Nuclear generates huge amounts of electricity with low greenhouse gas emissions


By Kiggala Jessy Sean

Nuclear generation plants are advanced facilities that harness the power of nuclear fission (a self-sustaining chain reaction within the reactor) to generate vast amounts of heat energy,  eventually converted into electricity. Precise control over the rate of nuclear fission is crucial  to maintain safe and steady power generation. Nuclear power plants, therefore, offer  significant advantages in terms of producing massive amounts of electricity with relatively  low greenhouse gas emissions.

Sub Saharan Africa has the lowest electricity access rate of 42.8% and 600 million people in  Africa live without electricity yet energy is a primer for socio-economic development across  several sectors of the economy for value addition, import substitution among others (Moussa  and Malcolm, 2019). At least 80% of the Sub-Saharan Africans rely on traditional biomass  for cooking or heating leading to high rate of deforestation and combustion that releases  greenhouse gases contributing to global warming (IEA, 2022).

South Africa adopted 1854 Megawatt electric (MWe) of nuclear energy contributing to 6% of  the national generation capacity at Koeberg. This has avoided emission of 338 Metric tonnes  of Carbondioxide (CO2) from use of fossil fuels. This has improved on the air quality and  reduced susceptibility to respiratory diseases (WNA, 2022).

Around 66 Giga tons of CO2 was avoided globally between 1971 and 2020. Currently coal  contributes 30% of power in South Africa and gas 40% in North Africa, thus, nuclear energy adoption can reduce reliance on fossil fuels which are characterized by price fluctuations,  supply chain disruptions due to geopolitical tensions like Russia and Ukraine war, economic  sanctions that lead to price upsurges, inflation and high costs of living hence there is need to  diversify energy (IEA, 2022).

African energy demand is predicted to increase by 75% from 680 terawatt hours (TWh) to  1180 TWh by 2030 (IEA, 2022). However, climate change related droughts have reduced  Africa’s hydropower generation potential. An example is Zambia, Mfula (2016) mentioned water level reductions in the dams as a result of drought.

According to Nagle (2022), low-carbon sources of energy (nuclear, hydroelectric, and other  renewables) collectively accounted for about 16% of the global energy consumption in 2020. These leverage abundant natural resources for additional clean electricity generation to meet growing energy demand, hence minimizing the costly power outages and improving the  availability of power and energy security.

A kilowatt of nuclear power costs less compared to hydro power. This is attributed to higher  generation capacity and lower maintenance costs, clean and affordable electricity for  industrialization, improved health care and education through reliable or stable power supply  (Bern, 2011). 

Benchmarking and collaboration of sector players in policy formulation, industry best  practices, human resource development, technology transfer for nuclear infrastructure like  reactor plants, fast tracked capacity building for nuclear generation to provide additional  energy for development. For example, by 2031 Uganda through Buyende Nuclear Power  Plant is expecting to have a maximum capacity of about 2000MW (Hollands, 2023).

Subsequently, development of nuclear energy in African countries like Uganda, Namibia,  will increase foreign direct investment, mineral production and ore export, employment  opportunities, hence higher contribution of extractive sector to Gross Domestic Product of  African countries, creating diversified economies. Local content policies could further  facilitate skilling, community participation and local enterprise development.

Modern nuclear reactors have integrated facilities for desalination of mineralized water,  heating from process heat and hydrogen fuel production as seen in System-integrated  Modular Advanced Reactors (SMART) in Korea, Kazakhstan, India, and Japan. This  provides access to clean water and low carbon hydrogen to decarbonize the mobility sector (Kaeri, 2011).

Most African countries for centuries have relied on agricultural economy. In recent years, the  world has been advocating for food production to feed the ever increasing population,  especially in Africa where the poverty level and political unrest has for decades led to hunger  crisis/disaster. Nuclear energy can be used to boost this sector economy. In the agriculture  sector, two main nuclear energy techniques are employed for plant improvement;

(i) plant  mutation breeding and (ii) molecular marker assisted breeding. Gamma radiation induces  genetic mutations, enhancing desired traits in plants, a method that has been applied  successfully in Bangladesh to enhance rice productivity. Molecular markers aid in selecting  and propagating plants with specific desired characteristics (for example, drought or disease  resistant).

Nitrogen-15 isotope is used to optimize fertilizer application by monitoring plant uptake for efficient management. In addition, radiations are used to sterilize harmful insects  like mosquitoes, moths, and fruit flies, controlling their population and safeguarding crops.  Also, gamma rays are used in food irradiation to kill disease causing bacteria, extended shelf  life and reduce post-harvest losses. It also enables monitoring of how plants uptake fertilizers,  allowing for more precise fertilizer management.

Cancer disease have been on the increase in Africa over the last decade. The high cost of  treatment (including travels for better treatment facilities outside Africa) and fatality rate  have affected growth and development. However, embracing nuclear application in medicine  can help reduce these burdens.

For example, in medicine radioactive substances are employed  for therapeutic purposes, such as using radioactive iodine (I-131) to treat cancer and thyroid  conditions. Radiotracers like technetium-99m enhance the accuracy of imaging in computed  tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) for improved diagnosis. Hospitals  also use cobalt-60 gamma radiation to sterilize medical instruments and heat-sensitive  biological preparations.

Additionally, radioisotopes are valuable tools for detecting and monitoring environmental  pollutants, including smog, Sulphur dioxide, sewage dispersal, and oil spills, informing  environmental management and conservation efforts.

Nuclear infrastructure projects are complex and time-consuming, taking around 5 to 7 years  to set up and incurring high construction costs and overruns (Bern, 2011). To mitigate  financial risk, project sponsors seek loan guarantees and power purchase agreements from  government authorities. Upgrating existing nuclear plants as opposed to construction of new  plants, and adopting Small and Medium Reactors (SMRs) can be explored to reduce  construction time and costs (Kaeri, 2011).

Catastrophic nuclear accidents like Fukushima, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl have raised  concerns and led to strict regulations and negative public perception of nuclear energy,  causing delays in project approvals and cost increases (Bern, 2011). However, modern  reactors incorporate advanced safety features and passive systems to minimize accidents.

However, nuclear waste, such as spent fuel, remains radioactive for thousands of years,  posing challenges in storage and disposal. Reducing active nuclides in waste through filtering and solidification is attempted, followed by safe isolation in deep geological formations to  prevent contamination of the environment.

Adoption of nuclear technology in African countries will lead to nuclear proliferation  increasing risk of nuclear warfare and terrorism which is disastrous with devastating effects.  Regulation of the nuclear energy industry by governments and International Atomic Energy  Agency to promote safe and peaceful use of nuclear technology is key to avert nuclear  proliferation (Munro, 2023).

Unplanned shutdowns and maintenance works of ageing nuclear plants reduces availability  which causes power deficits or outages. Regular maintenance and finalizing approvals or  designs before upgrades can reduce downtime.

Nuclear sites require decommissioning for environmental restoration due to radioactive  materials which account for 15 to 25% of investment cost (IEA, 2022, p.28). Increase in  these costs leads to increased costs of generation hence more expensive electricity.

Nuclear energy is a low carbon energy source with potential to support the transition to  cleaner, reliable and affordable electricity in Africa given its better scalability (as opposed to  geothermal and hydro that are site specific) which will diversify the energy mix while  reducing greenhouse gas emissions or reliance on fossil fuels, hence improving energy

access, security and sustainability in light of climate change (IEA, 2022).

Improved electricity access further support a number of sectors, for example, in acquisition of  clean water, quality education, improved healthcare, clean cooking, improved agriculture  which are critical for socio-economic transformation in Africa. However, to realize the full  potential of nuclear energy, African governments should invest and build more capacity for  its exploitation.


Bern, G. (2011). Investing In Energy. 

Hollands, C. (2023 , March 17). Uganda Targets Nuclear Power Generation by 2031.  Retrieved from Energy Capital & Power: nuclear-power-generation-2031/

International Energy Agency (IEA). (2022). Africa Energy Outlook 2022. International Energy Agency (IEA). (2022). Nuclear Power and Secure Energy Transitions. KAERI. (2011). Status report 77 – System-Integrated Modular Advanced Reactor (SMART). 

Mfula, C. (2016.). Zambia to Diversify Generation Mix as Drought Hits Hydropower. Lusaka  Times.

Moussa, P. B., and Malcolm, C. (2019). Electricity Access in Sub Saharan Africa. 

Munro, A. (2023, July 25 ). nuclear proliferation. Retrieved from Encyclopedia Britannica: Accessed .

Nagle, J. B. (2022). Commodity Markets Evolution, Challenges, and Policies. World Nuclear Association(WNA). (2022). World Nuclear Performance Report 2022.

The writer was the 5th best student in the WePlanet Africa nuclear energy essay writing competition.



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