This article is certainly not the first to address this topic or even to use the title, “Atoms for Africa.”[1]  However, this subject has special relevance for Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace speech (and thus the focus of our website) and invites another perspective on how to look at this challenge.  Not only does Africa continue to be a power-starved region of the world, but it is the place that the uranium for the first atomic bombs was produced, at the Shinkolobwe mine in what was then the Belgian Congo.  In addition, the type of reactors that are most suitable for African countries also support the aspirations of Eisenhower’s speech.

It has been noted that small, advanced reactors are especially well suited for Africa, because of their lower costs, their ability to be more proliferation resistant, and the nature of Africa’s grid system, which in most cases is not sufficient to accommodate large reactors.  Africa also has challenges in providing enough electricity for its varied remote mining operations, which are crucial to its economic well-being, and here very small modular reactors (microreactors), currently under development, may be able to play a crucial role.

It has also been noted that there is competition between different countries, notably Russia and China, to bring nuclear power to Africa.  The United States can certainly enter this fray with the small modular and microreactor development that it is encouraging.  Advances in nuclear power technology and competition to bring nuclear power to Africa should be viewed as generally positive if the aim is to provide environmentally friendly electricity generation to this region.

There is another important element associated with the potential for new nuclear power in Africa.  Microreactors, the kind that may be best suited for African needs, can use high-assay, low-enriched fuel (HALEU) which can be created by blending down high-enriched uranium (HEU).  The introduction of these reactors into Africa would further advance the aspirations of Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace speech since they would not only bring electricity to a power-starved region but could “consume” erstwhile HEU and thus have important nonproliferation benefits.

Financing nuclear reactors or any electrical generation in Africa is particularly challenging.  When it comes to nuclear power, small and microreactors are less expensive to build and operate and, once established, should be able to be financed more easily.   In addition, small nuclear would be able to earn carbon credits, offsetting costs and attracting socially responsible investing.

There also could be some recognition of the potential nonproliferation benefits that microreactors represent.  While there is no market currently to create or earn nonproliferation credits, the offering of blended-down HEU as part of a reactor package could be a selling point for a vendor or a requirement of the customer of a small reactor.   Again, this should appeal to the socially responsible investor.

This would still leave the nonproliferation value of supplying HEU-derived fuel as part of a reactor package uncertain.  One way to approach this problem is if organizations were willing to give grants in order to encourage the selection of reactors using fuel derived from HEU, much the same way they finance ventures to earn carbon credits.   This would be one way of valuing nonproliferation.

There are several factors that make small, advanced reactors appealing to the African market and thus augment the nuclear bargain there.   Also, considering recent developments, expanded economic development in Africa takes on a new importance as countries and corporations look to diversify their supply chains.  This prospect creates the opportunity for both governments and corporations, perhaps in conjunction with each other, to finance or assist in financing small nuclear.  With the additional environmental and nonproliferation benefits, it represents a win-win solution.

[1] See, for example, Abigail Sah, Jessica Lovering, Omaro Maseli, and Aishwarya Saxena.  “Atoms for Africa:  Is There a Future for Civil Nuclear Energy in Sub-Saharan Africa?” Center for Global Development, CGD Policy Paper 124, April 2018.

Portrait: Jeff Combs
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Jeff Combs is founder, owner, and Chairman of UxC, LLC (UxC) and is a leading expert in the nuclear fuel market, with over 45 years of experience providing economic analysis and forecasting for the front-end of the nuclear fuel cycle. He has extensive and varied expertise, overseeing UxC market reports, providing strategic consulting to major commercial companies in the nuclear fuel industry, and advising governments and international organizations on market and policy issues. Under his management, UxC has grown to become the world’s pre-eminent nuclear fuel market information and analysis company, issuing reports and publishing prices for all front-end nuclear fuel markets. In 2007, UxC teamed with CME/NYMEX to introduce the world’s first uranium futures contract. That same year UxC began reporting on the backend of the fuel cycle. In 2018, Mr. Combs created the atompeace.org website to advance understanding of peaceful uses of the atom in today’s world. During his career, Mr. Combs has presented papers at a variety of nuclear industry and energy economics conferences throughout the world. In addition, he has had his work published in academic and public policy journals. Mr. Combs earned a bachelor's degree in Economics at the University of Virginia, where he also completed his doctoral course work in economics. He is a charter member of the International Association of Energy Economics and is a member of the American Nuclear Society.