As an emerging country, Rwanda is entering nuclear energy. Cooperation partner is Rosatom, Russia also attracts other African countries.

Nuclear deal: Rwanda’s infrastructure minister Claver Gatete and Rosatom boss Alexei Lichachev in Sochi Photo: ITAR-TASS / IMAGO

BERLIN taz | Many countries are leaving, Rwanda’s parliament has just cleared the way for nuclear power. The parliament in Kigali approved the government’s plan to build a nuclear research center and a small nuclear reactor with capacities of up to 10 megawatts in the capital. The plans between Russia and Rwanda were signed in Sochi, Russia, in October 2019.

So far, nobody knows who pays. In a similar project in Egypt, Russian state banks granted the Egyptian state a loan of over 22 billion euros. The Russian energy giant Rosatom is to build a gigantic atomic complex in El Dabaa on the Mediterranean by 2026, Egypt itself shouldered only 15 percent of the costs.

The planned nuclear research center in Rwanda will initially not produce any nuclear power. It is about other areas of application: among other things, the preservation of crops and radiation therapy for cancer patients.

The military hospital in Kigali already has a radiation therapy device that has so far provided 350 cancer patients with treatment that is significantly cheaper than abroad. In India, for example, radiation therapy costs $ 8,500, while in Rwanda it only costs $ 1,750, which is covered by local health insurance companies.

All uses of peaceful nature

“If we do not have skills in these areas of application, it will be a major problem,” said Claver Gatete, Rwanda’s Minister of Infrastructure, to the parliamentarians. All planned applications are of a peaceful nature. 50 young Rwandans are already studying nuclear sciences in Russia and are training on reactors there.

The facilities are also intended to help the export industry: Rwanda’s airline RwandAir is now flying vegetables, fruit, cut flowers and fresh fish abroad on a large scale – sometimes to Europe. In order to ensure the shelf life of the goods, farmers are often forced to harvest before they actually ripen, said Gatete.

Ionized radiation could be used to prevent ripening and insect infestation. “If we don’t have this technology, we can’t be competitive in exporting agricultural products,” said Gatete. Preservation by radiation is only permitted in the EU for spices.

Rwanda wants to get out of its dependency on development aid in the next few years and is striving for economic development. The East African landlocked country is the most densely populated country on the continent with a good 12 million inhabitants. Rwanda is emerging, but there is a lack of energy resources.

The Greens are against it

And so 76 of the 78 MPs present voted for the agreement. Only the two members of the Democratic Green Party opposed it. “Living next to a nuclear facility is like living next to an atomic bomb that can explode at any time,” said Green Party chief Frank Habineza. If you take into account the high population density in Kigali, there is no safe place for it. His party colleague Jean Claude Ntezimana emphasized that the question of the disposal of nuclear waste was not sufficiently clarified in the agreement. The Green Party is only a small one in Rwanda, but the only real opposition party. It was registered in 2013 and won two seats in parliament in the last 2017 elections with 5 percent of the vote.

Rwanda is not the first African country to rely on Russian nuclear energy. Egypt, South Africa, Zambia, Ethiopia and Nigeria have entered into similar deals with Rosatom, the world’s largest nuclear company. Ghana, Uganda, Sudan and the Republic of the Congo have also signed agreements, but they don’t go that far. This is indirectly related to Europe. Since the EU imposed sanctions as a result of the Russian invasion of Crimea, Moscow has been looking for new partners – also in Africa. In the meantime, Rosatom maintains 33 nuclear reactors in 12 countries worldwide – only one has so far been located in Africa: in the far south on the Cape.

That should change. “Africa is really the last hurdle for us,” says Dmitri Schornikow, Rosatom chief for Africa, to taz. “We firmly believe that nuclear energy is an inexpensive and reliable alternative for countries that want to improve their energy supply.” the Africans with a complete package that includes financing, operation, training of specialists and the disposal of nuclear waste. He wants to have “the most effective solution” ready “that can reduce the production costs per kilowatt hour,” says Schornikow.

Africa’s hunger for electricity is huge. So far, 60 percent of the population has no access to electricity. In comparison: So much electricity is currently being generated in Germany that it could be enough for the entire continent south of the Sahara. In Africa, diesel generators, dams, sunlight and gas are still used primarily. Rwanda has also been trying to generate electricity from methane gas deposits in Lake Kivu for ten years. But the electricity is not enough, the prices are high.

Arguments of the nuclear lobbyists

The arguments of the nuclear lobbyists sound tempting: According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the amount of electricity available in most African countries could be doubled with just a single reactor.

Nigeria signed a letter of intent with Rosatom back in 2009: the Russians should scan the most populous country on the continent for uranium deposits and help build the nuclear sector. Then the project was temporarily stopped due to the 2011 Fukushima meltdown. It was only in November 2017 that both sides signed an agreement to build a nuclear reactor. Cost factor: $ 20 billion.

Ghana also started talks with Rosatom in 2012. But because of Fukushima, the country was looking for alternatives. Similarly, elsewhere: In Ethiopia, construction began on the Renaissance dam on the Blue Nile in 2011, the largest hydropower plant on the continent with an output of 6,000 megawatts. It is currently being flooded and should go online soon.

In the Congo, the plans for the Inga dam have recently been pushed again. Theoretically, it could electrify almost the entire continent. The problem: There have been financing problems for decades. When it will be finished remains unclear.