Key issues that could mar our nuclear energy quest

Kenya’s ambition of building a nuclear energy plant seems to be alive. But it is a journey that is precarious as it is daunting.

However, based on the viability and safety of nuclear energy in a Kenyan context, the question begs whether the country is ready for such a delicate, complicated and massive undertaking.

Do we have enough resources, both financial and human resource, to initiate and sustain a nuclear energy project?

Indeed, globally there is increasing debate about nuclear power. While some say nuclear energy is a safe, sustainable and environmentally friendly source of energy, others are not so sure.

Opponents cite major nuclear reactor accidents like the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the former United Soviet Socialist Republic, and the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, as examples of the deadly effects of a nuclear meltdown.

The radiological effects on the environment are irreparable. Secondly, the cost of building a nuclear plant is simply prohibitive. Local nuclear experts estimate that building such a facility would cost the government about Sh3.5 trillion, more than double our annual budget.

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Now, with all the unmet demands of national development, this sounds like a pipe dream.

Moreover, a nuclear plant’s lifespan has a maximum of 60 years, after which it must be decommissioned.

With decommissioning comes the nightmare of managing nuclear waste. The used fuel, which has a lifespan of 300 years, is currently put in special receptacles and buried deep in geological depositories.

Any leakage would be catastrophic to life. A nuclear plant needs colossal amounts of fresh water - three tonnes per minute - to cool the core of the reactor and avoid a meltdown. Sea water is not used since it is corrosive.

Can our water bodies deliver such capacity? Furthermore, climate change poses a major risk to nuclear energy infrastructure due to reduction of precipitation levels and droughts.

Shortage of fresh water can lead to hampering of power output, or shutting down of nuclear reactors. Such disruptions might become a common phenomenon in the long run, unless global warming is arrested now.

Still, we cannot dismiss the benefits of nuclear power. Compared to other sources, it produces high energy density at a much lower cost. For instance, it uses a few grams of uranium to generate the same amount of power that would use tonnes of coal to produce.

On safety, proponents of nuclear power observe that fission-electric reactors have caused fewer fatalities per unit of energy generated, than the other major sources of energy.

That energy production from coal, petroleum, natural gas and hydroelectricity has caused a greater number of fatalities per unit of energy generated, due to air pollution and the effects of power accidents.

Nuclear energy is also reliable, unlike most of the other sources which depend on the weather. The energy can also be stored in large amounts for future use. In December 2013, Forbes magazine reported that, in developing countries, “reactors are not a viable source of new power”.

The magazine also noted that even in developed nations where they make economic sense, they are not feasible because of nuclear’s “enormous costs, political and popular opposition, and regulatory uncertainty”.

Indeed, the trend today has greatly shifted to renewable sources of energy, with countries like Germany working towards total shut down of all nuclear reactors in the foreseeable future.

Recently, I passed through a big town in one of the neighbouring counties. I was shocked by the dereliction since the last time I visited the place a few months ago. Trenches were left uncovered after being dug up.

Yet, the town’s residents were going about their daily business without a care in the world! They all seemed in high spirits. This is the county whose boisterous governor was recently hauled in court on allegations of laundering proceeds of corruption within his family.

Then I remembered the following words by Nobel Prize Winner, Professor Wole Soyinka: “Only in Africa will thieves be regrouping to loot again, and the youths whose future is being stolen, will be celebrating it…” Cry, our beloved country!

The writer is an author, communication specialist & public policy analyst. [email protected]

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