As the African Energy Week (AEW) 2023 conference and exhibition concludes, the spotlight turns to the increasing interest in nuclear energy in Africa. Sputnik Africa decided to find out what African countries could get from a the partnership with Russia in this sector, given the country’s vast experience in nuclear technologies.
As Africa actively explores nuclear power to meet its growing energy needs, Rosatom, a Russian state corporation specializing in nuclear energy and high-tech products, has emerged as a key player, spearheading various nuclear power projects across the continent.
In an exclusive interview with Sputnik Africa, Ryan Collyer, CEO of Rosatom Central and Southern Africa, shed light on the intricacies of Russia-Africa cooperation in the nuclear energy.
Collyer began by highlighting Rosatom’s flagship project in Egypt, a colossal 4800 megawatt nuclear power plant called El Dabaa NPP, which is currently under construction. He emphasized the significance of this undertaking, noting that it serves as a testament to Rosatom’s commitment to Africa and its potential to meet the continent’s energy needs.
El Dabaa in Egypt is set to become the second NPP in the continent, with the first one being the Koeberg NPP in South Africa, noted Anton Khlopkov, founder and director of the Center for Energy and Security Studies (CENESS) in Russia. He added that Rosatom has been supplying Koeberg with more than shipments of nuclear fuel for 20 years.
Khlopkov told Sputnik Africa that Russia’s cooperation with Africa in the field of nuclear energy is going in several tracks, including the construction of NPPs, cooperation on uranium raw materials, and the construction of nuclear research centers.
“Three African countries are among the top ten uranium producers. Namibia, South Africa and Niger. Moreover, as far as I know, subsidiaries of Rosatom State Corporation own uranium mines in two countries, Tanzania and Namibia, and there are plans to develop in this direction,” Khlopkov said.
In addition to large-scale energy projects, Rosatom is also focused on expanding its cooperation with African countries in the medical field, highlighted Collyer. This initiative aims to address the shortage of nuclear medicine on the continent and improve cancer treatment capabilities; it can also extend the shelf life of food and medical equipment through multipurpose irradiation centers.
“We have signed a contract in Zambia to build the research reactor, along with a number of laboratories, nuclear medicine center and a multipurpose irradiation facility that’s called the Center for Nuclear Science and Technology,” said Collyer
Collyer also mentioned the numerous memorandums of understanding and intergovernmental agreements that Rosatom has signed across the continent. According to him, numerous African students are currently studying nuclear engineering in Russia on full bursaries, thus building local expertise required for further cooperation in this field.
“One of the first things that is unlocked is human resource development. So we’ve got a large number of African students that are currently studying [nuclear engineering] on full bursaries in Russia at the moment,” he said.
Khlopkov mentioned that there is a potential for Russia and Africa to cooperate in non-nuclear materials, for example, taking into account the development of lithium battery technologies.
“There is conditionally a great interest today in lithium raw materials, and potentially the African region can also be considered as a region where the Russian Federation, including through the efforts of the state corporation Rosatom, can invest in relevant mining,” Khlopkov noted.
Commenting on the long-term implications of Russia’s nuclear cooperation with African countries, Collyer stressed the need for a thorough and meticulous approach to ensure the safe and effective implementation of nuclear energy.
“Nuclear is not something that happens overnight. There’s quite a long process that needs to be followed in terms of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s key milestone approach. And that can take a number of years,” the Rosatom official told Sputnik Africa.
However, he also stressed that Africa’s urgent need for energy and its impact on industrialization and economic growth cannot be overlooked. With a significant portion of Africa’s population lacking access to electricity, large-scale energy development is essential for sustainable development, and nuclear energy can play a crucial role in meeting this energy demand, Collyer said.
According to Princess Mthombeni, nuclear activist, founder and head of Africa4Nuclear, an advocacy campaign that promotes nuclear as a key contributor to achieving Africa’s agenda for sustainable development, “energy poverty remains one of the major challenges that face this continent”.
She noted in an interview with Sputnik Africa that more than 600 million Africans do not have access to electricity.
“So the benefits really with working with Russia is that they are bringing to us a solution that is not only economically viable, but also that is sustainable in the longer term,” Mthombeni said. “Nuclear remains one of the powerful sources that would contribute a lot in terms of solving many problems that face this continent, including inequality, poverty and underdevelopment.”
Differentiating Rosatom’s nuclear cooperation with African countries from its partnerships in other regions, Collyer emphasized the company’s emphasis on tailored solutions. Rather than offering a one-size-fits-all approach, Rosatom works closely with each partner country to understand its unique needs and tailor the cooperation accordingly.
“Every country is very specific,” he said. “We don’t just offer a standard solution. We work with our partners, understand the peculiarities of a particular country, and really tailor the way that we work with them around that.”
Using her home country of South Africa as an example, Mthombeni emphasized that nuclear energy can play an important role in energy sovereignty. Unlike renewable energy sources such as solar panels and wind turbines, which often require the import of components from other countries, she said, nuclear power plants can be built in the host country, using local skills and resources.
“There’s something different with nuclear because you build a nuclear power plant within any country and using the skills that are in the country, most of it, not all of it, but you use mostly the skills that are in the country and then the economic spin-off happens in that country and not somewhere else,” she argued.
Commenting on this point, Khlopkov added that Russia’s Rosatom have great experience in NPPs construction all over the world. He noted that Rosatom has realized several NPP projects abroad, including in China, India, Iran, Belarus, and Turkey, while construction work is underway in about 11 other countries.
In terms of geopolitical dynamics and competition, Collyer noted that historical ties between Africa and Russia have minimized any major issues in this regard. While there have been some logistical and financial challenges, Rosatom has been quick to resolve them to ensure smooth cooperation.
Highlighting Rosatom’s position as the world’s leading supplier of nuclear power plants, Collyer emphasized the company’s confidence in its cutting-edge technology. As a provider of complete turnkey solutions, Rosatom distinguishes itself by providing comprehensive support to its partners, from human resources development to public awareness, construction and even decommissioning.
“I would say that we’re told the number one vendor in the world in terms of construction of nuclear power plants,” the Rosatom official said. “We’re a company that once we form a partnership, it’s a 100-year partnership. And I think that’s really our strong point.”
Khlopkov highlighted: “Neither the Soviet Union in the past, nor the Russian Federation in the present, politicizes cooperation in the nuclear sphere.”
“There have been cases, for example, when the US refused to supply nuclear fuel to third countries despite signed contracts for political reasons, making the continuation of relevant cooperation subject to some new, primarily political, conditions. The experience of interaction between Russia and the Soviet nuclear industry shows that we have learned to separate business in this sphere, in the peaceful use of nuclear energy, from politics,” Khlopkov said.
Speaking about the possible advantages of Russia’s nuclear technology and expertise compared to Western countries, Mthombeni acknowledged the importance of partnership opportunities with all nations. However, she recognized Russia as a global “powerhouse” in the nuclear energy sector, making Russia an attractive partner for African countries.
“We are not about choosing one over another person as long as the solutions that make economic sense to us, we should be able to partner with just about anyone,” Mthombeni stressed. “But what the Russians bring, really, it’s something that is known globally that Russians are the powerhouse of this space, of the nuclear space.”