The last Nations, in chronological order, to proclaim their nuclear ambitions have been Sudan and Egypt. Almost at the same time, in August 2010, the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, and the general director of the Sudanese Agency for Atomic Energy, Ahmed Hassan al Tayeb, publicly announced their own plans to build nuclear power stations to produce energy.
But Sudan and Egypt are only the most recent ones. Because the desire for nuclear power is infecting the whole of Africa-- the worst equipped continent from an energy standpoint, and the continent that today is looking at the nuclear plan as a very concrete possibility to be achieved in a relatively short time: ten or, at the longest, twenty years.
Right now, Africa has the lowest rate of per capita use of energy in the world and it represents only 3% of the global energy consumption. However, Africa is also the continent that grows most significantly by a demographic point of view and where large cities may accommodate tens of millions of people. Therefore, energy consumption is going to exponentially increase in a rather short slot of time. That is why there is a need to face, also from the point of view of energy production, these new and pressing trends of growth.
What is striking is that even the hydrocarbon producing Countries are considering going the nuclear route. Sudan is an example. Though it started to tap its own oil reserves only about ten years ago (August 1999), it is creating projects that are heading in that direction. Also Nigeria, the African oil "giant" - the main producer in the continent and the seventh in the world - showed some ambitions. The same is for Algeria, Tunisia, or Ghana, which started to tap its own off shore oil reserves just a few months ago.
To the list of aspiring nuclear energy producers are to be added Kenya, Morocco, Uganda, Senegal and Niger. This last one owns important uranium reserves which it is thinking of exploiting in its own territory as well, despite an unstable government and the ever-increasing presence of terrorist groups linked to al Qaeda. In doing so it would break the long and almost exclusive relationship with the former colonial power, France, the most "nuclearized" Country in the world. For almost 40 years, Paris has enjoyed the absolute monopoly on the Nigerian uranium, through what is nowadays called Areva (the former Cogema), the State agency which administers the impressive French nuclear apparatus and which controls, among other things, the exploitation of uranium in Gabon. However, Niger has also sold uranium to Pakistan and, it appears, to Libya for its armament program.
However, today it is above all China who is calling the French primacy into question. In fact, since 2007 the Chinese State agency Sino-U, which controls the uranium imports, has signed important contracts with the government of Niamey, in exchange for investment projects for the construction of a hydroelectric power station and a thermoelectric coal plant, in addition to oil pipelines and a refinery. "China - the ambassador Xia Huang stated - represents a much more appealing option than other foreign partners". He also added, with a clear reference to France: "Niger has exported uranium for forty years. And yet the revenues from these exports have the same turnover as the sale of onions!" In fact, Niger continues to be at the very end of the list of the poorest and least developed Countries in the world...
Africa owns about 18 % of the world's uranium but it does not have the appropriate technology nor the necessary know-how to develop nuclear energy. Therefore, Countries like France-- and more and more China-- but also Japan, Russia and South Korea, have proposed collaborative projects or offered to sell advanced technologies.
In the meantime there are those who have already started to concretely invest on the nuclear. Take, for example, South Africa, where, during the years of apartheid regime, a nuclear war program was even launched and the Country owned an arsenal of as many as seven nuclear warheads dismantled on the eve of the first democratic elections in 1994. The Country has nevertheless carried forward a civilian nuclear program and it owns an old power station in Koeberg, 30 kilometres north of Cape Town, built between 1976 and 1985 by Areva (the then Framatome), where waste is dumped as well.
Last October vice president Kgalema Motlanthe signed an agreement with South Korea for a collaborative project that provides technological equipment and personnel. But the nuclear development in South Africa appeals also to other Countries and companies, like Areva and US Westinghouse. However, at the moment, in addition to the South Koreans, it seems that China is the best positioned to enter into and to be part of this lucrative market. This is because, by now, it has stood out as the first commercial partner of South Africa. And in fact, last August, Standard Bank - one of the largest bank institutes in the Country, bought by the Commercial Bank of China for 5.5 billion dollars - signed some agreements with the China Guandong Nuclear Power Company.
Currently, South Africa produces only 4.84 percent of its own energy needs through the Koeberg plant. This is an old-generation power station, unable to meet the quickly increasing demands. Until now the Country has almost exclusively invested in coal, with which it still produces 93% of electric power. The goal is to have 14% of energy being produced by nuclear power within 20 years, tapping the important uranium deposits which South Africa owns, even if the enrichment ability stays very limited. Unfortunately, a third-generation nuclear power station costs about 5 billion Euros. A considerable investment for a government in trouble (also from a financial point of view) and that must request extensive foreign funding.
Other Countries may nevertheless quickly carry forward their nuclear programs. Egypt has already located a site, on the Mediterranean coast, next to the city of Al-Dabaa. The spokesman of the government, Souleimane Awad, confirmed the firm willingness to "develop a strategic program to insure adequate energy supplies", a willingness which was already expressed in 2007 by Mubarak, who was worried about the increase in the energy demand in a Country which, among other things, has great problems with water provisions,
The same determination comes from Sudan which would like to equip itself with an atomic reactor and its first nuclear plant in a decade. According to the chief executive of the Sudanese Agency for Atomic Energy, Ahmed Hassan al Tayeb, "the Electricity and Dams Minister has already started to make preparations for plans for power production from nuclear energy, in cooperation with Aiea and he predicts that the first plant will be built in 2020". Sudan currently produces up to 470,000 barrels of oil per day but it has to face new huge energy needs and this is the reason why it has built two dams on the White Nile and the Blue Nile (to the detriment of nearby Egypt).
On the opposite side of Africa, an oil producer as large as Nigeria seems to have signed an agreement with Iran in 2008 to receive nuclear technology and technical assistance, provoking discontent and concerns from Western Countries and the United States. But there are also suspicions about possible nuclear missile agreements with Pakistan and North Korea. What is sure is that China has already provided a research reactor in 1999 whose use is not clear. Much more recent are Senegal's nuclear ambitions. In an interview in March 2010, president Abdoullaye Wade clearly stated that "since we have uranium, I do not see why we should not use it to build a plant for electricity production". And he hinted at a possible partnership with Areva but he talked also about a Russian proposal of a plant in a quicker time.
In North Africa, Algeria showed, at least on paper, great strides toward plans for energy production. In view of the reduction of hydrocarbon reserves, forecasted in about 2030, the Algiers government has launched programs on multiple fronts: not only for nuclear but also for renewable energies. Algeria, which in the past was home to 17 nuclear experiments carried out by France between 1960 and 1966, already owns an experimental nuclear reactor provided by China and located in Ain Oussera. According to the government, it would be for scientific research and electric energy production to desalt sea water. Another reactor for research has been provided by Argentina and is located in Draria, 20 kilometres from Algiers. During the 1990s Western intelligences suspected that the structure - which was expanded and modernized - may have also produced materials to be used for military purposes. The Democratic Republic of Congo also owns a nuclear reactor; it was given in 1972 by the Americans to the former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. From this structure (still operating in Kinshasa) there disappeared several bars of uranium that ended up on the "black market". Some of them were mysteriously found back in Rome in 2001. And it was from this Country that the uranium used for the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki came. The uranium mine of Shinkolobwe is still exploited nowadays by thousands of abusive miners who sell this valuable and dangerous mineral in a not completely transparent market.
If it is true that Africa said "no" to nuclear weapons, it does not mean that the uranium extracted in this continent does not end up in military programs in other Countries. Most African Countries, in fact, acceded to the Pelindaba Treaty, ratified by 28 Countries and put into action in 2009. The Treaty binds those involved not to engage with programs of nuclear armaments and to abandon those that have already started. Some Countries, like the United States, China, Russia, France and Great Britain have also signed apposite protocols that prevent the possibility of carrying out nuclear tests on their continents.
The fact remains that the programs of civilian nuclear energy, in addition to the exorbitant costs, also forecast a whole series of consequences and counter-indications that many (and not only) African States would hardly manage to deal with: from standards of control of the uranium mines to the management of radioactive waste (also those Western Countries' waste transferred to Africa!). Not to mention the threat posed by the local and international criminal or terrorist groups, and the instability and insecurity that worry many governments and States, in addition to the rampant corruption. And, finally, without counting the risk pointed out by various analysts, of a new form of "nuclear colonialism". This would be difficult for the weak African governments to manage. With destructive consequences, to say the least.