For nearly 15 years, nuclear power has been on the menu of options for Kenya’s power generation mix but was always sidelined in priority by the abundant and evidently cheaper geothermal, and emergent solar and wind technologies.
The minus points against nuclear are its high installation unit costs, long approval and construction lead times, requirements for large volumes of fresh water, and the never-disappearing public safety phobias.
On the positive side, nuclear energy has strong green credentials and is a stable base-load support for grids. Further, Kenya has developed effective nuclear institutional and regulatory capacities which are critical prerequisites for nuclear licensing and operation.
The Nuclear Power and Energy Agency appears to have kick-started public awareness and education, which are essential for public acceptance.
Nuclear power generation technologies are evolving rapidly to address most of the historical negative points (unit costs, size, safety).
The old traditional massive nuclear power plants are fast giving way to smaller modular reactors (SMRs) which can be prefabricated at source in smaller units of varying sizes for installation on-site over shorter periods.
Project development can therefore be phased out with the number of units increasing over time as power demands increase. SMRs have cooling options other than water. The choice of the right nuclear technology and plant size is therefore very important.
I believe the main competitor for incremental nuclear power generation will be solar generation especially when the energy storage technology is incorporated to stabilise grid inputs from intermittent solar generation.
Energy storage batteries over 100MW are already in use around the world. While nuclear plants are restricted to locations with plenty of water, solar plants can be located anywhere. Further, solar plants are cheaper and quicker to install, and running costs are definitely much lower.
Kenya should continue to objectively determine the national power generation mix. Beyond meeting the renewable green test, cost and tariff benefits should be the key determining criteria for various energy types.
Most of the capital and operating costs should be local to save on foreign exchange while reducing price volatility.
Base-load stability is essential to reduce dependence on regional power imports for peak demands and emergencies.
On the demand side, Kenya’s expanding economy requires more electricity to align with evolving energy-intensive technologies like e-mobility (road and railway) and digitisation, and an ambitious industrialisation plan. Further, a rapidly growing middle-class population will require more electrical appliances and gadgets.