Why Kenya's nuclear dream must die for good

Radioactive waste is too dangerous to gamble with. [iStockphoto]

A climate scientist James Hansen warned the US. Congressional Committee in 2017 of a "long-term warming trend".

Since the 1970s, the planet has warmed by more than one degree Celsius, with an average increase of 0.2 degree Celsius per decade.

This is primarily due to our addiction to fossil fuels. To keep it at 1.5 degrees Celsius or, at worst, two degrees Celsius, well before 2050, fossil fuels must be progressively eliminated from the total energy mix. About 452 nuclear reactors are now in operation globally, producing 10 per cent of electricity.

They have prevented 55 Gt of CO2 emissions over the past five decades, equivalent to two years of the global energy-related CO2 emissions. While Kenya was to join this nuclear energy race much earlier, it was postponed to 2027, perhaps to pacify public outrage. But is this nuclear mania sustainable?

The expectation is to double the global nuclear grid capacity in three decades. That will require adding 37 new major nuclear reactors annually. So far, just about 10 have been added, and another 57 are in the pipeline or await installation. But even if this were achievable, the reactors will only remove four per cent of the current a 100 per cent carbon footprint by 2050.

Also, other issues would still be hair-splitting. Global nuclear proliferation is alarmingly on the rise, exacerbated by a nearly toothless disarmament regime. Countries have accumulated nuclear stockpiles in complete violation of international law. It won't come as a surprise if we have people with the incentive to selectively deploy nuclear stocks in a criminal act, even domestically, especially given how technology is now aiding criminal cunning. In addition, in a society like ours where disaster management is still rudimentary, a nuclear accident is possible.

And where will we obtain funds for the very complex set of resources required at all times to keep the installation operational given the already tight national budget? That brings the issue of cost. Building a nuclear reactor takes roughly a decade or two. Given the severity of the climate crisis and our propensity for political squabbling, that is an expensive investment. The current fossil-fueled plants will continue to emit CO2 while awaiting substitution. What’s more, emissions will take place even during nuclear installation, aggravating hyperlocal climatic shocks.

Even worse, the project might not succeed since the resources set aside for installation might be misappropriated. Perhaps where things get dicey is with the generation cost. Nuclear energy costs between $112 and $189 per megawatt-hour (MWh), whereas solar energy costs between $36 and $44 and onshore wind costs between $29 and $56.

But the moral question is: Should energy be produced at the expense of human and environmental health? Simply put, radioactive waste is too dangerous to gamble with. Our biodiverse flora and fauna could be destroyed, and a persistent transgenerational disease could result. Kenya’s future is in renewable energy. The nuclear dream must die.

-Charles Onyango, a Global Impact Fellow at Moving Worlds Institute