Russia is pushing nuclear technology to African nations to both turn a profit and expand its political might on the continent.
Rwanda’s parliament has just approved a plan for Russia’s state-owned Rosatom nuclear conglomerate to build it a nuclear research center and reactor in the capital, Kigali.
The Center of Nuclear Science and Technologies, planned for completion by 2024, will include nuclear research labs as well as a small research reactor with up to 10 MW capacity.
Ethiopia, Nigeria and Zambia have signed similar deals with Rosatom, while countries such as Ghana, Uganda, Sudan and DRC have less expansive cooperation agreements.
Rosatom has been aggressively wooing African nations since the mid-2000s and the nuclear deals are seen as part of Russia’s push turn a profit and also gain influence in Africa.
Western sanctions first imposed on Russia in 2014 over its annexation of the Crimea in the Ukraine have forced Russia to seek alternative sources of incomes and also new friends.
Nuclear technology instead of trade
“For Putin to remain relevant in Russia, he really has to ensure that Russia has a big influence,” said Ovigwe Eguegu, a geopolitics analyst with the international affairs platform, Afripolitika. “That’s why he is looking at African markets so he has more parties to partner with when it comes to international issues.”
African nations constitute the largest voting bloc in the United Nations.
While the Soviet Union had a close relationship to various African states during the Cold War, Russia’s trade balance with Africa is one tenth of that of China, meaning it needs to look for other means to get a foothold on the continent.
“Russia is using the tools that they have to expand their influence and right now, Russia has lots of experience in the nuclear energy area,” Eguegu said in a phone interview from Abuja.
Rosatom nuclear leader
Rosatom is the world’s biggest nuclear company by foreign orders. While it has projects in developed countries such as Finland and Hungary, it’s mainly involved in developing regions.
The Rosatom packages are popular because the corporation’s sheer size means it can offer all-in-one deals, from training local workers to developing nuclear science curricula, supplying uranium for the plant’s life time and dealing with nuclear waste — with the added plus of Russian state loans for the projects.
The cost and financing of Rwanda’s nuclear research center is still undisclosed. But Russia is extending a $25 billion (E22.23 billion) loan to Egypt to cover 85% of the cost of the El Dabaa nuclear power plant, which Rosatom is constructing.
“Rosatom has come to dominate nuclear exports to developing countries because of their generous financing and worker training,” according to the 2018 Center for Global Development policy paper, Atoms for Africa.
Additionally, Russia is itself a major player in the nuclear market, responsible for some 8% of uranium production worldwide as well as 20% of uranium conversion and 43% of uranium enrichment (conversion and enrichment are stages of processing uranium so it can be used by commercial nuclear power reactors).
Pros and cons of nuclear technologies
Rwanda’s planned research reactor will also be used to manufacture radioisotopes, according to Rosatom. Radioisotopes have many applications from irradiating food to increase its shelf life to helping diagnose tumors or heart disease.
Such research reactors have “definite advantages” in fields such as nuclear medicine, nuclear scientist Michael Gatari, a professor at the University of Nairobi, told DW.
In addition, on a continent where where more than half of the population lack access to electricity, there is “immense potential” for nuclear to provide a clean source of energy to meet Africa’s large energy deficit, the Center for Global Development study, Atoms for Africa, found.
“In the long term, a nuclear reactor generates electricity cheaper than we are paying now. It is also stable and produces no carbon emissions,” Gatari said in a phone interview from Nairobi.
However, many experts, including Gatari, believe that nuclear technology doesn’t yet make sense for African countries. They lack the highly skilled local workforce required to run the technological intricacies of such reactors. Plus, nuclear facilities are vastly expensive and take years to build.
Gatari warns of countries becoming locked into costly projects that end up being “white elephants”.
“Such a project can only be driven by strong and educated local human resources,” the nuclear researcher said. “That knowledge isn’t possible by rushing young students through training for a short time.
And the cost of maintaining that kind of installation can cripple the budget of a country for a long, long time.”
Doing the smooth sell
Currently, South Africa is the only country in sub-Saharan Africa with a functioning nuclear power plant, while Nigeria and Ghana have research reactors, which are primarily used for studying and training and to test materials, such as minerals.
In Europe, safety concerns around nuclear technologies have already caused countries such as Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland to vote to phase out nuclear power.
These concerns are compounded in Africa, given the the political instability of certain regions and the threat of sabotage or terrorist attacks.
This hasn’t stopped Rosatom, and Russia, from doing a soft sell of nuclear technologies on the continent.
Rosatom funds scholarships for students from sub-Saharan Africa to study nuclear sciences and engineering in Russia. As of January 2020, around 300 students from more than 15 African countries were studying nuclear specialties there.
It runs an online video competition, Atoms for Africa, where participants stand a chance to win an all expenses paid trip to Russia for a video dedicated to innovative nuclear technologies.
In 2019, it even held an international fishing competition near the Leningrad nuclear power station, Russia’s largest, to demonstrate the safety of nuclear power for water bodies. (The competition was won by an Egypt team).
“There is good money if you can sell a research reactor,” said nuclear scientist Gatari. “Unfortunately, the convincing capacity of [Rosatom’s] marketing is very high, and the understanding of those who are buying is low.”