HOW DOES NUCLEAR POWER WORK?
Nuclear power is a clean, powerful, but expensive source of energy. In some ways, it produces energy in a similar way to burning fossil fuels. All of these energy sources create electricity by forcing steam through a generator turbine. However, nuclear energy uses a more complicated process to heat water and produce steam. This process is called ‘fission’. Nuclear fission occurs when you split the smallest particle (the atom) of certain unique metals. Splitting the atom releases a lot of heat energy. This heat energy is then used to heat water, creating steam.
ADVANTAGES OF NUCLEAR POWER
Unlike burning fossil fuels, nuclear power is a clean source of energy. It does not give off harmful greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. In addition, fossil fuels are currently being used faster than they are produced, which means that they will soon run out. Nuclear power offers an alternative energy source for when fossil fuels do run out.
A crucial advantage of nuclear power is that it produces electricity continuously. Usually, production of electricity at a nuclear power plant never has to stop. Most nuclear power plants are generating electricity for 90% of time in a given year, working 24 hours a day. This makes nuclear power a very reliable, consistent source of energy. This is especially important given that almost all other sources of clean energy can be inconsistent and unreliable. Solar power cannot work at night; wind power is often ineffective at certain times of the year when winds are low; hydropower produces limited electricity during dry seasons. This makes nuclear power unique. It is a very helpful source of energy if you want to make sure that electricity is provided all year round.
One disadvantage of nuclear power for most countries is that they do not have access to the unique metals required for the fission process (certain forms of uranium and plutonium). This means that they have to buy these metals from other countries. However, this is not a problem for a lot of countries in sub-Saharan Africa, because uranium can be found in many of them (15 so far).
DANGERS AND CHALLENGES OF NUCLEAR POWER
However, there are also several dangers involved in nuclear power. If a nuclear power plant is not managed properly, it is at risk of exploding and spreading dangerous substances to nearby areas. This is incredibly rare, but accidents like this have happened before (at Chernobyl, in Ukraine, and Fukushima, in Japan).
Even if a nuclear power plant is managed safely, it still faces challenges when managing the waste produced by the process. This waste is very dangerous, and power plants must make sure that they remove it safely.
COULD NUCLEAR POWER EVER BECOME A POWER SOLUTION IN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA?
Right now, nuclear power is not the most attractive energy solution for sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. Currently, South Africa is the only country in the whole continent with a commercial nuclear power plant.
Countries in sub-Saharan Africa are struggling to keep up with their electricity demands. Currently, more than two in three people in the entire region do not have access to electricity. This means that governments are looking for fast, cheap solutions. In the long term, nuclear power can provide large amounts of cost-effective electricity, but it is expensive and slow in the short term. It takes an enormous amount of money and up to ten years to make a single nuclear power plant fully operational. Alternative renewable energy sources like solar power are much faster and cheaper to set up.
However, many sub-Saharan countries are looking ahead to the future. While most governments are focusing on more sensible energy resources like natural gas and hydropower, some of them are beginning to create strategies for developing nuclear power in the long term. Ghana, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, and Sudan are all moving towards using nuclear energy in the future. Two specific sites for nuclear power plants have already been planned in Nigeria. Maybe the first sub-Saharan nuclear power plant is not as far off as most people think.