What you need to know:
- While government officials strongly defend the nuclear project, questions abound about how a country whose major cities – Nairobi, Kisumu, and Mombasa – have failed to handle minor fire disasters and basic household waste will effectively deal with toxic wastes, which are the by-product of nuclear power generation.
- In Nairobi for instance, where every individual generates about two kilogrammes of waste every day, garbage is littered all over, with roads becoming impassable when it rains.
- Moreover, some hospitals and clinics carelessly dispose their medical waste in landfills ran by cartels, yet the government insists it can handle nuclear waste.
As Kenya moves steadily towards its industrialisation dream (Vision 2030), the question of how to generate reliable power to meet the growing demand from households and industries continues to induce headaches, as local manufacturers cry foul over power tariffs that are higher than those in neighbouring countries.
The Kenya Association of Manufacturers says local manufacturers are charged Sh15 per kilowatt hour, while manufacturers in Ethiopia, Egypt and Uganda pay as low as Sh4.14, Sh6 and Sh12 per kilowatt hour respectively.
The prohibitive power charges, the investors say, makes locally-produced goods not only expensive, but uncompetitive in regional markets.
While the government brags that over 60 per cent of the country’s population has access to power, unreliable power supply and frequent power outages steal the thunder from this achievement, pushing the government into overdrive to boost power production.
One of the strategies is to put up a nuclear energy plant by 2027, in a fervent push to lower the country’s energy deficit and electricity tariffs.
The project will cost a staggering Sh2 trillion begging the question of whether it will lower energy tariffs and still remain afloat.
Sceptics also argue that a sunshine-rich country such as Kenya should never think of going the risky route of nuclear energy.
However, the Kenya Nuclear Electricity Board (KNEB) CEO Collins Juma says that nuclear energy is now a necessity rather than a choice, pointing out that for Kenya to achieve its Vision 2030 goals, it needs between 17,000 and 21,000 megawatts (MW).
“There will still be a deficit even if all domestic energy resources are fully exploited and therefore, nuclear energy has been identified as a stable, efficient and reliable source of electricity that will steer industrial development, stimulate economic growth, create jobs and above all, better the lives of Kenyans,” Juma says, adding that the country currently generates about 2,400 MW from all its available energy sources.
AMIDST ALL THE PROMISE...
He adds that Kenya’s first reactor will have a capacity of 1,000 megawatts (MW), which is equivalent to 42 per cent of the country’s current installed electricity capacity, adding that that KNEB plans to put up at least four other plants with a total output of 4,000 MW.
“The large modular reactors that Kenya will construct have an electric power output of between 700 and 1, 700 MW,” Juma says.
But amidst all the promise, lies environmental, health and safety concerns. When nuclear fuel is burnt, it generates energy but leaves behind highly radioactive waste which poses a big threat to health and the environment for thousands of years. Nuclear power is also non-renewable.
While government officials strongly defend the nuclear project, questions abound about how a country whose major cities – Nairobi, Kisumu, and Mombasa – have failed to handle minor fire disasters and basic household waste will effectively deal with toxic wastes, which are the by-product of nuclear power generation.
In Nairobi for instance, where every individual generates about two kilogrammes of waste every day, garbage is littered all over, with roads becoming impassable when it rains. Moreover, some hospitals and clinics carelessly dispose their medical waste in landfills ran by cartels, yet the government insists it can handle nuclear waste.
One of the critics of nuclear power generation is North Horr Member of Parliament Chachu Gaya, who says that the government should explore safer sources of energy such as solar and wind energy, and only consider nuclear as an energy source of last resort.
Also opposed to the idea of nuclear energy is Lamarck Oyath, the CEO of Lartech Africa, a company that provides consultancy on Private Public Partnerships, such as the ones the government is considering to make nuclear power generation a reality.
He observes that while nuclear energy is the most reliable and climate-resilient source of energy, it is wrought with high risks that Kenya is not well prepared to handle.
Opponents are also worried about health hazards, safety and radioactive waste management, with questions about the country’s preparedness to deal with radioactive waste and accidental leaks which advanced economies like Japan have grappled with.
“Kenya only rides on optimism in its quest to generate nuclear power, but lacks human capital or infrastructure to roll out the technology,” says Oyath, adding that Kenya’s poor waste management strategies and pitiable response to disasters are considerable grounds to dismiss the project.
However, David Maina, the director of the Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology at the University of Nairobi, allays fears about lack of capacity.
“Over the last five years Kenya has been aggressively involved and participated in almost all the available training opportunities on nuclear energy,” he says, insisting that the country is capable of adequately managing a nuclear power plant by 2030.”
In the nuclear energy fraternity an accident anywhere is considered an accident for all and therefore a lot of intellectual energy is used to study the incident and provide a solution to minimise likelihood of its recurrence,” he adds.
Edwin Chesire, KNEB senior technical officer, argues that the alternatives of solar, wind and biomass energy have a cap beyond which they cannot be exploited.
He explains that by 2030, geothermal energy will only be able to produce between 4,000 MW and 5,000 MW of energy; hydropower stations will generate between 2,000 MW and 3,000 MW; coal will generate 3,000 MW; while wind and solar will generate 1,000 MW, leaving the country with a deficit that will be boosted by imports from the East African power pool and the planned nuclear power plant.
“The government is currently undertaking massive energy projects, but demand will surpass the country’s energy resources.
“When all is said and done, we won’t have anything else to turn to apart from nuclear power,” says Chesire, adding that while we may not be ready for a nuclear power plant in 2018, a decade from now, we will be.
On safety and waste disposal, Joseph Maina, the acting CEO of the Radiation Protection Board, says there is a nuclear safeguard regime in place to account for every unit of nuclear material acquired, to ensure that they are not diverted to unintended uses.
“The board is spearheading the construction of a Central Radioactive Waste Processing Facility to manage increasing stockpiles of radiation in the country.
“A radioactive waste repository is also being constructed,” he adds.
According to Maina, the Radiation Protection Board has finalised its 15-year strategic plan and has taken steps to review Kenya’s regulatory framework by completing the Draft Nuclear Regulatory Bill 2016, to help the country address nuclear power concerns.
Meanwhile, the Kenya Nuclear Electricity Board has formed a site selection team of experts from various government institutions who came up with criteria for selecting the site that will host the nuclear plant.
Experts say that nuclear plants are best located in areas with low population and close to a huge water mass, making areas along Lake Victoria, River Tana or the Indian Ocean possible hosting locations.
However, the site must not be in an earthquakes zone, which rules out regions around Lake Victoria as a good fit, since in 2016, Bukoba – a town in northern Tanzania bordering Lake Victoria – was rocked by an earthquake of 5.7 magnitude, killing 13 people and injuring 200 others.
The tremors were felt as far away as Uganda, Rwanda and western Kenya.
Juma says Kenya is currently preparing a workforce that will oversee the construction, operation and the commissioning of the power plant and have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with five countries including Russia, South Korea, China, Slovakia and USA to help in capacity building.
“The republic of South Korea is training our engineers at the University of Nairobi. We also have an agreement with China through the China Nuclear Group, and we are working closely with USA through Texas A&M University where they are coming up with a curriculum for nuclear engineering,” he says.
So far 16 students have enrolled for postgraduate programmes in nuclear power plant engineering at the KEPCO International Nuclear Graduate School in the Republic of Korea.
“For Kenya to be ready for any eventuality, we must invest heavily in human resource development, public education and have a nuclear disaster management which is continuously being tested,” Maina, the director of the Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology says.
Chesire adds that the risks and probability of accidents have been minimised because current reactor designs have enhanced safety features, in addition to stringent regulations regarding the operation of such plants.
“We will use an advanced reactor, a Generation III+ reactor, which consumes most of the spent fuel and is only fueled once in sixty years,” he explains. Both Chesire and Maina also point out that countries like Sweden are competing to host a waste depository plant because they view the spent fuel as a resource and not waste.
“They take the spent fuel and nuclear waste and put it in a reprocessing facility to produce new fuel.
“We are developing a policy for radioactive waste management in the country and even Russia gives an option where they supply uranium and take back the spent fuel,” says Chesire.
Chesire adds that the energy produced by a uranium pellet when burnt, is equivalent to energy produced by burning 27 tonnes of coal or three barrels of oil which have more negative environmental impacts than the nuclear power plant.
“By the time we reach Malaba with Standard Gauge Railway, we will have spent $8.22 billion in a project that has not really transformed the transport sector as imagined. Why then can’t we spend $5 billion in the nuclear power plant which will produce half the amount of energy we have been able to produce since independence?” he poses.
He suggests financing options where an investor builds, owns and operates the plant for eternity or eventually transfers it to the government, among other options.
“Funding is what we receive from the government, for the first few years to go towards salaries, educating personnel and so on.
In financing, we can explore ownership schemes that can help the government,” says Chesire.
The world is moving away from nuclear energy, but Africa is embracing it
The history of nuclear energy is punctuated with grisly disasters and accidents. Most recently in March 2011, close to 20,000 lives were lost in Fukushima, Japan, in one of the deadliest nuclear accidents in history, after a major earthquake that hit the area and damaged one of two Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants.
Citing safety concerns, industrialised countries like Belgium, Spain and Switzerland plan to phase out their nuclear power plants. Germany has permanently shut down eight of its 17 reactors and has announced that it will shut down the rest by 2022.
On the other hand, Africa is warming up to the idea of nuclear energy as a cheap and reliable source of electricity, with newcomers such as Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt, Tunisia, Uganda and Tanzania, laying out plans to go nuclear in the near future.
How nuclear energy/electricity is produced
Enormous energy is present in the bonds that hold the nucleus of atoms together.
This nuclear energy can be released when those bonds are broken.
The bonds can be broken through nuclear fission, and this energy can be used to produce electricity.
In nuclear fission, atoms are split apart, which releases energy.
All nuclear power plants use nuclear fission, and most nuclear power plants use uranium atoms.
During nuclear fission, a neutron collides with a uranium atom and splits it, releasing a large amount of energy in the form of heat and radiation.
More neutrons are also released when a uranium atom splits.
These neutrons continue to collide with other uranium atoms, and the process repeats itself over and over again.
This process is called a nuclear chain reaction.
This reaction is controlled in nuclear power plant reactors to produce a desired amount of heat.
Nuclear energy can also be released in nuclear fusion, where atoms are combined or fused together to form a larger atom.
Fusion is the source of energy in the sun and stars.
- Nuclear Energy Institute