Why real estate industry should be interested in Kenya’s nuclear programme

Nuclear energy

The nuclear infrastructure development programme involves three phases, which are marked by three corresponding milestones.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

What you need to know:

  • The process of setting up a nuclear power plant is extensive. In Kenya the idea was birthed under the late President Mwai Kibaki’s government.
  • The nuclear infrastructure development programme involves three phases, which are marked by three corresponding milestones.

The term “nuclear energy” often elicits an unsettling feeling, or, in some cases, pure existential dread. TV shows such as Chernobyl and movies such as Mad Max have done their fair share of cultivating a doom-and-gloom narrative around all things nuclear.

There is also the fact that devastation of Hiroshima in World War II still casts a dark shadow over our collective consciousness. If that is not sombre enough, there’s the more recent 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident, which resulted in the release of radioactive contaminants into the surrounding environment.

The question is, however, just how realistic is humanity’s anxiety towards nuclear energy? Are these preconceptions grounded in reality, or fiction?

Let’s start with some basic data about energy consumption, with the real estate industry as our point of reference. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the real estate sector consumes 30 per cent of cumulative energy produced globally – whether in building and construction, or in direct consumption such as heating, cooling or lighting businesses and homes. The sector is also responsible for 26 percent of global energy-related emissions, 8 per cent being direct emissions in the building and construction industry, and 18 per cent being indirect emissions from the production of energy used to run buildings.

It is no wonder, therefore, that it is one of the sectors that has been leading in innovations to reduce emissions and energy costs, through construction of green and eco-friendly buildings. However, need for clean energy production is not limited to the real estate sector, as energy production is required for many other sectors, while remaining focused on the global net zero emissions goal by 2050.

A report released by The Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority (EPRA) in January this year shows that of 86 per cent of the 12,652 Giga-Watt hour (GWh) of power produced in Kenya in 2022, came from renewable sources. This is in line with Kenya’s targets towards a 100 per cent transition to renewable energy by 2030. It is this vision upon which Kenya’s nuclear programme is predicated.

With the global nuclear energy output projected by the IEA to be growing at a rate of 3.6 per cent per year, and contributing to about 13 per cent of global electricity generation, DN2 Property sought to learn more about Kenya’s journey in this sector. We had a sit-down with the Acting CEO, Nuclear Power and Energy Agency (NuPEA), Justus Ambutsi Wabuyabo, for further insights.

What is the origin of Kenya’s nuclear programme, and what are the milestones reached so far?

The process of setting up a nuclear power plant is extensive. In Kenya the idea was birthed under the late President Mwai Kibaki’s government. This was one of the country’s Vision 2030 goals, in order to meet growing projected energy needs. A nuclear energy project committee was therefore set up in 2010, under the ministry of energy.

In 2011, the committee was turned into a parastatal and renamed to the Nuclear Electricity Board. The board hired a consulting agency to do a lengthy feasibility study, to determine whether this investment was viable, then in 2019, parliament passed the Nuclear Regulatory Act under which NuPEA, the corporation responsible for setting up nuclear plants, as well as the Kenya Nuclear Regulatory Authority (KNRA) which is the regulator, were established.

The nuclear infrastructure development programme involves three phases, which are marked by three corresponding milestones.

Phase one is pre-project where considerations before launching the programme are taken. At this stage the government makes pronouncements of intentions to get into nuclear energy production, a feasibility study conducted, and the legal framework is developed. There are also other mandatory issues that must be addressed given how strictly regulated this sector is, such as emergency planning, and management of radioactive waste. It is at this stage that NuPEA and KNRA were established.

There are also review missions carried out by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquartered in Vienna, Austria, to ensure all mandatory objectives for this stage are met. The first review mission was carried out in 2018 and the second in 2021, and upon certifying that safety preparations and legal and regulatory framework were established, they gave the go-ahead.

Phase two which is where we are currently, involves preparatory work for the construction of a nuclear power plant after a policy decision has been made. Besides the act passed in 2019, we also need a policy for implementation.

Various stakeholders and steps are taken at this stage besides policy formulation, like human resource development. This involves training personnel such as engineers in countries with running nuclear programmes, so that by the time we establish the first plant, we have locals trained in operations, and not just foreigners. Last year in December, the government signed an MOU with the US to exchange nuclear technology and training.

There is also industrial involvement at this stage, as they are one of the biggest power consumers. Materials used in plant construction such as concrete and steel are special grade, and passing this knowledge to local manufacturers able to make such goes along with procurement laws, which requires part of the services to be sourced locally.

Site characterisation is also carried out to find suitable ground for the plant. Some of the considerations made are area susceptibility to earthquakes, population to minimise relocations, as well as proximity to a large water body. The regions considered were Nyanza, Turkana and the Coast - Kilifi was identified as the primary location, and Kwale as an alternative.

Justus Ambutsi

Justus Ambutsi, Acting CEO, Nuclear Power and Energy Agency.

Photo credit: Billy Ogada | Nation Media Group

A seismic and weather station will be established at the site to conduct various surveys, and once finished, then the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will be invited for further checks and certification. After this is done, we will have achieved the second milestone.

Phase three is the construction stage which involves activities to implement a first nuclear power plant, such as capital allocation and bidding. Completion of this marks the final milestone, and the plant is commissioned and added to the national grid.

How safe is nuclear energy production?

The nuclear power sector is highly regulated and monitored locally and internationally by the IAEA. This makes it quite safe, despite popular notion that it is dangerous. While a nuclear incident can be catastrophic, the history of nuclear energy production since its inception speaks for itself.

Far from fiction, in 70 years and with a total of 667 nuclear power plants that have ever operated, only three major accidents have taken place. Using the official internationally-recognised death statistics from the IAEA for Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, the combined loss of lives from the three major nuclear accidents is 32 people. These are people who died as a result of radiation. In comparison, an estimated 1,500 people die for every 1000 Terra-Watt hour (1,000,000 Mega-Watt hour) of hydroelectric power produced, the leading renewable energy source. As per fossil fuel pollution, a 2021 Harvard environmental research indicates one in every five deaths is attributed to fossil fuel pollution. Even other renewable energy sources of power such as solar and wind cause more deaths from accidents; electrocution, fires, installation.

There are also four major conventions that govern nuclear energy production, which mandate strict reporting of incidents, as well as acceptance of liability and strict compensation measures for victims.

How does nuclear energy compare to other energy sources with output versus pollution versus cost in mind?

Safety statistics weighed against capacity for production, not only makes nuclear energy safe, but also the most efficient, with the highest capacity factor at 93.5 per cent (capacity factor is the ratio of the actual energy produced by an energy-generating system versus the energy that it can produce at maximum output, over a given period of time). Natural gas has a capacity factor of 56.7 per cent, coal 47.5 per cent, hydropower 39.1 per cent, wind 34.8 per cent, and solar 24.5 per cent.

When it comes to pollution, nuclear power plants produce no greenhouse gas emissions during operation, and over the course of its life-cycle, nuclear energy produces about the same amount of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions per unit of electricity as wind, and one-third of the emissions per unit of electricity when compared with solar.

The carbon dioxide emission intensity (grams of carbon dioxide produced per Kilo-Watt hour of electricity produced – g CO2/KWh) is used to calculate the ratio of carbon emissions from public electricity production. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicates that coal is the biggest polluter at 820 g CO2/KWh, followed by natural gas at 490, biomass 230, solar pv 41, geothermal 38, hydropower 24, and both nuclear and wind being the least polluters at 12.

Finally on cost, nuclear plants are quite expensive to set up, the current estimate for one plant is Sh500 billion, however, a plant has an average lifecycle of 70 years, and is able to pay back this cost within 17 years.

How exactly does a nuclear power plant work?

A nuclear power plant looks like a standard thermal plant that consists of several buildings and facilities. It is divided into two main areas; the nuclear side with nuclear reactor(s) housed in a containment building, and the turbine building which houses several turbines and engines necessary for electrical power generation.

When a nuclear reaction takes place in the nuclear containment chamber, water is heated and steam from the burning water turns turbines and generates electricity. The steam powering turbines and generators is ultimately recycled, as it turns back to water, and the excess is released into the atmosphere. Heat from a self-sustaining chain reaction boils water in a nuclear power plant, while coal, oil or gas is burnt in other power plants.

Separate myth from fact…

The biggest myth about nuclear energy is around safety, and as data shows, it is significantly safer than other energy sources.

Another myth is that nuclear plants emit dangerous amounts of radiation. This is not true, as the combined effect of the structural, mechanical and human safety systems built into nuclear power plants means that a person working in a nuclear plant is exposed to less radiation than a passenger on a flight from Nairobi to New York. Radiation occurs naturally in the environment and can even be found in foods such as Brazil Nuts or bananas. We are exposed to background radiation every day, and radiation from nuclear plants is lower than what occurs naturally.

Another myth is that nuclear reactors can explode like bombs. This is not possible as nuclear plants are designed to produce electricity safely and reliably. The power plant does not contain the type of fuel needed to make atomic bombs. Furthermore, the fission reaction in the plant is controlled.

Another misconception is that we do not need nuclear energy. To meet future energy demands, Kenya will need a mix of energy sources such as hydro, geothermal, win, solar and nuclear. These sources complement one another to provide stable and consistent electricity supply. Whereas hydropower, wind and solar are weather-reliant, nuclear energy is able to produce consistent power for up to two years without refuelling. Nuclear energy is not only reliable, but can also significantly reduce the cost of power.