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Commentary | 8 July 2024

Unleashing the power of Pillar III of the Non-Proliferation Treaty for sustainable development in Africa

Pillar III of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)— the peaceful uses of nuclear energy pillar —provides a veritable framework to foster sustainable development in Africa. Nuclear energy possesses the potential to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, accelerate clean energy transition, and power industrial productivity through stable electricity supply across Africa. The implementation of the NPT thus holds great potential to catalyse Africa’s development.

The NPT is the only global treaty that simultaneously provides an opportunity for African countries to directly address nuclear weapons risks and some of Africa’s developmental challenges, such as climate change and energy poverty. Although other nuclear treaty regimes, such as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), are essential for converging countries towards a ban on nuclear weapons and a ban on nuclear weapons tests, none of these treaties provide a direct solution to Africa’s developmental challenges. In this regard, the NPT is a unique regime.

Despite this, the NPT is viewed as discriminatory by many states, especially those in the global south. This is because, firstly, it officially divides between nuclear-weapons states (NWS) and non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS) and maintains the nuclear monopoly of a select few countries. Secondly, these recognised NWS, who are obligated by the NPT to pursue disarmament according to Article VI, have not only been slow in their progress but appear to be journeying on a new nuclear arms race, leaving NNWS frustrated and denying them one of the ultimate goals of the treaty – nuclear disarmament. Thirdly, the restrictions placed on NNWS’ access to nuclear technology for civilian use by countries with advanced nuclear technologies, e.g through nuclear export control (such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group), hinder the potential use of peaceful nuclear energy and developmental prospects in NNWS that are not advanced in nuclear technology, inhibiting cooperation on Pillar III. By striving to fulfil Pillar III obligations, NWS would strengthen not only the NPT but also the declining confidence of NNWS in the regime.

By striving to fulfil Pillar III obligations, NWS would strengthen not only the NPT but also the declining confidence of NNWS in the regime. Daniel Ajudeonu

We are also witnessing rollbacks in states’ commitment to the NPT, such as the 10th NPT Review Conference concluding without an agreement, the modernisation of nuclear arsenals by P5 states, and Iran’s enrichment of some of its uranium stock to near-weapons grade level. These are clear indications of a negative trajectory away from global nuclear disarmament – contrary to Article VI of the NPT. NWS fulfilling Pillar III obligations to African countries would prevent further rollback and demonstrate their commitment to the treaty regime. In particular, Article IV(2) states, “All the Parties to the Treaty undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy”. Rather than trivialised, the issue of nuclear technology transfer should be prioritised.

When nuclear technology transfer to the African region is mentioned in multilateral gatherings, the issue of proliferation risk is often raised. While there is a risk, the potential gains are enormous, and the region is striving to accelerate its developmental pace and integrate nuclear energy into its energy architecture while upholding international nuclear safety and security standards.

This commitment to safety and security standards contributed to the establishment of the African Commission on Nuclear Energy (AFCONE), which is responsible for the “coordination and promotion of safe and secure peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology, as well as regional and inter-regional cooperation for that purpose.” It is also the responsibility of AFCONE to “foster peace and security in Africa, and globally, through overseeing the full and effective implementation of the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament provisions of the Treaty of Pelindaba”, also known as the Africa Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty.

Even with the establishment of AFCONE, it is not unsurprising for the international community to be concerned about proliferation risks if nuclear technologies are transferred to African countries because of the political instability and insecurity challenges facing many states in Africa. While the risks of proliferation are present, African countries with relatively stable political and security climates, such as Botswana, Namibia, and Ghana, that can successfully establish robust regulatory frameworks, as well as safety, security, and safeguard mechanisms in accordance with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) standards and international obligations, should be granted technology transfer painlessly.

Insufficient technical expertise of the recipient country may be another barrier, even if technology transfer is not a burden, as many African countries lack human capital that is skilled in nuclear science and technology. To overcome this, countries with advanced nuclear technologies should support countries that have limited expertise in technical capacity building, such as developing training programs and research initiatives. This is what Pillar III is meant for.

It is also the duty of African countries that desire nuclear energy to create an environment where nuclear energy production can thrive securely. Such countries should work to establish a safe and secure environment, establish robust regulatory frameworks, implement robust safety, security, and safeguard mechanisms in line with IAEA standards and international obligations, and develop the capacity of their human capital. African countries currently considering nuclear energy include Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Namibia, and Rwanda.

As African countries advance their civilian nuclear agenda, their use of nuclear reactor-only technology or nuclear reactor with fuel cycle technology is a potential debate in the international community due to the ability of nuclear reactors with fuel cycle technology to produce highly enriched uranium or plutonium, which could be used to make a nuclear bomb. Meanwhile, nuclear reactor-only technology could only be used for heat generation to produce electricity. Both options have advantages and disadvantages. Nuclear reactors with fuel cycle technology can also be used for mining, enriching, and fabricating nuclear fuel, which can then be used in electricity production or for producing weapons-grade fissile material. It can also be used for recycling and disposing of nuclear fuel and managing radioactive waste. Should African countries be allowed to obtain nuclear reactors with fuel cycle technology? This is a complicated issue and is open for debate due to the risks involved.

There is a considerable long-term cost trade-off between foregoing a nuclear reactor with fuel cycle technology for a nuclear reactor-only technology. A nuclear reactor with fuel cycle technology provides opportunities for recycling and reusing spent nuclear fuel, minimising radioactive waste, and saving costs on fuel procurement and waste management, which a nuclear reactor-only technology does not. While it is not impossible for African countries to securely manage nuclear reactors with fuel cycle technology, it would be a much easier investment for African countries to obtain nuclear reactor-only technology at this time due to the inherent technical, financial, and political difficulties, such as geopolitical tensions, proliferation risks, and transparency concerns associated with possessing nuclear reactors with fuel-cycle technology.

Small Modular Reactors, which could be more cost-effective than traditional nuclear reactors, do not have fuel cycle models yet, even though they may be under research. So, African countries should instead follow an incremental approach by going for reactors without fuel-cycle technology now (whether traditional large-scale or small modular reactors) and exploring whether they need and are ready for fuel cycle reactors in the future.

Finally, the conventional financing model of direct loans from seller to buyer for nuclear power projects is problematic and constitutes practical challenges for low and middle-income countries seeking to transition to nuclear energy. This is due to the capital-intensive nature of nuclear power projects, which often require a significant upfront investment, and which a seller may not be able to cover fully. This leads to financial strain on the buyer country; the long gestation period of nuclear power projects which means that return on investment may not be immediate and thus could be a hindrance for buyers relying solely on direct loans; and the possibility of sellers’ reluctance to provide direct loans for projects if the financial commitment and potential liabilities involved are substantial and not profitable for the seller in return. Furthermore, the “direct loan from seller to buyer model” places a long-term cost burden on buyer countries regarding loan repayment. For some countries in Africa that are currently struggling to pay existing loan debts associated with other economic development initiatives, such a model would only constitute a higher debt burden for these countries.

It is also not impossible for ambitious vendors to compromise on safety standards to reduce costs and present cost-friendly deals to buyer countries due to the growing nuclear market competition in Africa. Because the region does not have any nuclear vendor, and over half of the major global nuclear vendors are entirely State-owned or partly State-owned by non-African countries e.g. CNNC (China), CGN (China), EDF (France), ROSATOM (Russia), KEPCO (South Korea), this breeds an opportunity for superpower rivalry in Africa, which is unhealthy for the region’s growth and development. To mitigate these challenges, it is vital that the World Bank, which is the major multilateral development financing institution dedicated to providing financing to reduce poverty and support sustainable development in low and middle-income countries, amends its nuclear energy policy and begins to provide financing, such as grants and low-interest loans, for nuclear energy projects. Besides, if the World Bank makes such a provision, it will benefit not only Africa but all World Bank member countries interested in pursuing nuclear energy.

The peaceful uses of nuclear energy pillar offers a unique opportunity to accelerate Africa’s journey towards sustainable development while reinforcing its commitment to the NPT. It is a win-win scenario for NWS and NNWS alike that should be embraced.

The European Leadership Network itself as an institution holds no formal policy positions. The opinions articulated above represent the views of the authors rather than the European Leadership Network or its members. The ELN aims to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time, to further its charitable purposes.

Image: Pexels, Kyle Miller