NGUGI: Is Kenya ready for nuclear energy?

Kenya can develop energy strategy to secure its future and safeguard its people and environment. Public participation a must.

In Summary
  • By learning from successes and challenges of Japan and Germany, Kenya can navigate to a sustainable and resilient energy future.
  • Nuclear power proponents announced for a Sh500 billion plant in Kilifi, sparking violent uproar from residents, activists.
A nuclear power plant in Brazil.
RENEWABLE ENERGY: A nuclear power plant in Brazil.
Image: FILE

Kenya has variously been described as a promising, stable, and progressive state in Africa signalling the opportunity for Kenya to positioning itself as a top Africa economy and political leader.

Toward this ambitious goal is the need for infrastructure investment, more so the expansion and diversification of its energy sources for stability, reliability and affordability. Despite the rush to find the energy solution, Kenya can develop an energy strategy that secures its future while safeguarding its people and environment.

The Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority (EPRA) describes Kenya's energy landscape as a mix of hydropower (34 per cent), geothermal (47 per cent), wind (one per cent), bioenergy (two per cent) and solar energy sources (four per cent). This portrays a deficit in energy supply needs currently and in the future.

Faced with the challenge of meeting rising electricity demand driven by economic growth and urbanisation, nuclear energy was proposed as a possible avenue to fill the energy gap. The Nuclear Power and Energy Agency (NuPEA) was established in 2019 through an Act of Parliament to oversee the ambitious undertaking.

Nuclear power remains relatively unknown to the majority of Kenyans although it has been described by political actors as a reliable source of energy with low carbon emissions.

NuPEA announced plans to set up a Sh500 billion nuclear power plant in Kilifi, sparking uproar from locals and human rights activists. The community has expressed concern over their safety, environmental impact, and the socio-economic consequences of such a project. The community is concerned that developed economies like Japan and Germany with well-developed infrastructure for nuclear energy are scaling down or transitioning to other less risky sources of energy altogether.

They wonder why Kenya with less developed infrastructure would contemplate such a risky undertaking that everyone else is shying away from.

At a recent event at Uyombo in Kilifi county the local community protested attempts to introduce the project to the community without adequate prior public engagement and informed consent. It was met with brute force by the police, leading to injuries to more than 20 community members and the arrest and detention of three human rights defenders. This raises serious concerns regarding the imposition of such a sensitive project within the community without regard to their concerns.

Germany, for example, decided to phase out nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster. Germany’s "Energiewende" (energy transition) strategy focuses on replacing nuclear and fossil fuels with renewable energy sources, improving energy efficiency, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This transition aims to create a sustainable and resilient energy system.

It should be recalled that Japan, a country that is heavily invested in nuclear power, experienced the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in 2011. The earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan triggered catastrophic failures at the nuclear plant, leading to widespread radiation release and long-term environmental and health impacts. This disaster highlighted vulnerabilities in nuclear safety protocols and the severe consequences of inadequate disaster preparedness.

For a country like Kenya, the Fukushima incident emphasises the need for vigorous safety measures and strict regulatory frameworks. It also requires sustained open and frank conversation with communities regarding the potential long-term environmental and health impacts of nuclear energy and on the level of investment in technologies that can mitigate potential risks. This would likely help assure the country and affected communities of the safety and sustainability of Kenya's nuclear energy ambitions.

Residents of Oyombo have decried the secrecy and lack of information regarding the proposed project, which has fuelled fears over mass displacements, disruption of their pristine ecosystem and risk of radiation in case of a leakage. Sadly, the relevant authorities have failed to grant the community adequate hearing of their concerns and information about their plans.

This has incubated tension and fear. The deployment of state security to attack the community that exercised their right to protest and make demands for public participation as required by the Constitution would not succeed in forcing such infrastructure on the people.

Building public trust through transparency and effective communication about the risks and benefits of nuclear energy is also vital. Ensuring community engagement and public participation in decision-making processes can address concerns and foster acceptance, thereby building a solid foundation for energy development. The duty bearers must make the bold step to reach out to the community, their leadership, and human rights defenders to a round table to discuss this and other issues affecting them. Alternative sites should be explored should the community be unconvinced.

While nuclear energy has been described as a low-carbon alternative capable of providing stable base-load power, the experiences of Japan and Germany suggest that Kenya should carefully weigh the benefits and risks. Developing a balanced energy strategy incorporating nuclear and renewable energy sources could be the most effective approach to achieving energy security and sustainability.

Germany’s experience should be explored for the potential of other renewable energy sources as viable alternatives to nuclear power. Kenya is blessed with abundant geothermal, wind, and solar resources. Kenya can focus on expanding and integrating these renewable sources into its energy matrix. Successful energy transitions require strong policy frameworks and significant investment in development and infrastructure.

Kenya is blessed with academic giants who have studied widely on various forms of energy that are beneficial, and are generated with the least risks. They should take leadership in facilitated robust public conversation on required safety standards, robust regulatory frameworks, and a commitment to environmental and public health to guide Kenya's journey towards adopting nuclear energy.

At the same time, the potential for renewable energy to meet the country’s electricity needs should not be overlooked. By learning from the successes and challenges faced by Japan and Germany, Kenya can navigate its path toward a sustainable and resilient energy future.

As Kenya contemplates enhancing its energy capacity to meet its demands for a rapidly growing energy needs, the country must prioritise public participation regarding their concerns, and balance the benefits and risks. This might require going back to the drawing board to exhaust the available renewable energy options such as Geothermal Energy whose current Capacity: stands at 800 MW and has a potential of to 10,000 MW. Wind Energy production stands at 310 but bears the potent of producing approximately 3,000 MW, especially in northern and coastal regions. Solar Irradiance levels stand at 4-6 kWh/m²/day due to its equatorial location and this equally bears potential for growth to thousands of MW. Kenya’s total installed large hydropower capacity is 826.23 MW. Small hydro potential is estimated at 3,000MW, of which it is estimated that less than 30MW have been exploited and only 15MW supply the grid.

Executive director, Defenders Coalition

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