, which could be high in African countries where there are larger distances between significant population centres. Additionally, nuclear technology could be used for other non-power uses on the continent such as desalination and industrial process heat.


Despite the potential of and interest in nuclear power in sub-Saharan Africa, there remain significant challenges to adopting the technology on the continent. For one, current NPPs on the market, at a power rating of 1000 MWe or more, exceed the capacity that many African countries can support. (There is a rule of thumb that no power plant in a country should have a capacity that exceeds 10% of that country’s total grid capacity.)

High capital costs, low human capital, weak institutional quality, long times required to develop robust legal and regulatory frameworks, and proliferation concerns of nuclear fuel also serve as barriers to the adoption of nuclear technology on the continent. For these reasons, only South Africa has an operating nuclear power plant, with 1800 MWe of capacity made up of two units of pressurised water reactors. South Africa plans to expand its nuclear capacity by 9600 MWe and aims to increase the share of the country’s electricity from nuclear from 5% to 25% by 2025.

The challenges are considerable, but there is reason for optimism. Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) and advanced nuclear technologies could improve the feasibility of developing commercial nuclear power in African countries. Through smaller reactor sizes, passive safety, and simplified design, these new nuclear technologies could be easier to finance, construct, and operate.

A decade away

We find that there is significant interest in and steady progress towards commercial nuclear power in sub-Saharan African countries. Yet most countries are still a decade away at least from breaking ground on their first project. Advanced nuclear designs have the potential to mitigate some of the challenges of deployment in this region, but they are also about a decade away from first commercial demonstration. Perhaps a confluence of these two events will allow African countries to leapfrog over the large-scale, traditional light-water nuclear technologies to nuclear technology that is smaller, modular, more flexible, and overall more appropriate.

Development organisations that focus on energy issues should stay informed about the progress these countries are making on nuclear and should consider the technology in their ongoing discussions around options for increased energy access.

Even compared with other newcomer nuclear countries, it is clear that no sub-Saharan African country is ready to build its first commercial nuclear power plant in the next five years. Even in South Africa, which already has commercial nuclear power, plans to build an additional 9.6 GWe of nuclear have stalled over questions of financing. Nonetheless, we need to recognise that there is great interest and demand for nuclear across the African continent, and nuclear vendors are keenly aware of this.


Competition among the major vendors - Russia, China, and South Korea - may also accelerate deployment by lowering costs and providing more services within the scope of the project. Dozens of Nuclear Cooperation Agreements and Memoranda of Understanding have been signed with these countries, ranging from research and development and human resources development to full reactor projects. Such agreements will only continue to expand and grow in value.

Critically, we must consider how technological advances in nuclear power may change what is feasible in Africa. New reactor designs that are smaller, simpler, and safer may accelerate the deployment of commercial nuclear in these sub-Saharan countries. And new business models such as Build-Own-Operate, offshore nuclear, or vendor-financed projects, may help leapfrog limited state capabilities.

SMRs could lower the barrier for grid capabilities, allowing smaller countries access to nuclear. And the Build-Own-Operate model popularised by Rosatom could help countries overcome the financial, human capital, and regulatory obstacles of their first plants. Still, nothing can circumvent the need for a robust safety and security regulator, nor the transparency and safeguards set in place by the International Atomic Energy Agency.


In the short term, we expect to see more progress on regulatory and infrastructure milestones. Countries will likely sign many more MOUs and NCAs with major reactor vendor countries such as Russia, China, and South Korea. In the longer term, we expect one to five countries in Africa to begin commercial nuclear programs, most with the help of a foreign reactor vendor.

Given the key role that energy plays in advancing human development, what role does the development community play in the nuclear space? We have seen that the major development banks have prohibited investments and often even conversation around nuclear power. But as they also phase out investment in fossil fuels, and as concern around climate change grows, they should consider relaxing these restrictions.

More importantly, nuclear development in sub-Saharan countries is currently dominated by foreign companies, which may not always have the interests of the host country as a priority, although their investment role is critical. Therefore, the development community is greatly needed in facilitating these challenging conversations around transparency, equity, good governance and human capital. There is more work to be done in convening workshops across these countries to standardise norms and best practices around emerging nuclear technologies.

Finally, there is a critical need for independent voices to educate and engage with potential host communities around the benefits and risks of nuclear power, such that host communities know their rights and are empowered to negotiate fair contracts for potential nuclear power facilities in their backyard.

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The Center for Global Development is a US non-profit think tank based in Washington, D.C. that focuses on international development.