By Jeffrey Moyo
HARARE, November 02, 2015 – Nuclear disarmament is a non-issue in Southern Africa. Because no African country possesses nuclear weapons. In fact the 38-nation African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (ANWFZ) Treaty, also known as the Treaty of Pelindaba, signed in 1996, established a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Africa. The treaty came into effect on July 15, 2009.
According to experts, rather than focussing on nuclear weapons, energy should be expended on seeing how the region may utilise nuclear power amidst rampant electricity deficits that have seen most of the countries in the region thrown in incessant darkness.
The experts’ focus on electricity availability here coincides with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 7 to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”.
“Countries in the Sub-Saharan region must be permitted to utilise nuclear energy as this may be an answer to electricity shortfalls here, however taking into cognisance the long-term effects of nuclear waste that endangers human life,” Happison Chikova, an independent environmentalist and nuclear energy expert based in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, said.
Nuclear waste is radioactive and an extremely toxic by-product of nuclear fuel processing plants, nuclear medicine and nuclear weapons industries. Nuclear wastes remain radioactive for thousands of years and have to be buried deep on land or at sea in thick concrete or lead and stainless metal containers.
Despite the hazards associated with nuclear energy, hard-hit with power woes, even ordinary people in this region agree with many experts like Chikova.
“I personally don’t care where electricity would come from even if authorities would harness it from nuclear energy, which many fear is often used in manufacturing dangerous war weapons, but with the layman’s knowledge that I have about nuclear energy, it is cheaper if it can be used to generate electricity,” Mevion Chimedza, a resident in Highfield, a high density suburb in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital explained.
But to climate experts here, emphasis on civilian instead of military use of nuclear power in this part of Africa is an answer to dire climate change effects.
“It will help in the mitigation of climate change impacts and improve agriculture production here, but if it’s a low investment, nuclear should be adopted to help generate electricity, which in this case means with the nuclear activity, we will be able to mechanise our production methods including agriculture,” Zisunko Ndlovu, an independent climate change expert in Zimbabwe, told IDN.
These views are being expressed against the backdrop that, despite raging debate about nuclear disarmament in the world’s military strongholds, no African country here possesses nuclear weapons to this day.
This in spite of the fact that, according to the Arms Control Association, the world’s nine nuclear armed states possess a combined total of roughly 16,000 nuclear warheads, more that 90 per cent belong to Russia and the United States.
Along with China, France and UK, they constitute the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and are also known as the “nuclear-weapon states” under the terms of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). In addition, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea are known to be armed with nuclear weapons.
In Southern Africa, only South Africa has at one time possessed nuclear weapons. It became the first nation in the world to voluntarily give up all nuclear arms it had developed before the anticipated changeover to a majority-elected African National Congress government in the 1990s.
The country has been a signatory of the Biological Weapons Convention since 1975, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons since 1991, and the Chemical Weapons Convention since 1995.
“As citizens of South Africa, we are mindful of the South African Government’s voluntary and unilateral relinquishing of a nuclear weapons capability in the 1990s,” Mike Kantey, former Chairman of the Coalition Against Nuclear Energy from 2007-2014 and now Director of the Watercourse Media and Development Company, told IDN.
Based on views from anti-nuclear activists and experts like Kantey, countries in this region, particularly South Africa, are aware of the hazards of nuclear energy.
Meeting with hibakusha
“As anti-nuclear activists and veterans of the Anti-Apartheid struggle, we were privileged to have hosted a delegation from the city of Hiroshima at the beginning of the 21st Century, where we heard an eyewitness account from one of the hibakusha, or survivors of that nuclear holocaust,” added Kantey.
According to Kantey, on that occasion, the Japanese delegation was actively campaigning for the universal nuclear disarmament and was asking South Africans to help in lobbying for an end to nuclear proliferation in South Asia, in the Middle East and in North Korea.
“From a unilateral pledge on the part of the State of Israel and the declaration of a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Free Zone in the Middle East, we believe that a greater pressure may be placed on South Asia to do the same, and so lead to a final commitment of the Big Five – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – to commit equally to the global elimination of all nuclear weapons and depleted uranium ordnance,” said Kantey.
But back to Zimbabwe, in 2012 amid widespread belief that the Southern African nation possessed vast untapped deposits of uranium, critical for both civil nuclear power generation and military nuclear weapons, the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority chief executive officer Josh Chifamba has been on record saying a team of experts here would soon be assembled to look into the feasibility of such a venture in a move likely to attract international attention.
“We will set up a small group to look at the nuclear option. We are looking at the year 2020 and onwards for full-scale nuclear power production,” Chifamba told an International Business Conference in Bulawayo last year (2014).
Zimbabwe possesses unexploited uranium deposits in the Zambezi valley while it is also estimated that Kanyemba Mine in the Zambezi valley holds more than 45,000 tonnes of uranium ore with over 20,000 tonnes extractible.
Iran and China are reported to have expressed a keen interest in Zimbabwe’s uranium deposits, this despite the UN having imposed fresh sanctions on Iran in 2013 after the country refused to halt its uranium enrichment programme.
Apparently eager to harness energy from the atom, the Zimbabwean government seems unperturbed by the dangers nuclear may pose environmentally.
In 2013, Foreign Affairs minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi told an Iranian news agency that Zimbabwe was willing to work with Iran on extracting uranium resources meant for Tehran’s controversial nuclear programme.
Like Zimbabwe, Namibia sees hope to end its energy deficits through nuclear energy.
Last year (2014) the Namibian government anticipated constructing a nuclear power plant simulator in future to train its citizens on the use of nuclear power, as confirmed by the country’s Mines and Energy Minister Isak Katali then.
“We are currently producing uranium, and exporting it raw. Nuclear electricity is cheap and safe,” Katali told reporters then.
Meanwhile, South Africa is the only country in Africa with a commercial nuclear power plant made up of two reactors accounting for around 4 percent of that country’s electricity generation. In fact the South African government has been on record indicating it would encourage a great deal of localisation in the construction and fabrication of nuclear facilities.
This, however, has unsettled nuclear energy experts here.
“South Africa will experience huge quantities of nuclear waste and reactor decommissioning that may become as expensive as construction itself,” Tony Huffing, an independent nuclear energy expert based in South Africa, told IDN.
But last year, South Africa launched the National Radioactive Waste Disposal Institute to assume responsibility for the management and disposal of country’s radioactive waste.
For many nuclear experts like Zimbabwe’s Chikova, with no single country possessing nuclear weapons in Africa, the challenge may not be that of a world free of nuclear weapons.
“There are no nuclear weapons to talk about here in this part of Africa and we need not waste time talking about nuclear disarmament, but rather invest our energies in harnessing nuclear energy without posing harm to the region’s environment,” Chikova said