Russia’s nuclear business outlook with Africa


Endowed with huge natural resources, Africa is comparatively the least developed region in this world. In the current context of global crisis, at least Russia struggling to maintain its image on the stage. Some African leaders are more concerned to be at the receiving end, while others are prioritizing development and improving welfare for their impoverished population.

Sometimes, it is difficult to understand the level of development despite the colossal resources in Africa. That development can only be raised with foreign participation. With that presumption, African leaders seemingly have that sentimental edge attitude for symbolism and the desire for group photos at international conferences and summits even if such gatherings offer little or nothing tangible for their national economic development.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attended a meeting of BRICS leaders with delegation heads from invited African states and chairs of international associations on 27 July, 2018, in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Those invited included the leaders of African countries, namely, Angola, Botswana, Ethiopia, Gabon, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mauritius, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Senegal, the Seychelles, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The meeting was also attended by the heads of Argentina (then chair of the G20), Turkey (then chair of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) and Jamaica (then chair of the Caribbean Community).

Before the meeting, there was a joint photo session. Speaking at that grand high-level meeting, Putin told the African leaders, with confidence, that “Africa is one of the world’s most rapidly developing regions.”

“Russia has always given priority to the development of relations with African countries, based on long-standing traditions of friendship and mutual assistance,” he said, and along the line in the powerful and arousing speech, added that Russia would help to overcome energy shortages and deep-seated deficits across Africa.

Without much doubts, Russia is noted for an excellent diplomacy. As always, African leaders gave an ear-deafening applause. Russia is ready to do everything in various sectors in Africa has been the policy chorus down these years since the collapse of the Soviet era in 1991, and African leaders respectfully show high excitement at such phrases.

Putin underscored the fact in the nuclear power industry, where Russia is a technological leader, offers several African partners the creation of an entire industry on a turnkey basis. Agreements on cooperation in the field of atoms for peace have been signed with a number of countries in the region, while in some of them the work has acquired a practical dimension. Joint efforts are being taken to implement the agreements reached in a number of spheres.

“All these projects will be of strategic importance for Africa, where, according to different estimates, as many as 600 million people still live without electricity,” he told African leaders.

Quite recently in March 2023, Putin spoke at the international parliamentary conference Russia – Africa in a Multipolar World, held in Moscow under the auspices of the State Duma of the Russian Federal Assembly. In fact, one key question that featured in the speech that “Rosatom is already building a nuclear power plant in Egypt and plans to expand its involvement in the development of national energy systems in the African continent. I would like to note that significant, in some countries 100-percent funding is provided by Russia.”

The partnership between Russia and African countries has gained additional momentum and is reaching a whole new level. With South Africa, the agreement for the large scale nuclear power plant (NPP) development was initially signed during the International Atomic Energy Agency General (IAEAG) Conference in Vienna between Russia’s Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation director general Sergey Kirienko and South Africa’s Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson.

According to Power Technology media report, Kirienko said: “I am convinced in cooperation with Russia, South Africa will gain all necessary competencies for the implementation of this large-scale national nuclear energy development programme. Rosatom seeks to create in South Africa a full-scale nuclear cluster of a world leader’s level – from the front-end of nuclear fuel cycle up to engineering and power equipment manufacturing.”

For the last twenty years, South Africa has not been able to make investments in new power plants, which has resulted in a severe power crunch. Kirienko observed: “In future this will allow to implement joint nuclear power projects in Africa and other third countries. But from the very start this cooperation will be guided at providing the conditions for creation of thousands of new jobs and placing of a considerable order to local industrial enterprises worth, at least, $10 billion.”

Long before that African leaders’ meeting at BRICS in Johannesburg, South African parliament overturned and blocked nuclear power agreement signed by Jacob Zuma in the Kremlin, after talks with Vladimir Putin. South Africa, until today, has had huge problems with power supply for both domestic and industrial utilization. Generally power outrages still a huge and real constraint to industrial growth in South Africa and across Africa.

Corruption that hollowed out Eskom’s coffers under Jacob Zuma’s presidency, lack of plant maintenance and sabotage were blamed for South Africa’s electricity crisis. South Africans have become hardened to crippling blackouts, this is inflicting a massive hit on the economy. Credible reports said the government spent $1.6 billion from the budget for diesel purchases this year alone. Eskom’s colossal debt, still equivalent to $23 billion.

According to research sources, main reason why the 2015 nuclear power agreement thrown out by the South Africa’s parliament, it was an opaque unilateral deal with Moscow. South African pact with Russia’s Rosatom to build nuclear reactors was deemed unlawful by a High Court in April 2017. The Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute (SAFCEI) and Earthlife Africa-Johannesburg had jointly filed the court application to stop the nuclear program.

Both the Russian government and the administration of South African president Jacob Zuma put pressure on the South African government to force through the deal by attempting to circumvent South Africa’s procurement laws. The Russian government offered to build and operate up to eight nuclear power plants at a cost of R1 trillion ($66 billion).

South Africa and Russia signed an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) in 2014 that sealed a cooperation pact between state-owned nuclear group Rosatom and state-owned utility Eskom. There were external tenders, for example the United States, South Korea, China and France, but Jacob Zuma, without consulting his cabinet and parliament, used his close-friendship to sign the deal with Putin.  As a result, Pravin Gordhan then Finance Minister was fired partly because he resisted pressured by a faction allied to Jacob Zuma to back nuclear expansion.

With Arab Republic of Egypt in North Africa, it has been in the works for several years and has a chequered history. Egypt has been considering the use of nuclear energy for decades. The Nuclear Power Plants Authority [NPPA] was established in 1976, and in 1983 the El Dabaa site on the Mediterranean coast was selected.

With over 100 million inhabitants, Egypt is the most populous country in North Africa, popular referred to as Maghreb region and part of the Arab World. Egypt is the third most populous country after Nigeria and Ethiopia in Africa. About half of Egypt’s residents live in urban areas, with most spread across the densely populated centers of greater Cairo, Alexandria and other major cities along the Nile Delta. Therefore, Egypt needs sufficient energy to drive its industries and for domestic utilization.

Egypt’s nuclear plans, however, were shelved after the Chernobyl accident. But, in 2006, Egypt announced it would revive its civilian nuclear power program, and build a 1,000 MW nuclear power station at El Dabaa. Its estimated cost, at the time, was $12.5 billion, and the plans were to do the construction with the help of foreign investors. In March 2008, Egypt signed an agreement with Russia on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Rosatom has shown interest not only Egypt but many other countries in Africa. Over the past two decades, at least, it has signed agreements that promised construction of nuclear energy plants and training of specialists for these countries. Director General, Alexey Likhachev, emphasized these points at the first Russia-Africa summit that Rosatom has already been cooperating with more than 20 African countries, in particular, building the largest “El-Dabaa” NPP in Egypt with an installed capacity of 4.8 GW. The total cost of construction fixed at $30 billion.

After these several negotiations and re-negotiations since 2015, Russia re-signed the contract for the nuclear construction during the first Russia-Africa summit. Then after that…three years of waiting, Russia finally in 2022 granted a loan $25 billion for the construction of the nuclear power plant which covers 85% of the work. The remaining expenses will be covered by the Egyptian side by attracting private investors. Under the agreement, Egypt is to start payments on the loan, which is provided at 3% per annum, from October 2029.

According to reports, Russia has also signed for such construction of nuclear plants with a number of African countries but yet to begin implementing its side of the agreements. These include agreements with Algeria (2014), Ghana (2015), Ethiopia (2019), Republic of Congo (2019), Nigeria (2012, 2016), Rwanda (2018), South Africa (2004), Sudan (2017), Tunisia (2016), Uganda (2019) and Zambia (2016). Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) were signed with Kenya in 2016 and Morocco in 2017.

At the last international parliamentary conference ‘Russia – Africa in a Multipolar World’ held in March 2023, under the auspices of the State Duma of the Russian Federal Assembly, Putin indicated in his speech that “Russia is offering new environmentally friendly technologies, primarily in nuclear energy. Rosatom is already building a nuclear power plant in Egypt and plans to expand its involvement in the development of the national energy systems of the African continent. And that Russia, in some countries, would provide 100-percent funding of these nuclear projects.”

Ryan Collyer,the Regional Vice-President of Rosatom for Sub-Saharan Africa, told this author that energy (construction and repair of power generation facilities as well as in peaceful nuclear energy and the use of renewable energy sources) is an important area of the economic cooperation between Russia and Africa.

Quite apart from the explicit points raised above, Collyer further explained that a nuclear power program is a complex undertaking that requires meticulous planning, preparation, and investment in time, institutions, and human resources. The development of such a program does not happen overnight and can take several years to implement.

According to his explanation, another critical question is the cost. Most of the funds are needed during the construction period. Building a large-scale nuclear reactor takes thousands of workers, massive amounts of steel and concrete, thousands of components, and several systems to provide electricity, cooling, ventilation, information, control and communication.

Way Out – Other Energy Alternatives

Knox Msebenzi, Managing Director of the Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa (NIASA),  a body committed to promoting the highest standards in the development and application of nuclear technology, in discussing the impact of challenges on the country’s economy and a way out of the power generation difficulties, recommended that South Africa pursue an energy mix that includes coal, wind, hydro-power, nuclear and renewables going forward.

There are no silver bullets when it comes to energy sources generally across Africa. Criticisms of nuclear relating to costs and project managements (long delays with huge projects) are being addressed with Small Modular Reactors. Nuclear power will not come online today as it takes time to implement, but countries do not plan for now but for the future.

Msebenzi also told me during our discussion that foreign players would invariably be attracted by commercial interests. Manufacturers of renewable energy equipment overseas are already pushing to sell their goods and services. Nuclear vendors are also very keen to participate in the South African nuclear bid and this can be a gateway to the rest of the continent. Not only is it my view that an all-inclusive energy mix is imperative, but African governments must recognise these as well if they wanted durable and sustainable solution to energy crisis.

Most of these post-Soviet years, Russia’s growing opacity, agreement clouded in secrecy which features in its policy is seriously affecting its image inside Africa. That however, it has been pushing nuclear technology to African nations both to turn a profit and to expand its political might on the continent. It has until now several bilateral agreements signed.

Article’s author looks at the future prospects.

Today, African countries face major challenges. Rapid population growth and the worsening energy crisis are constraining economic growth in the continent. Nuclear technologies can become a driver for socio-economic development and a comprehensive solution to the systemic continent-wide problems. But building nuclear power still faces huge financial difficulties across Africa.

Throughout my researches show that using the continent’s mineral wealth in the most effective way possible to finance energy. These two are interconnected. With constant energy supply, Africa can now embark on an effective industrialization, add value to rwa materials and commodities for onward distribution in the single borderless market AfCFTA.

Despite given Russia’s increasing cooperation, Africa has to find new solutions to energy crisis. A number of African leaders show the same expert views on developing the Inga-3 on the Congo river. Ethiopia is nearing completion of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

The GERD is estimated to cost close to $5 billion, about 7% of the 2016 Ethiopian gross national product. The lack of international financing for projects on the Blue Nile River has persistently been attributed to Egypt’s campaign to keep control on the Nile water share. It is the source of an almost decade-long diplomatic standoff between Ethiopia and downstream nations Egypt and Sudan.

Interestingly Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan have expressed interest in build nuclear plants, ready to spend more than what is required for GERD. But, in fact, the dam rather help to shift longstanding power relationships and could pave the way for more cooperation among all the countries that depend on the Nile. Having this hydro-project and sharing it could be a game changer in this region. The long-term benefits of this investment rather be less that the cost of all the three opting for nuclear plants.

Then besides GERD, Inga-2 on the Congo river – now both can provide enough hydro-energy for the continent. Despite the incredibly energy difficulties that confronts, in fact, all African countries, the Nile river and Inga-3 on the Congo, the greatest huge water resources can be be used as part of the much talked about energy mix. Over these several years, Russia’s enormous and consistent talks about providing nuclear power energy have not yielded remarkable visible results.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Democratic Republic of the Congo’s President Félix Tshisekedi, the Congolese President Sassou Nguesso and Rwanda Paul Kagame, have all emphasized this energy project in June 2023 during the New Global Financing Pact summit in Paris, France. Ramaphosa reiterated that the Inga-3 needs external financing. He stressed importance of building Inga-3 hydropower energy in addressing energy questions in the region.

Inga-3 is a complex hydropower project on Congo river, the world’s second-largest river by volume, and found to be the world’s deepest river. The river is unique, it has large rapids and waterfalls very close to the mouth while most rivers have these features upstream. The river’s powerful rapids at the Inga site are said to possess the largest hydropower potential in the world, which has for decades attracted dam planners who have dreamed of harnessing the mighty Congo’s power.

“The Inga 3 is undoubtedly the most transformative project for Africa in the 21st Century,” DRC Prime Minister Matata Ponyo Mapon noted almost 10 years ago, in March 2014. African leaders, politicians, policy-makers and development experts have to re-echo these words, especially its significance to Africa’s development today.

In April 2023, Power Technology reported that the project construction, which consists of 16 turbines, is likely to commence in 2026 and is expected to enter into commercial operation in 2030. The description is given as follows: The project is being developed by AEE Power, China Three Gorges, Fortescue Metals Group and Sinohydro. The project is currently owned by AEE Power with a stake of 25%, China Three Gorges and Sinohydro.

Inga 3 is a run-of-river project. The hydro power project consists of 16 turbines. The project has 16 electric generators that will be installed at the project site. According Power Technology, the AEE Power SA (AEE), a subsidiary of Eurofinsa SA, is an EPC contractor and power developer. It  offers transmission, power generation and distribution services.

With energy challenges still remaining and holding back industrial development, few African leaders have started thinking out of the traditional box to offer unflinching support for developing this continental hydropower plant. The urgent development of the Inga-3 could be cost effective and could supply the required energy output for the entire southern African region.

Perhaps, the most important way forward is for African countries to work in cooperation with one another and as a collective. Thus, overcoming passivity could involve the following steps: that Africa urgently needs new strategies toward addressing sustainable development goals, if not to wait for another century. To that end, the African Union (AU) can – and should – engage its members in a more structured manner and help them put together joint positions on critical issues relating to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and within the Agenda 2063.

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