Green Nukes for Africa

Green Nukes for Africa

A modest dream of a better future for Africa would include a wider availability of good things that many Americans have the privilege of being able to take for granted. Access to nutritious food, nice clothes, and decent shelter, at affordable prices. Safe streets, pleasant neighborhoods, adequate health care. Jobs. Relatively competent government bureaucracies, significant accountability on the part of government to citizens, and the rule of law.

However modest this dream, its realization will require an immodest increase in the wealth of African countries. Let’s, for example, imagine a future South Africa accomplishing a degree of national wealth that would allow its citizens to enjoy these kind of good things on a par with citizens of South Korea today. That is, let’s imagine South Africa increasing its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita from roughly USD 13,000 to roughly USD 33,000 (in 2014 dollars) over the course of the next twenty years or so. (Twenty years is the period of time that it took South Korea to accomplish such a near tripling of GDP per capita, and our modest dream would require average annual national wealth growth rates for South Africa similar to that achieved by South Korea between the early 1990s and the early 2010s.)

Among other things, such an increase in South Africa’s national wealth would require significant industrialization. With an increase in industrialization comes an increase in energy use. With an increase in energy use comes an increase in CO2 emissions. And an increase in CO2 contributes to climate change—a slow but difficult-to-reverse warming of the world with severely damaging effects in a few centuries’ time, potentially more damaging in Africa than in many parts of the rest of the world.

That is…if South Africa over the course of the next twenty years makes use of a mix of energy sources that produce CO2 to a destructive degree. South Africa can, however, instead make choices that will allow it to grow its economy without increasing its negative effect on global climate. South Africa can choose to use its considerable coal resources in cleaner rather than dirtier ways. It can choose to use less coal and more natural gas. It can choose to continue increasing its use of renewable energy sources like wind, water, and sunlight.

Encouragingly, the South African government has committed itself to an intended nationally determined contribution (INDC) to global climate change mitigation. South Africa’s plan projects a trajectory with South African CO2 emissions peaking between 2020 and 2025, plateauing between 2025 and 2035, and declining sharply after 2035. The planned INDC will keep South Africa within a total of 7 to 11 gigatonne CO2 emissions for the period 2000 to 2049, by means of “a complete transformation of the future energy mix, which is designed to replace an inefficient fleet of ageing coal-fired power plants with clean and high efficiency technology.”

What South Africa’s INDC does not explicitly state is that the government intends to include nuclear in its future energy mix (similarly to South Korea)—but this inclusion has been confirmed by the Minister of the Environment, Edna Molewa. This is good news. Significantly increasing the nuclear portion of South Africa’s energy mix would mitigate the climate effect of the country’s industrialization faster and less expensively than the available alternative solutions, with significantly less of a footprint than most of the alternatives in terms of land use, building materials, fuel use, emissions, and costs.

Regrettably, a shift to more nuclear in South Africa’s energy mix is currently tainted by a connection in public opinion and popular sentiment between such a shift and the corruption of South African politics. There are reasons for this connection. South Africa’s government wants to start building six to eight nuclear power plants in the near future. South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, would have liked these plants to have been built by a Russian contractor, Rosatom, and would have liked the uranium needed to have been provided by a mine owned by the controversial Gupta family—and was happy to negotiate his preferences without the transparency required by South African law. When the then finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene, balked at the price tag on the nuclear build, Mr. Zuma fired him—provoking an immediate and precipitous fall in the value of South Africa’s currency in international exchange markets.

Africa need not choose between economic development for its people and environmental protection of the planet. The modest dream I describe in my opening paragraph above can be accomplished without cataclysmic climate consequences. But such green growth can only be accomplished with nuclear as part of the energy mix. And to secure sustainable public support for cleaner energy that includes nuclear, Africa will need cleaner governments. These things hang together: clean government, clean energy, sustainable prosperity, the modest goods of a good life.

Gideon Strauss is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Public Justice and Associate Professor in Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies.

Photo Credit: Isar Nuclear Power Plant in Germany by Bjoern Schwarz, via Flickr.

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