In his 1953 “Atoms for Peace” speech before the United Nations, President Dwight D. Eisenhower challenged the world to use atomic energy “to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine, and other peaceful activities. A special purpose would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world.”
At that time, many African nations were just emerging or not yet emerged from centuries of European colonialism – a colonialism that, at least financially, extends to this day. South Africa was under apartheid, and Liberia, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Libya claimed to be free. Yet every other African nation that exists today was a colony of either France, Belgium, Portugal, the United Kingdom (Britain), or Spain.
Nearly seven decades later, Todd Lindeman, writing in the Washington Post in November 2015, affirmed that 1.3 billion, including 600 million in sub-Saharan Africa (and 300 million in India), still lacked access to electricity. This was little better than in 2009, when Scientific American lamented that a quarter of the world’s population, including 79 percent of people in the “third world,” had no access to electricity – “despite decades of international development work.”
In his historic speech, Eisenhower had added, “the contributing powers [sh]ould be dedicating some of their strength to serve the needs rather than the fears of mankind.” But fear, racism, and an intractable bureaucracy, still seem to be the guiding forces that stop of slow down African efforts to provide reliable electricity to growing, and eager, populations.
Lindeman acknowledged that both India and the African countries have focused on renewable sources of energy (because European bankers refuse to finance fossil fuel or nuclear projects). Yet he lamented that these nations will have to rely on increased use of fossil fuels – especially coal – to bring electricity to the masses. Nuclear energy did not even get a single line of type.
Indeed, major entities like Dvinci Energy and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), when speaking about energy development in Africa, disdain any use of fossil fuels and focus solely on wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal. In a lengthy 2018 article, Dvinci acknowledged the shortcomings of each source of renewable energy, admitted that several African nations have ample fossil fuel resources, and again made no mention of nuclear energy. Even the African Development Bank is solely focused on renewable energy for Africa’s future.
Whatever happened to Eisenhower’s dream of atoms for peace?
Eisenhower in 1954 oversaw the launch of the world’s first operational nuclear-powered submarine — the USS Nautilus (which was authorized before he took office). Nuclear propulsion allowed the Nautilus to remain submerged far longer than diesel-electric submarines because it didn’t have to surface to recharge electric batteries.
He also backed development of the U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier fleet, beginning with USS Enterprise, the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. As Michael Peck explained, nuclear reactors on U.S. carriers are designed to be refueled once every 25 years. This enables them to stay at sea far longer while not having to carry tons of fuel around. Nuclear fuel generates “tremendous energy relative to the small amount of space it takes up,” Peck noted.
Shortly after Eisenhower’s call for atoms for peace, several nations – notably the U.S., the U.S.S.R., China, Japan, France, South Korea, and Germany – built nuclear power plants. Encyclopaedia Brittanica reports that demand for nuclear power plants grew rapidly into the 1970s. Even Sierra Club director Ansel Adams (the nature photographer) once told Playboy that “utilizing nuclear energy is the future.”
Buoyed by the relatively minor incident at Three Mile Island in 1979 (which still cost $1 billion to clean up) and the Chernobyl incident in 1986, the anti-nuclear movement (which never seems to distinguish atoms for peace from atoms for war) rang up victory after victory, while federal regulators echoed political sentiment to impose permitting and operational burdens that vastly increased the cost of nuclear energy for the people. Yet even today, the U.S. has nearly 100 nuclear reactors that provide nearly 20 percent of the nation’s electricity.
The Fukushima incident in 2011 led several nations – notably Japan, Germany, and even France – to rethink their nuclear commitment. Japan has only reopened a few of the reactors after a total shutdown following Fukushima, and Germany has committed to mothballing all of its nuclear plants by 2022. Rather than replace aging nuclear plants, France has committed to drop its reliance on nuclear from 75 percent to no more than 50 percent as it adds wind and solar. Exelon, the largest provider of nuclear energy in the United States, predicted in 2016 that this country will never build another nuclear power plant.
On the other hand, China is building 43 new nuclear power plants and India another 14. While both Indonesia and the Philippines have revised regulations to encourage development of nuclear energy. According to Laura Gil, Egypt (which already had reactors in the works), Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, and Sudan had already engaged with the the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to assess their readiness to embark on a nuclear program, and Algeria, Tunisia, Uganda, and Zambia were nearing that step.
But don’t expect that bringing nuclear energy to Africa will be easy – or without opposition. As IAEA’s Milko Kovachev explained, “Going nuclear is not something that happens from one day to the next. Creating the necessary nuclear infrastructure and building the first nuclear power plant will take at least 10 to 15 years.” Worse, he added, a nation must commit to a century-long effort from initiation to decommissioning. Do European financiers trust Africans for a century?
A necessary step in utilizing nuclear energy is building a power grid to distribute that energy to consumers – governments, businesses, and residences. Thus, the logical choice for much of Africa might be the new-design small modular reactors that provide up to 300 megawatts per unit and can be easily assembled and stacked.
While these do not fit the longstanding model of massive infrastructure projects (ripe for funds diversions), they may be the way to move nuclear beyond being “a fancy option limited to the industrialized world,” as Gil called it. As IAEA Nuclear Energy Department chief Mikhail Chudakov admitted, “Africa is hungry for energy, and nuclear power could be part of the answer for an increasing number of countries.”
It is as Nii Allotey, who heads up the Nuclear Power Institute at the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission, says. “Energy is the backbone of any strong development. To me, it’s not about nuclear being an option. It is about ENERGY being an option. We are a continent that is in dire need of energy.”
Maybe now that the whole world is experiencing a taste of the fear of diseases that Africans face daily, it is high time to focus on fulfilling Eisenhower’s dream of atoms for peace: “to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world.”