Raissa Malu

What if we reactivate it?

As we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the commissioning of the first African nuclear reactor (6th June 1959 in the Democratic Republic of Congo), I share the history of nuclear energy in Africa. In this 3rd episode, we will embrace the entire continent.

To begin, let's look back at a player we met in the first episode, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Remember: the IAEA was founded in 1957 in response to concerns, but also to hopes, that this new energy, atomic energy, raised. From now on, the aim would be to promote it for "peace, health and prosperity throughout the world", and no longer (or a little less) for war and desolation.

Although the Democratic Republic of Congo has been the first African country to host a nuclear reactor, it was not the first to join the IAEA. Egypt, Morocco, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Tunisia were the first African members of the IAEA in 1957. Sudan joined in 1958 (it became independent in 1956). Ghana (independent in 1957) and Senegal (independent in 1960) joined in 1960. The Democratic Republic of Congo and Mali joined in 1961.

43 out of 54 States

To date, 43 out of 54 African States have joined the IAEA (I generally suck at geography, I hope I haven't forgotten any 😊). The latest to be approved for accession by the IAEA General Conference are Djibouti (2015) and Gambia (2016).

[A parenthesis. Nothing to do with Africa, but for information, "the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) joined the IAEA in 1974 and withdrew from it in 1994." I find that IAEA officials have a sense of humour in mentioning it in this way on their website. I would have added an exclamation mark, LOL! Let's close the parenthesis.]

The organization of the IAEA

The IAEA has two governing bodies, the Board of Governors and the Annual General Conference of IAEA Member States. The Board of Governors examines, inter alia, the IAEA programme and budget, applications for membership, and appoints the Director General of the IAEA, with the approval of the General Conference.

The Council is composed of only a few Member States (it is renewed every two years). The Democratic Republic of Congo was represented in this important decision-making body five times between 1963 and 1993. The late Prof. Dr Ir Félix Malu Wa Kalenga, Director of the Centre Régional d'Études Nucléaires de Kinshasa and General Commissioner for Atomic Energy, represented the Democratic Republic of Congo as its Governor on the Council (Our voice then counted! 😉). For the period 2018-2019, among the 35 members of the Board of Governors (IAEA has 171 members), we find South Africa (permanent member within the Board), Morocco, Niger and Sudan.

Nuclear power for electricity

It is not necessary to have a nuclear reactor to become a member of the IAEA and the Council. No. Apart from the Democratic Republic of Congo and its research reactor, we have South Africa which has a nuclear power plant for electricity production (it is the only African country to date to master this technology) and reactors dedicated to research. Algeria, Egypt, Libya and Morocco are the other African countries that also have nuclear reactors dedicated to research and to the production of radioisotopes.

Let's take a moment to look at electric nuclear power (a topic that angers environmentalists). According to the IAEA, one third of the 30 countries in the world that are currently considering switching to nuclear power are African! "Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan and Ghana have already engaged with the IAEA to assess their compatibility with a nuclear programme." Algeria, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia are also considering this option.

Energy mix

"Pity!", you might say. Yet. Development and socio-economic growth require a reliable and sustainable energy supply. On this point, everyone agrees and the equation is no different for Africa.

But which energy(s)? Solar, hydraulic, geothermal, fossil... or all at the same time! My friends, Sandrine Mubenga, an electrical engineer, and Fabrice Lusinde, Deputy General Manager of the Société congolaise Nationale d'Électricité (SNEL), would talk at length about this. The problem arises when the available energy is non-renewable (fossil fuels), unreliable (unintentional load shedding) and too expensive.

African countries, whose economies depend mainly on the exploitation of raw materials, absolutely need reliable and cheap electricity to process these raw materials on the spot and make their products competitive. However, nuclear energy is clean (in the sense that it does not emit carbon or air pollution), reliable and cost-effective. That being said, are African states ready for nuclear power?

Long-term commitment

Even before considering investment and financing, according to the IAEA, "a successful nuclear programme requires broad political and popular support and a national commitment over at least 100 years." I bet you burst out of laughter here. At least 100 years! Based on the recent political history of African countries, you will agree that this is a lot to ask them.

"Well, yes," the IAEA would say. "When you get into nuclear power, it's for life and beyond." This requires a commitment from the outset to the full life cycle of a power plant, from construction to power generation and, finally, to decommissioning. And I am not even talking about the issue of the management of the radioactive waste produced, whose agreed observation period ranges from 10 to 100,000 years!

Atom for health

Despite all this, we may not have a choice. The energy mix with nuclear power would currently be the most reasonable solution for developing our nations. The good news is that we have the opportunity to develop regional networks. Not everyone has to have their own nuclear power plant. (The era of the big shots is over. Yes, it is! 😉)

This allows me to return to the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Centre Régional d'Études Nucléaires de Kinshasa (CREN-K) and its reactor. The latter is used to produce radioisotopes and allows for various analyses. CREN-K also trains researchers and staff who handle these elements, including health workers in radiotherapy centres.

A regional reactor

Recently, the IAEA tweeted that by 2030, there will be 1.4 million more cases of cancer in Africa. The installation of radiotherapy centres, the production of radioisotopes and the training of medical personnel are becoming vital for our countries. However, as you will have understood, it is not easy for a country to have a nuclear reactor.

However, the demand for radioisotopes will increase in Africa. The DRC already has one, but it has been on hold since 2004 due to modernization. With its central geographical position, by developing infrastructure (roads, Internet, electricity) and air transport (planes, drones, etc.), by reactivating its reactor, this country could help save millions of lives throughout Africa. Imagine, the circle would be complete.

A question for the future

I had a lot of fun telling you about the history of nuclear power in Africa. I particularly like it because it brings us closer together. It involves 4 continents, America, Asia, Europe and Africa. It links both extraordinary and famous figures, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, King Baudouin of Belgium, Presidents Kasa-Vubu and Mobutu, Monsignor Luc Gillon, Prof. Felix Malu Wa Kalenga and all those African Heads of State who decided at the fifth "summit" of the Organisation of African Unity in Kinshasa in 1967 to make the CREN-K an African regional centre for the benefit of all.

We are a new generation of politicians and scientists. We are bound to the past, we live in the present and we create the future. What future do we now choose for ourselves, our children, our grandchildren and their children?

Science is fun, join us ! 😊

This post has first been published on LinkedIn. It has been translated in English by Afriscitech.


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