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February 20, 2019

Viability of Kenya's nuclear plant divides opinion

Japan Nuclear plant. Photo/File
Japan Nuclear plant. Photo/File

KENYA plans to generate 1,000 megawatts of power from nuclear energy by 2025 to sustain its socio-economic development.

Nuclear energy, along with wind, geothermal and coal, are projected to expand the capacity of national grid to 19,000MW by 2030 from the just above 2,000 MW presently, to support the country's industrialisation ambitions.

Indeed, if the country is looking forward to become an industrilising, middle-income country as envisaged in the Vision 2030 blueprint, high volume of power is needed.

Debate on the proposed nuclear energy plant has divided public opinion down the middle.

A section of Kenyans have questioned why the government should not first fully exploit the other safer energy options available including geothermal which has a capacity of up to 10,000 MW.

Emuhaya member of Parliament Wilbur Ottichilo is of the opinion the cost implications including maintenance are too high. He says the government should first undertake exhaustive studies on the viability of the project first.

Ottichilo's argument is it will take no less than ten years from now for Kenya to build its capacity and capability to generate nuclear power.

“Challenges such as disposal of the nuclear waste, the location of the plant and funds to build this project must also be considered. The plant will be vulnerable to unforeseen accidents and possible terror attacks,” he said in an interview with the Star.

But his colleague Jamlick Kamau, who chairs the parliamentary committee on energy, said there is little to fear about investing in nuclear power.

Comparing Kenya to nations that achieved their objectives in industrialisation long ago could be detrimental to realising Kenya's plans, he said.

“Those developed nations which are moving away from nuclear energy have been using it for decades to industrialise their countries. We want to achieve our goals therefore we must invest in the right energy options,” Kamau said in a phone interview.

Patrick Obath, a consultant on energy and extractive, says nuclear energy will be a beneficial investment if it is done in collaboration with other East Africa community neighbours.

He says a nuclear plant can be located anywhere without the extra costs such as transport or fuel and other maintenance costs.

“The key thing with nuclear is that it must be considered in terms of regional relevance. It can be stationed between two countries, in order to satisfy energy needs of the East Africa Community as a whole and ensure power stability,” Obath said.

He suggested that a location at the Kenya-Tanzania border would be appropriate.

This would bring down the cost of building and maintaining the plant.

Only South Africa has invested in nuclear energy on the continent, with three active reactors and a fourth one in the pipeline.

Other countries in Africa that are considering nuclear as an energy source include Egypt, Morocco, Ghana, Senegal, Namibia and Uganda.

The government is taking measures to prepare early, and it is apparent that investment in nuclear is not a matter of if but when.

Experts at the University of Nairobi's Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology have been training students in the postgraduate programme since the government announced intentions to put up a reactor.

The institute, which has been in existence since 1980, now admits three times the number of students than before the announcement to go nuclear. Government sponsors 15 out of the 20 students admitted for studies as it seeks to build capacity in nuclear energy.

Michael Mangala, a lecturer at the institute, says for Kenya to achieve the kind of developments that it has been imagining, a lot of power, that is consistent, is needed.

“Access to energy is the basic requirement for economic growth. Today, over 1.5 billion people in the world have no access to electricity, a basic form of energy,” he said in an interview.

He observed that even if other energy options such as geothermal, wind and coal are viable, they are less practical to employ on a large scale such as in the running of industries.

“With nuclear power, the country is assured of consistent supply 24 hours a day throughout the year. This is the kind of power needed to run major capacity engines such as rapid transit systems.

"Subways and trams which we need to ease transport problems are best operated with a regular supply of high level of energy. You would not want to be stuck in a stalled train underground due to a blackout,” he observed.

Constructing such a project is however expensive, a worry that Ottichilo mentioned. He said that Kenya should first take lessons from South Africa.

Their fourth nuclear plant has stalled due to the huge financial requirements, and opposition to its location.

Mangala said the economics of the country could turn out of be an obstacle, as the viability of a nuclear plant is measured against the country's gross domestic product.

He said the International Atomic Energy Association set standards allow only countries with GDP in the upwards of $50 billion should be approved for construction of such a project. Kenya's GDP is above $55 billion.

Another requirement is a minimum of 10-gigawatt size of national electric grid. Kenya grid has a capacity of 2,298 MW, and needs at least 10,000 MW additional power to undertake nuclear power production.

“Kenya can actually afford to build a nuclear reactor, though not immediately. Maybe after 2020, after attaining the minimum requirements for energy in the national grid,and this is after exploiting geothermal, wind and other existing options.”

Obath echoed similar sentiments. He said that Kenya should only go the nuclear way after exhausting all other available power resources, and after thorough studies showcasing the need to acquire nuclear energy.

Ottichilo projected the country would only need 15,000 MW of power by 2030. He maintains that the project is not viable for Kenya, citing developed countries, like Germany, which are closing their nuclear reactors and resorting to renewable energy options.

Obath said security risk should not deter efforts to improve Kenya's energy mix. He said that when a government decides to build a investment of such magnitude, nothing should be left to chance.

“Policies to handle nuclear power need to be drafted carefully, and studied to detail. They are expected to clearly address nuclear safety and waste management.

"The process of getting up a nuclear policy, then an investment case, selecting technology, along other procedures, could take over ten years. Give the actual construction about 30 years, not the 15 years being discussed now.”

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