A Little Background
The generation of nuclear power is at the heart of Kenya’s Vision2030 goals as part of the government’s diversified energy policy to address current power shortages and provide adequate electricity to keep up with a growing economy. As with any infrastructure project that comes with enormous financial, environmental and safety implications, there are many proponents and strong opponents of nuclear power generation not just in Kenya but everywhere in the world.
On the one hand, the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster that occurred following a major earthquake and tsunami is a powerful reminder that, with commercial nuclear power generation, factors out of our control combined with human error can lead to catastrophic results. The radiation effects of this accident will be felt for years to come in Japan and beyond.
On the other hand, countries all around the world have used nuclear energy to generate electricity peacefully and safely for the last fifty years. Advocates of nuclear power generation point out to the safe operation of 104 nuclear power plants in the US, with the exception of a couple incidents – the most notorious being the Three Miles Island (TMI) incident that occurred in 1979. Furthermore, they also point out to nuclear generation’s high efficiency, reliability and low amounts of emitted greenhouse gases as compared to fossil fuel based generation.
Even though major cost overruns and delays were experienced during the construction of many US nuclear power plants, nuclear power generation now accounts for 20% of all electricity produced. It also accounts for 70% of all power generated in France. As such, nuclear power has undoubtedly proven itself to be a great alternative when it comes to power generation.
Needless to say, the Three Miles Island (TMI) incident showed the dangers of nuclear power generation. This incident, in addition to the strong public opposition that ensued, are among the key reasons why not a single nuclear power plant was commissioned anywhere in the US between 1977 and 2013 . In order to avoid a repetition of such incidents as TMI, major redesign requirements, safeguards, hurdles and redundancies have been introduced by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for any future nuclear power plant construction.
What most countries that use nuclear energy as a significant source of power have learnt is that, with the great benefits of this form of power generation comes major responsibility on the part of the government and utility companies. Some unresolved technical problems with nuclear power generation still loom large, such as the issue of spent nuclear waste storage.
Despite numerous studies and large amounts of money spent on waste storage, no permanent repository for nuclear waste has been built in the US. This is alarming since most waste sits in temporary storage areas within most nuclear power plants with no permanent storage plans in place. Many isotopes in nuclear waste have a half-life of more than 1000 years, requiring a truly long-term waste management plan.(this number can be cut down if new technologies such as transmutation or reprocessing advance to the point where nuclear waste can be fully recycled). Such really long-term issues must also be considered by countries looking to venture into nuclear power generation.
How about Kenya?
The hard fact is that our structures at this time or in the near future cannot support safe generation of nuclear power.
As much as it sounds unrealistic for Kenya to even consider nuclear energy as one of the pillars of our country’s future energy policy, it makes a lot of sense. With recent technological advances in nuclear reactor technology and the promise of small modular reactors (SMRs) as safer, portable, compact and cheaper alternatives to traditional nuclear reactors, a country like Kenya can now consider looking to nuclear energy for power generation without completely breaking the bank. However, SMR technology is still young with only three designs in operation around the world. Due to the lower output of SMRs, more than one SMR is required to match the output of conventional reactors currently used, decentralizing the dangers associated with nuclear power generation to multiple units or locations.
There are major scientific technological hurdles that have to be overcome with renewable energy sources to make them more efficient and cost-effective. While the initial average levelized cost (cost per every unit/hour of electricity produced) for most renewable energy sources and that of advanced nuclear power generation are high, the efficiency of nuclear energy is far higher to that of any renewable energy source. Therefore, the return on capital is nearly assured for the life of the nuclear power plant, while for renewable energy sources government subsidies might be needed to make them sustainable. Based on this latter fact, even an aggressive buildup of renewable energy sources might not be able to meet the energy needs anticipated by Kenya Vision2030.
Furthermore, we have seen over the years that hydroelectric power generation is not reliable due to the erratic weather and climate. Power generation from imported natural gas or coal will certainly alleviate the problem but the cost of generation will still be higher since these raw materials have to be imported in addition to higher greenhouse emissions.(The recent discovery of coal in the Eastern region of Kenya may make coal-fired power generation more viable).
That said, major soul-searching has to happen and tough questions need to be asked if we choose to focus on nuclear power generation. The question is, can we be able to put the required safeguards in place prior to the construction of the first nuclear plant?
It is commendable that the government is following a milestone approach as guided by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This approach provides 12 milestones that need to be met prior and after nuclear power generation.
There is no doubt that our scientists and engineers can be trained to meet the challenges of building, maintaining and decommissioning nuclear power plants. However, needless to say, for this form of energy, zero tolerance to corruption cannot just be a dream but a reality. A corrupt mindset by any stakeholder in this process would be a major national security threat that could render parts of our country inhabitable for generations to come. With nuclear energy there is potential to cause catastrophic damage, if let’s say, just a single corrupt engineer decided to use cheaper low quality piping to repair a steam generator. Safeguards around “taking shortcuts” need to be established. In nuclear power generating countries, random psychological tests and extensive background checks are a routine part of many job functions in the nuclear industry to ascertain the state of mind of every employee and any propensity to put a nuclear facility at risk. Such a system would be needed in Kenya too.
In addition, cost overruns are a worldwide norm for nuclear power plant construction projects. Also, what many forget is that the upfront cost of putting safeguards, human capacity building and back-end cost of decommissioning a nuclear power plant at the end of its life might amount to be nearly as much as the actual cost of building the plant itself. It is safe to say that the total cost of building, maintaining, waste storage and decommissioning a nuclear power plant will most likely exceed the estimated cost of USD 3.5 – 5 Billion since structural redesigns might be needed during the actual building of the plant.
This is especially true for Kenya since we will be starting with no pre-existing nuclear infrastructure program be it military or commercial. This is unlike countries such as the US, UK, France, Germany that had existing military nuclear safeguards and infrastructure in place before venturing into commercial nuclear generation.
This important fact cannot be understated as it continues to provide a subtle advantage of know-how transfer from the military to commercial nuclear energy in the form of relatively young trained military personnel who take up industry jobs after discharge. For this reason the cost of employee training and certification is reduced significantly.
It might be prudent for Kenya to wait for a couple years to see how the newer, cheaper and safer technologies such as small modular reactors (SMR) advance before we take the plunge. Considering that a country like Germany plans to phase out nuclear power generation by 2022 and none of the nuclear power plants in the US are licensed to operate beyond 2050, the future of this type of energy is at a crossroads. This might mark the end of today’s conventional power plant design and a shift to newer technologies such as SMRs. Furthermore, with many regulatory hurdles to be overcome for new reactor designs in the US, other active players like China, Russia and France will most likely determine the direction nuclear power will take around the world – all the more pushing towards newer designs and making today’s designs obsolete.
The national discussion around this topic must continue and encouraged to gauge the feasibility of such a massive project in addition to our willingness to embrace the necessary changes that have to take place before we achieve safe nuclear power generation in Kenya.
Read more about Kenya’s Energy Situation at energypedia
How does a Small Modular Reactor work. Read more from nuscalepower.com