Nuclear Power as a Transformative Force in Africa

Estrada Bernard III
May 13, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: Koeberg Nuclear Power Station. Wikimedia Commons)

In 2016, three African nations, Niger, Namibia, and South Africa, produced around 8,000 tons of uranium. This amount outstripped that produced by the worlds third largest exporter of uranium, Australia, by over 1,000 tons. [1] Despite this abundance of raw material, the development of nuclear power generation in Africa has lagged far beyond the rest of the world. At present, there are only two nuclear power plants on the entire continent, both located in South Africa. [2] Although safety concerns and negative public opinions have led to a lessening in the utilization of nuclear power in much of the developed world, recent developments in reactor technology have rendered it much safer than it was in the past. As Africa's population explodes in size, nuclear power may present an attractive option for coping with the continents growing energy needs.

The Past

Previous uses of nuclear technology on the African continent were designed to create offensive weapons. South Africa began its nuclear program in 1969, and strived to use its vast uranium resources to create atomic weapons. While this program was shrouded in secrecy, it was eventually discovered, and international pressure forced its dismantling. [3] Libya, in a similar vein, initiated a program to develop nuclear weapons, but abandoned it in 2003 after negotiations with the world community. [4] The remnants of nuclear technology remained in South Africa, which utilized its accumulated nuclear knowledge to open two nuclear reactors in Koeberg (Fig 1). However, these reactors generate only around five percent of the country's energy needs, and efforts to develop reactors in other African nations have, until very recently, been unsuccessful. [5,6]

Present Uses of Nuclear Energy in Africa

As Africa undergoes a wave of modernization and foreign investment, nuclear energy is being heralded as the wave of the future. In October of 2017, Rosatom, a Russian state-owned company, signed a $20 billion deal to construct a nuclear power plant in Nigeria. [7] In South Africa, plans to expand nuclear power generation were approved in December of 2017. [5] However, the expansion of nuclear power in Africa has not been without controversy. South African President Jacob Zuma faced significant opposition to his proposal to expand nuclear power generation in the country, both from those concerned about the environment and from those concerned about the high costs related to construction of nuclear plants. [8] While nuclear power presents a significant opportunity for Africa, its high start up costs must not be ignored. Compared to fossil fuels, nuclear plants require significantly more complicated infrastructure, and as a result, have much higher start up costs. [9] While these plants are often a cheaper method of energy generation in the long run, a lack of startup capital and the access to cheap fossil fuels may make nuclear energy a less attractive option to many nations around Africa.

Nuclear Energy's Future on the African Continent

As Africa's population is set to explode in number, the need for energy will become even greater. At present, approximately 600 million people on the continent live without access to electricity. [10] The continent is expected to see population growth of almost 1 billion people by 2050, which will only further exacerbate the continent's need for cheap, widespread electricity. [1] Furthermore, African nations are highly dependent on fossil fuels to generate electricity, which are both finite and increasingly under fire as climate change proliferates. If challenges relating to public perception, security, and environmental concerns can be overcome, then nuclear power may allow Africa to rapidly modernize.

© Estrada Bernard III. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "Uranium 2016: Resources, Production and Demand," Nuclear Energy Agency, NEA No. 7301, 2016.

[2] D. Hinshaw "Africa Rising: Nigeria Plans to Build Nuclear Power Plants ," Christian Science Monitor, 20 Sep 11.

[3] U. Friedman, "Why One President Gave Up His Country's Nukes," The Atlantic, 9 Sep 17.

[4] R. Sanati "A Troubling Lesson from Libya: Don't Give up Nukes," Christian Science Monitor, 30 Aug 11.

[5] A. Winning, "South Africa to Scale Down Nuclear Expansion Plan: Energy Minister," Reuters, 7 Dec 17.

[6] B. Knox, "South Africa Nuclear," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2017.

[7] "Russia to Build Nuclear Power Plants in Nigeria," BBC News, 31 Oct 17.

[8] "South Africa to Proceed with Nuclear Power Expansion Energy Minister," Reuters, 7 Dec 17.

[9] I. Schultz, "Basic Economics of Nuclear Power," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2012.

[10] T. Lindeman, "1.3 Billion Are Living in the Dark," Washington Post, 10 Nov 15.

[11] "World Population Prospects," United Nations, Working Paper ESA/P/WP/248, 2017.