FROM IAN THORNTON, POLICY ADVISER, WRITING FROM SOUTH AFRICA,

According to Dr Rob Adam of the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation, the world’s first nuclear reactor was in Africa – in Oklo, Gabon to be precise. Today, there are only two reactors in sub-Saharan Africa, both man-made and both here in South Africa.

Discovered in 1972, the natural reactor is made of uranium ore in a seam of sandstone. It was started by a self-sustaining nuclear fission 2 billion years ago and is thought to have run for hundreds of thousands of years, turning itself off and on, as the lake above it evaporated and refilled.

Dr Adam was speaking at the sixth African Science Academies Development Initiative (ASADI) conference here in Cape Town. This conference brings together the African academies of science and scientific specialists every year to discuss a different topic; this year it is focusing on ‘Access to Energy in sub-Saharan Africa’.

 The statistics on energy are shocking. 70% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa lack adequate access to energy – something that underpins economic growth and the achievement of all the Millennium Development Goals.

Access to electricity in some countries is as low as 10%, and under 50% in many. Yet the potential is huge – apparently the hydroelectric capacity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo alone could supply all of Africa and Western Europe’s needs. Such underutilisation is crushingly sad.

As the conference wraps up, we’re all looking towards the future – discussing the international and domestic roles of academies of science. The Academy of Science of South Africa have managed to secure three Ministers and the Chair of the Parliamentary Science & Technology Committee to speak over the two day conference. This high level participation from the government is clearly one of the key roles an academy can play in pushing an issue up the agenda and in taking policy forward. Here in South Africa, the future looks well lit.

Our friends at SciDev.net are blogging daily from the conference. Read their posts here.

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