Kenya has over the years ramped up investment in power generation to meet the demands of a growing economy. The push has been more pronounced on geothermal, wind and solar sources to make up for the dwindling hydro-production.
Nuclear energy has seemingly been left behind, at least in the eyes of the public.
Business Daily talked with the acting chief executive officer of the Nuclear Power and Energy Agency (Nupea), Justus Wabuyabo, on where Kenya is with its nuclear energy dream and the plans for the future.
There have been calls for the disbandment of the agency with proponents notably the John Ngumi-led presidential task force saying Kenya does not need nuclear energy; what is your take?
I see it as more of making statements without having all the facts right. As a country when the then Narc government came to power, a council formed by the late President Mwai Kibaki recommended that we have nuclear power as part of our energy mix as part of our Vision 2030 transformation agenda.
Given the ever-growing economic activities and push for carbon-free, nuclear energy is still part of the energy conversation.
As a country, where are we with the nuclear energy dream?
The journey entails a three-phased milestone approach. The first phase involves making a decision that as a country we need this power. The Mwai Kibaki government made this recommendation that we incorporate nuclear energy into our mix. That was our milestone one and we have been building on this.
We are in the second phase where the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is significantly involved. In 2015, the IAEA confirmed we had achieved some of the issues and recommended that we meet the remaining conditions to allow us to move to the next stage.
We now have an Act of Parliament that established a national regulator for nuclear energy (Kenya Nuclear Regulatory Authority) to support Nupea. We also have an integrated nuclear energy 15-year implementation plan.
Has Kenya picked possible locations to host the plant (s)?
A plant must be close to a vast water body that will be used in cooling. Initially, we had Lake Turkana, Lake Victoria and Coast. But we knocked off areas around Lakes Turkana and Victoria because of the issues of earthquakes vulnerability of the Rift Valley and high population respectively.
We are now left with Kwale and Kilifi as the ideal sites after they met most of the conditions. We will start with Kilifi which we feel is our best site. If it goes to plan then that will be our ideal spot. Of the two sites, one will definitely be the host location.
What timelines are we looking at if Kenya was to go the nuclear energy way?
Once we are done with the site picking we move to the bidding stage. Since the technology is not available locally, then we do bids. We are looking at between 2026 and 2027 and start building the first plant in 2027.
Construction ranges six to 10 years and so we are looking at 2034-35 to commission our first plant if all goes according to plan.
How much would it take for Kenya to build the plant?
This is the elephant in the room. The initial capital is heavy and is estimated that a 1,000MW plant needs at least Sh500 billion.
This is a lot of money but the good side to it is that a plant can repay itself in 17 years. The other benefits of a plant is the reliable energy and job opportunities given that a plant can directly employ 1,000 people and thousands of others indirectly.
What is the lifespan of a nuclear plan on average?
The normal lifespan is 60 years and this can be extended as it happens with other forms of energy-generating plants for another 20.
There are concerns about the safety aspect if Kenya starts nuclear energy production, what mitigation measures are in place especially with the disposal of the nuclear fuel and radioactive materials after the decommissioning of a plant?
A nuclear plant emits zero carbon. You must think of how to manage the fuel and the radioactive waste. In the nuclear programme, we have a decommissioning plan. So assuming we buy the technology from France, they have to handle the nuclear fuel and radioactive waste.
Used fuel can be retained in the plant and deposited into a pool for spent nuclear energy until it reduces half-life, then at that point this fuel is collected and ferried to a permanent repository.
Are there preferred countries to help Kenya with the technology to build the nuclear plant?
We will study all technologies to determine which works for us. For now we are open and not tied to any particular vendor or country.
Is there space for nuclear in the national grid given that we are ramping up focus on sources such as wind, solar and geothermal?
If we go nuclear, then thermal power will not be necessary. Once initial capital outlay is repaid, studies that we have done show that nuclear power can be 75 percent cheaper than thermal.
What would you say are the biggest challenges derailing our nuclear dream?
There are three key issues. One is the funding hitches from the Treasury because of the varying priority items.
The level of awareness is another problem because most people associate nuclear with atomic. This means that as an agency, we will have to do a lot of work to raise awareness.