Out of Africa: Goodbye Solar, Hello Nuclear Power

There is a curious, even strange and demented, technological trend underway in Ghana, a west African country which recently made a major oil discovery and boasts large hydro-electric resources.

Ghana wants to go nuclear.

The country may be bathed in sunshine. It may even have potential supplies of wind and thermal power. And Ghana can essentially "harvest" enormous amounts of electricity by vastly reducing "transmission losses" from its venerable Volta dam complex.

And yet despite all these energy supplies, real and forecasted, Ghana's government is training hundreds of people in order to staff a planned nuclear-power plant that would be the country's first.

The planned plant would open ten years from now.

But well before 2018, nuclear power could become a serious distraction in Ghana, consuming brains and funds that would better go towards grabbing the "low-hanging" fruit in the country's energy mix.

Ghana isn't the only African country talking up nuclear power. Recently, Nigeria stunned the world when its government announced a desire to install many nuclear-power plants around its densely-populated country. Nigeria went so far as to strike an accord with Iran last month over assistance in developing nuclear power.

The logic behind Nigeria's nuclear embrace is peculiar: The country's broken infrastructure means frequent electricity shortages. Even gasoline pumps often go dry because of the poor condition of the country's refineries.

If Nigeria can't run an oil-refinery, why is the government even contemplating the much more challenging task of running nuclear power plants?

Well, maybe Nigerians are simply jealous of nearby neighbor Ghana. The country has a better record of managing infrastructure than Nigeria. Yet Ghana hardly seems a candidate to join the list of nuclear power countries. Ghana has barely mastered the challenging "arts and crafts" of road-building. Internet communication remains very costly and afflicted by reliability problems. The country is home to perhaps 500 world-class engineers, not enough to meet current needs no less than demand caused by a new nuclear plant.

As it happens, I am in Accra, Ghana's capital, as I write. With a presidential election less than 90 days off in Ghana, the public isn't thinking about nuclear power. In the past, Accra's tiny environmental community has staunchly opposed an African nuclear delusion. From sizing up Accra over the past 10 days, my bet is the opponents will rise again.

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