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POWERING DEVELOPMENT

A case for nuclear energy in Kenya

Nuclear energy produces close to 15 per cent of the world’s electricity

In Summary

• Although the government is going ahead with the nuclear power plant establishment, serious doubts have been expressed.

• Concerns have been raised to the technical issues associated with storage, transportation and the disposal of radioactive material and waste.

Ministry of Energy and Petroleum CS Charles Keter and Energy PS Joseph Njoroge during a nuclear energy conference in Nairobi on March 14,2017
ENERGY Ministry of Energy and Petroleum CS Charles Keter and Energy PS Joseph Njoroge during a nuclear energy conference in Nairobi on March 14,2017
Image: ENOS TECHE.

Several African countries are on the journey towards establishing their first nuclear plant.

Kenya is among these countries and has purposed that it is necessary to diversify the country’s energy mix to improve its electricity generation capacity. However, a lot of questions still linger in the public minds as to whether the country is ready for a nuclear power generating plant.

The existing mindset has been constructed negatively as a result of the nuclear disasters that have occurred in the past and recently. People ask of what use is there to build a nuclear power plant when the country has substantial sources to exploit energy — wind, geothermal, solar and natural gas etc.

The public needs to understand that with the renewables, their energy supply is intermittent and lacks the required baseload to provide electricity supply throughout. The population, as it is, isn’t going to be constant. In the next five years or so, Kenya’s population is estimated to be more than 50 million, which applies to the rest of Africa. So, would there be enough supply to power the growing demand? Definitely, there have to be other sources of energy to be exploited to meet the expected rise in demand.

CONCERNS RAISED

Although the government is going ahead with the nuclear power plant establishment, serious doubts have been expressed. Some reasons for doubts include lack of properly trained manpower, the overall cost of the project, suitability of the sites where nuclear plants are to be built and nuclear disaster management.

At the outset, there are hardly any nuclear engineers currently working for the Nuclear Power and Energy Agency, despite it doing a lot to ensure the existing engineers are trained and mentored abroad. The government through the agency has rolled out annual training programmes targeting Kenyans in various fields to build adequate capacity for the country’s nuclear power programme.

Mostly the training comprises of short and long term programmes in partnership with local and international institutions. This year, two Kenyans have been selected to undertake a Masters Programme at the Tsinghua University in China for an international graduate programme in nuclear engineering management.

The agency has also since hosted experts from South Korea on the development of local nuclear science and engineering course at Kenyatta University. Without competent engineers, it is very difficult to initiate a nuclear power programme and it is with this recognition that the agency is expanding the capacity. It takes roughly about three to five years to train nuclear engineers.

With regard to sites, the agency has already completed the criteria for selection of nuclear power plants in Kenya. Field studies and ranking of candidates’ sites have also been completed.

NUCLEAR SAFETY

Concerns have been raised to the technical issues associated with storage, transportation and the disposal of radioactive material and waste. This needs to come out clear as to where the waste is going to be stored. Is it in the country? Or will the country that will be tasked with the building of the nuclear plant take it back? This is indeed a problem. Up to date, no country is yet to complete the entire fuel cycle or handled the issue of spent fuel management in practice.

Attention also needs to be expressed about the safety of nuclear reactors to be used. Many countries, owing to their failure to meet European safety standards, have rejected the common VVER-1000s reactors globally. Thus, informing the public of the track record of chosen nuclear reactors will be of uttermost importance for their concerns on safety be addressed.

At present, nuclear energy produces close to 15 per cent of the world’s electricity and 5.7 per cent of the total primary energy used worldwide. Meanwhile, the global energy supply and energy use per capita is increasing. The contribution of nuclear for electricity generation varies from region to region. In Western Europe, nuclear power accounts for almost 27 per cent of total electricity. In Northern Europe, it’s about 18 per cent and Africa 2.4 per cent. At the moment, there are approximately 400 nuclear power reactors operating in almost 30 different countries worldwide. This demonstrates the rapid growth and success of the technology

However, still, Western countries are still trying to reduce their dependence on nuclear energy and are instead focusing on solar and wind. The Fukushima Daichi nuclear accident renewed the debate about safety, consequently creating a negative perception. Nuclear energy technology continues to be highly contested not because it is a highly beneficial technology but because of the risks that have been associated with it.

However, for the purpose of public record nuclear plants are the safest in that they emit no pollution compared to the burning of fossil fuels. In case of accidents, a nuclear plant can only release negligible amounts of radioactive matter. People can’t die from small radioactive matter that escapes from a nuclear plant. People did not die during the Fukushima accident, other than a cancer death attributed to radiation exposure.

People have, however, formed the perception that any small nuclear radiation-related incident will lead to a situation like the Chernobyl accident. People are exposed to radiation daily in the form of cosmic rays, X-rays, CT scans, Mobile Phones and also during surgeries.

We cannot predict what will happen in the future and to a larger extent, we have to leave it to destiny. Therefore, it shouldn’t always be perceived that if nuclear plants are built, then there is going to be an accident of some sort. This is fearful anticipation and it varies from one person to another.

And since nuclear projects are established pursuant to a declared national policy, public engagement and providing information will help people in dealing with the fear of nuclear power generation. The Nuclear Power Energy Agency is already in the process of educating the public on nuclear power generation in the various counties.

Nuclear power will also help with reducing climate change effects. The burning of more of fossil fuels is likely to contribute to an increase in carbon emissions, of which is what currently contributes to climate change globally. With the threats of climate change in mind, many governments and environmentalists have begun to reconsider nuclear power as potentially cleaner compared to fossil fuels.

Kenyan households and businesses will need competitively priced, reliable, safe and sustainable energy to deliver on the Big Four agenda, hence the government proposal to pursue nuclear as an option based on the principle of peaceful utilisation of atomic energy.

Mbaka is a Research Associate, Energy Security Programme at the  Centre for International and Security Affairs