Russia, China Back Nuclear Power Plant in Africa

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  • TEMPO.CO, Addis Ababa - In a damp office at Ethiopia's Addis Ababa University, doctoral student Hailu Geremew fantasies about working on the nuclear reactor his country is now pondering building.

    "Oh that is my dream, my dream, my dream," said the nuclear physicist, 32, wearing rectangular glasses and a cardigan.

    Geremew is part of a new generation of African scientists whose prospects are expanding as their government is team up with foreign powers on a potential fast-track to electrification.

    For now, South Africa is the only country on the continent operating a nuclear power plant.

    But in recent years, at least seven other sub-Saharan African states have signed agreements to deploy nuclear power with backing from Russia, according to public announcements and the World Nuclear Association (WNA), an industry body.

    Geremew first heard about the ambitious nuclear deal Ethiopia had struck with Moscow on the television news two years ago. The next day, his university department was buzzing with talk about it.

    Ethiopia's memorandum of understanding on nuclear cooperation with Russia paves the way for the construction of a nuclear power plant and a research reactor in the long term, said Frehiwot Woldehanna, Ethiopia's state minister for the energy sector.

    The East African country has been electrifying rapidly to meet rising energy demand and its own goal to become the biggest power exporter on the continent, while sticking to pledges to remain a low emitter of planet-warming greenhouse gases.

    Under a 2015-2020 development plan, Addis Ababa wants to raise power generation to more than 17,000 megawatts (MW) from the current capacity of just over 4,200 MW, mainly by harnessing hydro, wind and geothermal sources.

    Its most ambitious project under construction is the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Nile river that will churn out 6,000 MW at full capacity when completed within the next four years, according to Ethiopian Electric Power, the state-owned utility.

    But Woldehanna worries about betting on an abundance of water for the country's main source of electricity, as droughts become more frequent.

    With rivers sometimes drying up, "you cannot fully rely on hydropower", he said, adding that nuclear technologies have "environmental" advantages over others.

    Plans for a nuclear power plant in Ethiopia remain at the "pre-feasibility stage", but the country is serious about building one, he emphasized.