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Africa is a continent of darkness and is desperately in need of power.

Only one in three of Africa's 700 million people have electricity - and in the countryside only one in ten has light at the flick of a switch. For many people, solar energy is the most obvious route for a continent blessed with abundant sunshine. However, some countries are already heading in the nuclear direction.

Global attention has turned to nuclear energy as a clean and sustainable answer to rising energy demands, dwindling oil supplies, and fears over damaging carbon emissions. Now, several African countries want in on this nuclear renaissance and yellowcake, the main ingredient in nuclear fuel, is back in fashion.

Nuclear power

Alwynne Lubber works for the Rossing uranium mine, which is located 70 kilometres inland from the Namibian coastal town of Swakopmund. "The end product of Rossing uranium is uranium oxide, which is a blackish powder, produced by extracting the uranium in the granite rock." "Once it's gone through the chemical extraction process, the yellow cake is roasted at around 800C," said Mr Lubber.

Namibia is essentially a desert country and it relies on South Africa for almost half its electricity. However, it does have plenty of uranium and the government is already quietly getting on with a nuclear programme. "We are going for nuclear power, there is no question about it, but what we are going to do - I am not prepared to talk about it because we haven't even got legislation in place yet," said Joseph Iiata, the permanent secretary in Namibia's ministry of minerals and energy. "Why should we sleep in darkness if we have been given resources like uranium," he added.

Power shortage

Africa's only nuclear power station is Koeberg, which is situated to the north of Cape Town. It has been in operation for almost 25 years and produces about 6% of South Africa's electricity. Despite South Africa exploring the nuclear option, it is still chronically short of power. "We are short, we have been under-investing in energy - but the implications only really came home this year, when South Africa ran out of power," said Phillip Lloyd, from the University of Cape Town.

The country used to have enough power to sell to its neighbours, like Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Its problems came about because it had connected more people to the grid, without increasing the amount of power it was generating. South Africa lost $7bn when the lights went out and to prevent this happening again, the government is redoubling its efforts to go nuclear.

"We need thousands of megawatts of additional power to cope with our growing economy and population," said Mr Lloyd. "You can't get thousands of megawatts out of wind or solar because the technology isn't there." "We lose about 10% of our electricity because the coal mines where we generate the electricity are 1,000 miles away from where we are currently sitting." "So, from that point of view it makes a lot of sense for South Africa to think in terms of nuclear," added Mr Lloyd.

Going nuclear

South Africa embarked on its nuclear programme under apartheid back in the 1950s. Now, the country is pioneering a new generation of much smaller nuclear reactors, which it hopes will solve not only its own power problems but also the rest of Africa's. By 2030, the country intends to have built 40 new power stations, which will provide 30% of the country's electricity.

Gert Claassen is from PBMR, the company hoping to roll-out the so-called Pebble-Bed Modular Reactors in several years' time. "The entire idea was to develop a reactor that is inherently safe, so that there would be no set of circumstances that one can devise that would ever cause a meltdown," he said. However, in 2005, South Africa's courts ordered PBMR back to the drawing board after anti-nuclear campaigners argued that its environmental impact assessment was flawed.

Many are also concerned by the new reactor's price tag, as it has cost $2bn so far. "It's smaller but not safer," said energy specialist Leila Mohammed. "A recent report showed that the temperature is very high and is very difficult to manage - this is a new technology and nobody really knows what could happen," she added. PBMR says that it has ironed out these issues and is completely satisfied with all the safety tests and safeguards it has put in place.

"All the basic research has been completed and like every other engineering system in the world - until it is fully operational, there may be elements that have to be adjusted," said Gert Claassen. Others argue that nuclear power is Africa's only serious option. "Africa should go nuclear, many countries are wholly dependent on hydro power and they can lose 50% of their power if it does not rain," says Kelvin Kemm, a nuclear physicist and business consultant.

"You cannot run a modern, industrial nation on that type of uncertainty," he said. It takes a country with no experience in the nuclear field at least 10 to 15 years - and a lot of money - to build up the necessary know-how and regulatory framework. Nigeria has just this year begun this process. However, G8 countries are worried that radioactive material could easily fall into the wrong hands - given the Nigeria government's inability to prevent armed gangs from wreaking havoc on oil installations.  

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