Nuclear energy to 'power Africa?'

A man uses biogas to light his home in Kenya. U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan would like to recommend that the government uses nuclear energy to power Africa. Photo by: Shravan Vidyarthi / Land O'Lakes International Development / USAID / CC BY-NC

Should the U.S. government consider financing nuclear reactors to meet Africa’s future energy needs?

The idea was floated on Thursday by Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) during a House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting to discuss changes to the “Electrify Africa Act,” where Duncan said he would recommend the option to the government for a continent with just two nuclear reactors — both built in the 1980s by the former apartheid regime in South Africa and which currently satisfy only 5 percent of the country’s demand for electricity.

As the Obama administration pursues its “Power Africa” strategy to help eliminate energy poverty on the continent, Congress is considering lending its support to the initiative through the bill, which the foreign affairs committee passed on Thursday.

Duncan said that he hoped the government would consider small modular reactors, which he said “can power small cities, large neighborhoods — and in this case in Africa, small villages with a very stable, 24/7 baseload power supply to meet the needs of the electrical components there.”

He recognized that some people “who don’t like nuclear power” may raise concerns about security in a whole continent with barely any experience dealing with atomic energy, but, he said, there are ways to mitigate those risks.

Who will pay?

The bill has so far attracted bipartisan support. Overall, the activities it covers, including trade facilitation and credit guarantees for U.S. investment, will actually generate revenue for the U.S. government, thus dampening political battles over foreign aid spending. The bill also covers a wide range of potential power generating activities, as a part of an “all-of-the-above” strategy to energy projects.

Specifically, the bill does not mention nuclear power, and U.S. support for nuclear power projects in Africa seems unlikely — though not impossible. The ability to finance nuclear power plants differs between government agencies involved in Power Africa: The Overseas Private Investment Corp. cannot finance nuclear facilities, while the U.S. Export-Import Bank can.

The bill may draw broad support because of the wide range of projects it would encourage. But as recent political wrangling and policy incoherence on the U.S. government’s possible support for large hydropower shows, specific energy projects get very controversial.  When it comes to what types of energy solutions to pursue in Africa, Duncan’s suggestion is a reminder of all diverse options “all-of-the-above” includes, and the challenges that agencies — and Congress — will continue to face in building a coherent strategy.

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About the author

  • Paul Stephens

    Paul Stephens is a former Devex staff writer based in Washington, D.C. As a multimedia journalist, editor and producer, Paul has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Washington Monthly, CBS Evening News, GlobalPost, and the United Nations magazine, among other outlets. He's won a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for a 5-month, in-depth reporting project in Yemen after two stints in Georgia: one as a Peace Corps volunteer and another as a communications coordinator for the U.S. Agency for International Development.