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Geothermal a game-changer as nuclear energy uptake lags


People protest against nuclear power in Tokyo. AFP PHOTO


  • Nuclear is a powerful, stable and very concentrated form of energy. It is one of the sustainable and clean energies with low greenhouse gas emissions.
  • However it is seen as expensive to set up and run while experts are concerned about management of its hazardous waste and radiation dangers to people and the environment.
  • It is also considered inexhaustible and can guarantee continuous supply since uranium, one of the main reagents, is abundant in the earth’s crust.

History has it that the reagents used to develop nuclear energy during the Second World War were sourced from Congo. 

It is also in this African country where uranium deposits, said to be the world’s only natural element with self-sustaining and long lasting nuclear reaction, was discovered by geologists.

Despite this fact, of the 30 countries in the world which successfully use nuclear for electricity generation, only one is in Africa. South Africa produces nuclear or atomic energy.

Nuclear energy is the heat released when atoms undergo a nuclear reaction or radioactive decay process. Of particular interest is the process known as fission, which occurs in a nuclear reactor and produces energy usually in the form of heat.

Atomic generation contributes 375 gigawatts of power which is 15 per cent of global generation with the balance catered for by other primary sources of energy including petroleum, hydropower, geothermal, wind and firewood.

South African produces 18,000 megawatts of the amount of nuclear energy.

Nuclear is a powerful, stable and very concentrated form of energy. It is one of the sustainable and clean energies with low greenhouse gas emissions. However, some experts say that it is not appropriate because it is unsafe.

It is considered inexhaustible and can guarantee continuous supply since uranium, one of the main reagents, is abundant in the earth’s crust.
It can run for 24 months without interruption, produces power day and night and is not dependent on weather.

But the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has noted Africa’s poor uptake of the costly technology which has been used to produce electricity for public distribution since 1954.

The use of atomic power, deemed to be a preserve of rich nations, has been eliciting strong arguments over its huge capital cost and the long process it takes to complete a project as compared to other alternatives like natural gas, coal and hydropower.

IAEA director-general Yukiya Amano said this poor uptake could not be blamed entirely on the expensive nature of the venture but the lack of social acceptance and poor understanding of nuclear science.

“Nuclear technology has the capacity to solve the economic challenges facing Africa today, the agency is ready to partner with African countries to help them obtain safe and secure nuclear energy to meet their development needs,” said Mr Amano.

However, he said, African countries must be allowed to make a “sovereign decision” on whether to take up nuclear technology or not.

Similarly, the Energy African Future forum which brings together expertise in the energy field foresees that a dire shortage of electricity could mean Africa’s emerging economies turn to nuclear to underpin industrial growth.

Led by Mr Tom Bless, the president of the Science Council for Global Initiatives, they suggest that African countries will need to work out a balanced strategy for the development of the power industry which would include the use of diverse and clean energy sources.

“The countries of Sub-Saharan Africa have sustained strong economic growth in the last 15 years.

‘‘However, in order to maintain the existing annual economic growth rate of approximately five to six per cent African countries will need to ensure that power infrastructure is developed at a far greater rate,” he said.

With nearly 70 per cent (about 700 million people) in sub-Sahara Africa said not to be connected to electricity and contending with the high cost of alternative fuels including kerosene, charcoal, firewood and the health problems that come with them; experts largely agree with the bid to increase electricity production.

Kenya is among Africa’s heavy economies like Nigeria, Egypt, Ghana and Tunisia which are warming up to nuclear energy.

Kenya not ready

According to IAEA, more than a third of the over 30 countries which are embarking on the nuclear path are in Africa.

Kenya has already signed a deal with Kepco of South Korea and plans its first plant at a cost of $5 billion (Sh515 billion) by 2027 after Nigeria which could have its first reactor by 2020.

According to Kenya Nuclear Energy Board chief executive Collins Juma, they are scouting for a suitable location to site the nuclear reactor, an exercise that will cost them Sh1.5 billion and several years to approve.

The cost of four nuclear power plants is estimated to be Sh2 trillion. But there are serious concerns still.

After the Three Mile Island, in the US in 1979, and Chernobyl nuclear accidents — whose effects were disastrous and long lasting — public perception of the energy has focused on concerns over safety.

Management of life threatening radioactive waste generated at different stages of the fuel cycle, which can arise in the form of radioactive liquids, gases or solids and with a large spectrum of activity levels has been questioned. The emissions are said to be casinogenic.

IAEA’s 2010 International Status and Prospects of Nuclear Power report states that the public is concerned not only about the dangers of radiation to people and the environment, but also about the speed and accuracy of available information.

There are also concerns about proliferation and nuclear terrorism.

Some individuals and institutions have gone public calling for the disbandment of the KNEB arguing that the country cannot handle simple environmental challenges like solid waste management, leave alone complex issues like hazardous nuclear waste.

The Consumer Federation of Kenya (Cofec) in 2015 wrote to the Ministry of Energy demanding that the KNEB be disbanded and nuclear electricity be made a section within KenGen #ticker:KEGN.

“Kenya cannot (venture into the energy), without exhausting green energy and other cheaper and more effective options, when superpowers are opting out of nuclear. It is also difficult to value addition of KNEB so far,” read the Cofec proposal in part.

Mr Kevin Musiega, a project management and environmental specialist, argues that as much as the nuclear project is important, Kenya is not ready to deal with another hefty cost of disposing radioactive waste generated by the project.

“In the next few years it is projected that the amount of power generated in Kenya will not be enough to shoulder its economic responsibilities since even renewable sources of energy will be insufficient.

Nuclear is the way to go,” said Mr Musiega, who is a lecturer at the University of Nairobi. “However, Kenya has to give an assurance that it is ready to deal with the challenge of hazardous atomic wastes that comes with it.” Another challenge is that being capital intensive, the licensing and implementation process faces many regulatory delays more than its alternative.

In countries where licensing processes are relatively untested or have yet to be established, investors face potentially more costly regulatory risks with nuclear power than with alternatives, according to IAEA.

The Radiation Protection Board is a regulatory agency responsible for registration and licensing of radiation facilities and their workers in Kenya.

An officer at the Ministry of Energy disclosed that as much as the first production nuclear power for Kenya is anticipated in 2027, the dream could be achieved in the next 30 years.

“To attain nuclear energy is something that could take up to 30 years. That is why atomic energy is not in the recent market plan as a project that can be attained earlier than 2030. It could not even be captured under Vision 2030,” he said.

Three new plants

He said the 2027 timeline was just for preparedness toward achieving the dream. In an interview with the Business Daily Energy secretary Charles Keter reassured Kenyans that just as South Africa is managing the issue of nuclear waste, Kenya was ready too.

“Nuclear power is largely misunderstood and viewed in the lens of Nagasaki and Hiroshima towns which experienced disaster. But if South Africa and other countries are managing it why do we tend to think we won’t?” posed Mr Keter.

KNEB’s boss has also maintained that the risk of accidents in nuclear power plants is low and declining while the radiological effects can be avoided.

“The evidence over six decades shows that nuclear power is a safe means of generating electricity. There are only three major accidents that have occurred in over 16,000 cumulative reactor-years of commercial nuclear power operation in 33 countries,” said Mr Juma.

Nonetheless, Mr Keter said Kenya’s economy will not outgrow power generation yet, even without the nuclear energy.

He said that since independence, national demand has only grown up to 1,600MW currently against total production of 2,400 MW.

Even with devolution which created heavy expectations for industrial growth across the 47 counties, the country did not manage to create demand for 5,000MW as projected.

“We therefore do not expect a miracle between now and 2030 to grow the demand to such high figures.

‘‘The government had set a target to raise the total amount of power generation from 1,750MW in June 2013 to 5,000MW. So far, we have only attained 2,400MW, a 32 per cent increase.

‘‘We cannot produce higher since energy cannot be stored hence it will be wasteful. We scale up production on demand,” said Mr Keter.
He said the government was contemplating exporting power to Uganda, Burundi and Tanzania.

“But we have a challenge of transmitting high voltage power. The major problem is that people do not give us wayleave through their land,” he added.

Kenya Electricity Generating Company Limited (KenGen), which produces about 75 per cent of the country’s electricity, utilises various sources to generate power ranging from hydro to geothermal, thermal and wind.

Following the full operationalisation of the 280MW geothermal plant in Olkaria, national electricity consumption has been 47 per cent geothermal, 39 per cent hydro, 13 per cent thermal and one per cent wind.

With nuclear power generation far from being achieved, Mr Keter said geothermal could still be the game changer in Kenya’s energy sector.

Hydropower is threatened by climate change and persistent droughts while countries world over are moving away from petroleum-based energies, which are heavy polluters, in favour of biomass.

The Geothermal Development Company in its 10 year development plan ending 2026 will produce 1,000MW of new energy, Ms Ruth Musembi, the corporate communication and marketing manager said.

The company has over 20 generating zones, with some of the mega investment projects being Menengai, Olkaria, Baringo-Silali and Suswa.

The Baringo-Silali block, whose first phase is underway, is the single largest geothermal resource in Kenya with over 3000MW potential while Suswa has a potential of 750MW.

Steam availed in Menengai stands at 137MW. The company has, in partnership with three independent power producers, earmarked the construction of three new plants by 2018.

The first phase will inject an additional 105MW to the national grid and generate Sh1.7 billion annually before the end of the year.

By the time the company impalements the third phase of the Menengai project in the next 10 years, it will be generating 460MW out of the 1,600MW capacity.

GDC owns 59 wells at the Olkaria Geothermal Project which has a total of 412MW of steam, 320MW of which is sold to KenGen for electricity production earning them Sh3 billion annually in steam revenue.