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Ideas & Debate

Kenya must start planning now for nuclear power energy

KPLC workers repair a power line at Rabai station in Kaloleni. Most of Kenya’s energy come from hydro and geothermal sources. Photo/FILE
KPLC workers repair a power line at Rabai station in Kaloleni. Most of Kenya’s energy come from hydro and geothermal sources. Photo/FILE 

There have been recent calls to add nuclear power onto Kenya’s energy mix.

These calls are justified taking into consideration that the country is aiming at becoming a newly industrialised nation in the next two decades.

Also, the main form of electricity generation, which is hydro, is under threat due to shrinking volumes of water levels caused by frequent droughts.

By 2030 Kenya should be targeting at least 7000MW of electricity to keep alive the hopes of claiming a new and respectful status in terms of industrialisation.

The target here is more than 500 percent of the current generation capacity.

But this energy will be needed to light up a substantial portion of the population’s homes, which is expected to be more than 40 million and to power new industries.

Kenya’s current electricity generation is about 1200MW, most of it coming from hydro and geothermal sources.

Wind and coal are taking place in the energy mix. These sources of energy will remain vital but they will not be able to cope with the demand in the long-term.

In the long-term, the country should be looking for a more reliable and sustainable sources of energy if the development goals set in the vision 2030 are to be met.

Nuclear energy has the capability of filling this gap.

Facts show that there is hardly any developed country that doesn’t have nuclear power in its grid.

Sixteen of them have more than a quarter of their electricity being supplied by nuclear power plants. All trends indicate that nuclear power is inevitable.

But is Kenya ready to construct and operate a nuclear power plant now? The answer is flatly no.

Does the country, in the mid-term, have the potential to embark on nuclear power generation activities? I vote a yes.

There has been ad hoc calls from different fronts to have nuclear power in the grid within the next 10 years.

The desired time period is practically impossible because of two reasons.

Firstly, these statements are purely opinions with no technical backing and secondly, it is an enormous task to put together favourable infrastructure to support construction and operation of a nuclear power plant.

Let us try to estimate a practical road-map for Kenya to becoming a nuclear power reactor operating country.

One thing to keep in mind is that the country is starting with a clean slate.

Apart from being a member of the International atomic energy agency (IAEA), the country has no law or regulations on utilisation of nuclear material to generate electricity.

There is no nuclear programme in place, no research reactor in operation and the country has very limited technical capability, if any.

The first step towards building and operating a nuclear power plant is to establish a nuclear power programme.

It involves enacting a law in parliament, which will form the basis for developing a legal/regulatory frame work covering all aspects of nuclear material, developing technical expertise and human resources that ensures nuclear material is solely used for safe and secure generation of power.

With the current political environment in Kenya, two years could easily elapse before such a law is enacted.

After parliament enacts the legislation, a nuclear regulatory body would be formed under the act.

This body is charged with all regulatory aspects that ensure safety and security in all nuclear related activities, which include plant citing, construction, commissioning, operation and decommissioning.

A typical regulatory body will initially require close to 50 persons with specialised training and qualifications on various nuclear areas.

To find the right personnel to run this regulatory body will be a challenge to Kenya due to lack of expertise and may take another two years.

After a regulatory body has been established, with the help of IAEA, regulations that will govern nuclear activities will be put in place.

This activity will consume another three years.

In essence, if Kenya committed herself to starting a nuclear power programme by 2011, a legal framework to start preparation work for a nuclear power plant could be realised by 2020.

Part of the preparation will be to establish the viability of nuclear power.

The next step is to issue three licences; to prepare site, to construct and to operate a nuclear power reactor.

Each of the three licenses is issued after the regulatory body is satisfied with the preceding stages.

Typical duration between the licence to prepare site and licence to start construction is five years.

It may take Kenya seven to eight years due to the complexity of the process combined with the fact that this will be the first nuclear facility.

High costs

Going by the above timelines, licence to construct would be issued in 2027.

Construction of a nuclear power plant takes at least five years.

Therefore Kenya could have the earliest nuclear generated electricity in the grid not earlier than 2032.

The estimation here is that the country will require at least 20 years to start a nuclear power programme and to have a nuclear power reactor up and running.

There are some challenges that need to be mentioned.

One of them is the high cost of constructing a nuclear power plant.

It is estimated that the cost of per megawatt of electricity from a nuclear power reactor is close to $3 million.

To build twin reactors of 600MW each would cost approximatel$4 billion.

The other challenge is developing the level of expertise required to operate a nuclear power plant, usually close to 1000 persons.

Also required are the experts working in the regulating body.

These challenges might push the dates even further into the future.

If the Kenyan government is serious about having nuclear power in the energy mix by 2030, an energy policy that identifies nuclear power as one of the energy sources should be formulated right away.

This will trigger the need to establish a nuclear power programme and with the hope that everything runs smoothly, then Kenyan homes could be lit by the first nuclear generated electricity in 2030s.

Dr Kariuki is a technical engineer in nuclear reactor safety at Canada’s largest power generating company.

He can be reached at [email protected]

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