Kenya suffers setback as UN body censures nuclear project

Financial Standard

By Njiraini Muchira

Kenya's bid to venture into nuclear energy is sitting pretty uneasy.

The profile of Achim Steiner, the United Nations Environmental Programme (Unep) executive director is the latest damper on what has been touted as Kenya’s last hope out of ‘darkness’.

Nuclear energy is being marketed as a major component in a complex puzzle that is ultimately supposed to solve Kenya’s perennial energy crisis.

In Government order of development priorities, nuclear energy is ranked third in order of importance.

Already, the Government has made it clear in its Vision 2030 blueprint that its implementation is critical if the country is to realise the pursuit of becoming a middle level economy.

Yet even before Kenya’s ambitious plans to invest in a nuclear power plant can take shape, questions are now being raised over the country’s readiness, logic and in particular whether the nuclear route is the best option.

Over the past few weeks, two critical institutions, the Unep and Parliament’s Energy and Communications committee, have raised fears about the country’s pursuit of nuclear options.

The two bodies say government should exhaust other sources of energy instead of investing in a nuclear plant that is expensive to build, intricate to run and secure, and technically challenging and risky to decommission.

"Kenya has enormous potential in geothermal, wind and solar, which it could pursue as it factors in the cost of construction and commissioning a nuclear plant," said Steiner a fortnight ago.

He said considering the dangers and costs associated with a nuclear plant, it will be surprising if Kenya opted for nuclear energy rather than other clean, cheap and available energy potentials that are in abundant in the country.

Soon after the UN stamped its disapproval of the project, Parliament’s committee on Energy and Communications came out strongly against the project saying it was expensive and risky in comparison with other sources of energy.

"We have already established that we can produce enough energy for the whole nation given our geothermal resources if only we channeled more money into these projects," said committee member Cyprian Omolo, MP for Uriri.

The mounting disapproval of the nuclear project is now threatening to derail the country’s plans to invest a staggering $5 billion in a plant with an initial capacity to generate 1,000 MW. The plant is supposed to be in place by 2022.

Three more plant with a capacity of 4,200 MW would be commissioned by 2031, something that ultimately means nuclear energy ranks high in the national energy mix.

In the mix, geothermal will account for 4,679 MW, thermal consisting of coal, gas and oil 4,812, electricity imports 2,200 MW, wind 1,600 and hydro 263 MW.

Rising opposition

According to the Nuclear Electricity Project Committee, which was established by the government in 2010 to oversee the project, the rising opposition to the project will not deter the country’s pursuit of nuclear energy because they are not based on any scientific, empirical or reliable research.

"For Kenya to have secure, affordable, reliable and environmentally friendly energy we need nuclear," committee chairman Ochilo Ayacko told Financial Journal.

Though Ayacko makes it clear implementation of the project is critical particularly because the country is in the process of exhausting other sources, the recent disapproval by the UN body in charge of environment could have a devastating impact in as far as mobilising for funds and seeking the assistance of countries with nuclear plants is concerned.

This is because some international lenders could be jittery to commit funds to a project that Unep believes poses a danger, more so at time when the world is rethinking the safety of nuclear plants following the Fukushima plant disaster in Japan.

Moreover, the dissenting voices from MPs could incite public feelings against nuclear in the process making it difficult for Kenya to invest in a project that lacks widespread public support.

In Germany, Steiner’s birthplace, lack of public support forced the government to shut down all its nuclear plants.

It is estimated a 1,000 MW geothermal plant costs $7 billion, a hydro plant of the same capacity would cost $8 billion while a coal plant is relatively cheaper at $2.5 billion but the running costs are astronomical at 16 US cents compared to 8 US cents for geothermal and 6 US cents for nuclear.

Other sources

"Nuclear is for the future and what the committee is doing is planning for that future because at some point we will exhaust other sources," Ayacko states.

The committee is currently undertaking a pre-feasibility study concerned with issues such as national position, electricity market, identifying an appropriate site, safety, safeguards and security, legislative and regulatory framework, transmission facilities among other things.

As Kenya implements the Vision 2030 blueprint, energy demand — which has been growing at an average of eight per cent over the past five years — is anticipated to increase by an average of 14 per cent over the next 20 years.

Currently, Kenya has an installed capacity of 1,312 MW consisting of generation mix of hydro at 56 per cent, thermal 32 per cent, and geothermal 10 per cent and wind two per cent.

According to experts, the growing skepticism for nuclear energy emanates from issues ranging from security and safety, lack of experts to run and manage the facility as well as the complex issue of decommission when it serves its lifespan.

There are also concerns on the safety about the country’s preparedness to deal with a catastrophic nuclear crisis akin to what hit Japan following the devastating earthquake and tsunami a year ago.

Another innate danger is the security of the plant. Kenya, by its location, has over the years been forced to deal with the threat of terrorism that thrives in the wider Eastern Africa region.

The instability in Somalia where Kenya has launched an offensive against the al Shabaab, weak security systems and widespread corruption continues to expose the country to terror attacks.

While Ayacko did not dispute these fears, he explained the committee is carrying out meticulous planning and research to ensure all these issues are well addressed before the first unit comes on board in 2022.

"We do not want to rush the process because we know this is a delicate responsibility," he reckoned.

So far, the government has allocated the committee an annual budget of Sh200 million to put in place the necessary structures to facilitate the implementation of the plant.

The committee is tasked with identifying the appropriate site for construction of the plant and ensure all terms and conditions of the global nuclear technology watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are fulfilled for Kenya to get the necessary approvals.

Another critical task is to carry out civic education on the project, review and approve a capacity building plan for purposes of nuclear research and development to develop a pool of experts.

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