Uganda turns to nuclear power plants
By CHARLES KAZOOBA
Hamstrung by unpredictable climatic changes that have reduced the water levels in Lake Victoria and the amount of hydroelectricity generated by dams along the River Nile, the Ugandan government is turning to the more predictable nuclear power.
The country’s Energy and Mineral Development Minister, Daudi Migereko, estimates that Uganda will be in a position to generate nuclear energy from its uranium deposits within the next 10 to 15 years.
Said Mr Migereko: “With the ever increasing demand, it is envisaged that nuclear power will play an increasing role in the future energy supply. Uganda has significant uranium reserves that can be exploited and used for power generation.”
The Ugandan government has been battling a power crisis since the late 1990s caused by a combination of low investment in the energy sector and low hydropower generation caused by falling water levels in Lake Victoria, which feeds the country’s two hydropower dams in Jinja on the Nile.
Power output at the hydropower complex in Jinja has fallen from an installed capacity of 380 Megawatts to around 135MW, forcing the country to resort to diesel-guzzling emergency thermal power plants that produce 100MW.
The power shortage has knocked about a percentage point off the gross domestic product projections and forced the government to set up an Energy Fund of Ush99 billion ($56.5 million) in the financial year 2006/07, of which Ush70 billion ($40 million) is going to pay for the thermal power plants.
In 2007/08, more than Ush45 billion ($25.7 million) was added to the Energy Fund.
End-user power prices have also risen by about 70 per cent due to the shortage.
A new 250MW hydropower dam is currently under construction at Bujagali on the Nile, with at least two other dams expected over the next decade to meet future demand.
However, government officials believe a nuclear power plant could give some insulation against inclement weather like drought, which affects hydropower generation, while exploiting the available uranium resources.
Although nuclear power is a controversial option due to the dangers of meltdown and the challenge of disposing of nuclear waste, improvements in technology and reductions in the cost over more than half a century have brought it back to the table of options for many countries.
It is also gaining renewed currency because it leaves a smaller carbon footprint and is, therefore, a relatively cleaner fuel.
The hydropower and other renewable energy resources potential in Uganda is estimated at about 5300MW, about half the projected demand if each of the five million households in Uganda were to be connected to the electricity grid — and that is without including demand by heavy industry and institutions.
“Energy security means fulfilling the energy needs of all the people, including the 90 per cent of our citizens who have no access to electricity,” said Permanent Secretary in the Energy Ministry Fredrick Kabagambe-Kaliisa. “Diversification of energy sources is necessary.”
The Ugandan government has already drafted the legal framework under which its nuclear programme will operate. An Atomic Energy Bill is currently being scrutinised by parliament with a view to having it enacted before June to pave the way for the flow of technical assistance from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
“The lack of an effective legal and regulatory infrastructure has made it difficult for IAEA to give us technical support,” Mr Migereko said. The IAEA is the world’s focal point for mobilising peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology for critical needs in developing countries.
The agency also focuses on the use of nuclear and isotopic techniques to address the daunting challenges of disease, poverty, hunger and shortages of drinking water.
The EastAfrican has learnt that the government will also enact laws to govern the mining and processing of its uranium deposits for energy production. According to a former IAEA consultant, Dr Abel Rwendeire, Uganda cannot mine its uranium resources until the country has a comprehensive law in place that institutes the required safeguards.
“The Atomic Energy Bill, once passed, will only enable the country to mine and export uranium in its raw form,” Dr Rwendeire told Members of Parliament during a recent sensitisation meeting. “To generate energy out of it, government will have to adopt various other legislation because of the complexity and sophisticated technology involved.”
Another anticipated challenge to Uganda’s nascent nuclear power programme is the lack of skilled manpower in the sector, with less than a dozen personnel available to roll out the project.
“We have a long-term plan of nuclear energy production but presently, we have only about 10 experts with nuclear skills,” Dr Akisophel Kisolo, chief radiation safety officer in the Ministry of Energy, told The EastAfrican recently.
He said the government could end up sourcing expertise outside the country or training its own personnel. But even then, he warned, it is expensive to hire such skilled labour.
Uganda has lagged behind Kenya and Tanzania in the creation of a nuclear legal framework; the two countries have had atomic commissions for years.
A nuclear power plant in Uganda would also help regularise the illicit uranium smuggling trade out of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Tanzania and Angola.
Dr Kisolo also said Uganda is expediting the atomic energy legislation to create a mechanism for preventing leakage in the regional oil pipeline to be constructed from Eldoret, Kenya, to Kigali through Kampala. He said atomic energy will be used to test and establish leaking spots on the pipeline.
Atomic energy is a highly concentrated form of energy. The energy released is carried off as kinetic energy of emitted particles and is eventually transformed into other forms, mainly heat.
It is also used in the treatment of cancer patients, diagnostic procedures including organ scans, crop improvement through integrated nutrient management, level gauging in soft-drinks firms and assessing geothermal resources like those in Katwe and Kibiro in the Western Rift Valley.
Several African nations, including Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Namibia and Nigeria, are seriously considering nuclear power as an alternative to hydropower.
With only two nuclear power reactors on the entire continent, both located at Koeberg in South Africa, nuclear power constitutes only a fraction of Africa’s energy mix.
Still, South Africa accounts for 60 per cent of all of Africa’s energy production.
The search for cleaner energy sources such as nuclear is also motivated by widespread concern that Africa is more vulnerable than other regions to climate change.
Africa maintains 18 per cent of the world’s known recoverable uranium resources. Most operational mines are located in Niger, Congo, Namibia and South Africa. Prospecting and other preproduction work is being performed in Botswana, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Gabon, Guinea, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Mozambique, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.