The managing director of Kenya Nuclear Electricity Board Collins Juma spoke to Njiraini Muchira on Kenya’s atomic energy ambitions.
Kenya has ambitions to build a 1,000MW nuclear plant. What is the status of the project?
A nuclear programme takes a long time. It is futuristic, with the preparatory stage taking around 15 years. We have done five years and we need to work very hard to finish the preparatory stage within the remaining 10 years. Our target is to have the plant in place by 2027.
So far we have completed the prefeasibility study on the 19 critical infrastructure issues identified by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
We have been training experts considering that we need at least 1,000 professionals yet we have only 3,000 engineers across all the sectors. We have also been engaging stakeholders and passing on the message that the benefits of a nuclear plant outweigh the disadvantages.
The initial launch date target was 2020. Why was this pushed ahead?
The key issue has been funding. The government has other projects and cannot put all the money on the nuclear project. The programme is being conducted in phases and funding is needed to carry out all the studies.
For example, the detailed site analysis alone costs between $14.4 million and $19.2 million. Lack of enough funding has slowed us down significantly but we have a roadmap of what we intend to do with the support we get from the government.
Demand for electricity has slowed down in recent years. Does Kenya really need an additional 1,000MW?
It is important to understand the standard gauge railway is running on diesel because we don’t have sufficient electricity capacity. Investors also cannot come to Kenya because the cost of electricity is high.
The basis for the 1,000MW nuclear plant was an expected GDP growth rate of eight per cent annually. By 2030 we would require 18,000MW. If we want to attain Vision 2030 we have to make these investments.
Why does the site analysis cost so much and have you identified the site for the nuclear plant?
It takes two to three years to do site analysis and it involves a lot of work. The amount we hope to spend compared with what Turkey and Nigeria spent could be higher, considering a plant itself can cost $5 billion.
Nuclear power plants need a huge water body to cool them. Studies are still ongoing but in the meantime we have identified areas along the Indian Ocean, River Tana and Lake Victoria as possible locations for the plant.
How do you plan to raise the $5 billion?
Various models can be used to fund the plant. These include the public-private partnerships in which the government partners with private investors.
We could also consider the BOOT (build, own, operate, transfer) model and the Russians are good at it because they have done it in Turkey.
They just need to negotiate a tariff that is reasonable enough to make them recoup their investment then they come and build the plant, own it and operate it for some years.
Once they have recouped their investments they transfer the plant to the government. The government can also decide to take a loan from China and other financiers to build the plant.
Should Kenyans expect cheap power when the nuclear plant comes on stream?
Nuclear is cheap and is comparable to geothermal, hydro and liquefied natural gas and even coal. If we stop generating from thermal power plants, electricity will be cheap because the biggest component in electricity bills is the fuel cost adjustment and the forex.
With a nuclear plant of 4,000 MW we did simulations that it can reduce costs to between six and eight US cents. South Korea has a tariff of two-three US cents.
Which of the 19 critical infrastructure issues poses the biggest challenges?
Site, funding, nuclear waste management and the grid are quite challenging. Nuclear is also sensitive because some countries say they are enriching uranium for peaceful purposes yet the intention is to create a bomb.
Countries like Italy and Germany have suggested that Kenya should abandon the project...
Kenya has ambitions to industrialise and that is why various generation options have been explored. When nuclear came on the table projections were also done for geothermal.
At that time the geothermal potential was 15,000MW; it has now come down to 10,000MW. Other sources like wind, solar, gas and coal were also considered. Nuclear was also proposed as a clean energy. If we want to industrialise we need nuclear.
Why is Kenya not partnering with EAC neighbours on the project?
We thought of partnering with our neighbours but nuclear is so sensitive that you don’t want to have a collective responsibility. Even West Africa thought that Nigeria, Ghana and Niger could come together and put up a plant.
But there are certain things that you consider to be of national interest that you don’t want to involve other countries. Top of it is security and haggling on location. There would also be many treaties to sign with the International Atomic Energy Agency.