China: Powering Kenya’s Nuclear Plans

Published on 13th August 2019

Recently, Kenya tapped the China National Nuclear Corporation to review options and identify a viable site at which to set up Kenya’s first nuclear power plant. Currently, approximately 68% of Kenya’s total energy consumption is wood fuel and biomass dependant, 22% petroleum, 9% electricity, and 1% others. Low electricity access has driven the Kenyan government’s target to increase electricity connectivity to at least 65% by the year 2022.

According to the World Bank, about six in ten sub-saharan countries lack access to electricity. Also, per the International Energy Agency, over 800 million people in Africa do not have access to electricity, with over 700 million Africans using dirty and potentially hazardous fuels to cook, mostly inappropriate solid biomass. With these levels of energy poverty, it is imperative that a stable and sustainable form of energy source is found and leveraged.

Towards diversifying its energy sources, in September 2015 Kenya signed an MOU with China to facilitate plans for commissioning a nuclear power station with a capacity of 1000 MW by 2025, and up to 4000 MW by 2033, as a means to make nuclear electricity "a key component of the country's energy" production. In December 2018 the Kenyan government launched the Kenya National Electrification Strategy in partnership with the World Bank to map the way to achieving universal access to electricity for all Kenyans by 2022. Reliable, competitively priced, safe and sustainable energy lies at the heart of powering Kenya’s Vision 2030 in the long run and more immediately, the Big Four Agenda priorities: affordable housing, manufacturing, food security, and universal healthcare.

Kenya’s population continues to grow and consequently the energy deficit. Kenya is projected to need 16,000MW by 2030. While the exploitation of coal, gas, geothermal and wind energy sources is expected to raise electricity production to 7000MW, nuclear power will hopefully multiply that further and decrease the apparent energy deficit.  At the same time, as with most African countries, Kenya has pledged to the reduction of greenhouse gases under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Nuclear power presents a carbon neutral energy option. As an energy source, nuclear power’s benefits include its clean nature, reliability, use of uranium to fuel it; a low operating cost; no intermittence; an average life of 40-60 years; reduction of fuel importation dependency and providing climate change buffer. Currently in Africa, only South Africa operates a commercial nuclear power plant. Therefore, if construction begins by 2024 as anticipated, Kenya will be the second country in Africa.

China is all too familiar with the pressures of population growth as balanced with environmental conservation obligations. In addition, having itself tapped into nuclear power production, China is familiar with all that goes into setting up, operating, maintaining and decommissioning a nuclear power plant in accordance with world safety standards. China currently operates 46 nuclear reactors with a 42.8GW capacity and has 11 more under construction to offer 10.8GW capacity.

China has in recent years developed into Africa's largest trade partner. Similarly, China is viewed as a partner in infrastructure projects. China's contribution under the 2015 MOU was envisaged to include training and skills development, technical support in areas such as site selection for Kenya's nuclear power plants, and feasibility studies. Kenya’s Nuclear Power Programme, which is run by the Nuclear Power and Energy Agency (NuPEA), can variously benefit from the Chinese experience. For instance, per NuPEA, it is estimated that building a single nuclear power plant capable of producing 1,000MW would cost between Ksh 500 - 600 billion (USD 5-6 billion).

China is a valuable finance partner in this regard. Further, in order to offload the power produced by a nuclear power plant, it is recommended that the receiving grid possess ten times the nuclear power plant’s capacity. Kenya’s grid currently operates at 2400MW and would therefore require expansion to a capacity of 10,000MW to accommodate the 1000MW produced by its first nuclear power plant. This presents a further opportunity for China’s support for Kenya’s nuclear power project. China is also currently experimenting with new technology in the form of small modular reactors which produce 300MW per unit and whose major parts can be factory manufactured and easily transported to construction sites. Kenya would likewise benefit from lessons learnt from China in this regard. In addition, as China looks to export nuclear power technology under its BRI, Kenya presents a potential market.

There are various other challenges around nuclear power production including: the associated high capital costs, the long lead times associated with the planning and construction, waste disposal concerns, driving up public acceptance, creating an enabling regulatory environment and the risk of weaponization. All these are areas for shared learning between Kenya and China, based on China’s own advanced experience with nuclear power production.

According to NuPEA, the anticipated benefits to Kenya’s economy include: the multiplied effect of competitively priced electricity and the associated increased economic activities; employment opportunities for local communities during the construction, operation, maintenance and decommissioning of the power plant; sustainable development facilitated by reduced greenhouse gas emission; and the growth of specialized industries and associated specialized training in terms of the relevant equipment. As a developing country looking to enable and accelerate industrialization, it is exciting that Kenya is now at the phase where China is reviewing the Indian Ocean, Lake Victoria and Lake Turkana as top viable sites to host Kenya’s first nuclear power plant.

By George Nyongesa,

Senior Associate at Africa Policy Institute, Nairobi, Kenya

Twitter: GeorgeNyongesa      Email: grnyongesa@gmail.com


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