Uganda is pushing ahead with plans to construct a nine billion US Dollar nuclear power plant despite fears about the likely costs.
Uganda has planned to include nuclear or atomic energy as part of the energy mix since the early 2000s. In 2008 Parliament passed the Atomic Energy law for the safe application of nuclear after the Energy Policy 2002 which provides for the application of both renewable and nonrenewable energy resources.
While some have described Uganda’s nuclear/atomic energy ambitions as a huge gamble, Engineer Irene Batebe, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development said the project is on course and it is hoped that Uganda will have its first 2000-megawatt nuclear power plant running by the end of 2031.
Engineer Batebe said that apart from doing extensive feasibility studies that determined the viability of Uganda’s nuclear power program, the government has gone ahead to identify potential sites and Buyende, a district on the shores of La;e Victoria in Eastern Uganda has emerged as the preferred site because of its terrain, combined with its strong bedrock which is suitable for nuclear power plants.
She was addressing the just concluded Mineral Wealth conference in Kampala about opportunities in Uganda’s uranium deposits for nuclear fuels.
Other sites that had been considered were located in Nakasongola, Kiruhura, Lamwo, Sembabule and Kassanda districts. Uganda also has vast uranium deposits in the districts of Arua, Packwach, Agago Acholi, Masindi, Hoima, Mbarara and Kabarole.
But According to Eng. Betebe, nuclear power plants traditionally need huge water resources in their operations because the process known as fission heavily depends on the availability of water which is heated to produce steam for power generators that spin turbines to produce electricity.
Studies in countries with established nuclear plants indicate that a large power plant similar to what Uganda plans to put up can consume over one billion gallons of water per day. So far, only South Africa has a running nuclear plant on the African Continent.
Uganda’s Vision 2040 identifies nuclear energy as an option for meeting the energy deficit. Nuclear energy is supposed to be used to power the Standard Gauge Railway, new cities, and industries and some will be exported to neighbouring countries.
Apart from establishing a nuclear unit in the Ministry of Energy, a critical number of Ugandans have been or are being trained as part of the preparation. Sources have indicated to URN that there are about 22 highly trained Ugandans in atomic energy development.
Similarly, a team of experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency was in Uganda in mid-May as part of the preparatory work for the construction of nuclear reactors. The team led by IAEA’s Director of the Division of Nuclear Power for Africa Aline Des Cloizeaux, accompanied by Mikhail Chudakov, the Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy, and the Mission Team Leader Mehmet Ceyhan held a meeting with President Yoweri Museveni.
“As Uganda prepares to introduce nuclear energy to meet growing electricity demand, it is important the government continues to support further development of the infrastructure needed for a safe, secure, and peaceful nuclear power program,” Mehmet said.
Because of the huge cost of putting up such a mega power plant, Uganda is courting China, Russia, and the United States of America for possible technology transfer and investors in atomic energy. Some studies have indicated that Uganda needs to invest over 740 trillion Shillings to have the nuclear reactors up and running. The cost excludes operational costs.
“We are working with these governments to be able to identify our best partner to raise the necessary capital. Whether bilateral or through another arrangement,” Batebe said adding that the authorities are considering a phased approach in construction which will cover the first phase of 1000 Megawatts.
Under the plan, two units of base case scenario with an installed capacity of 2000 Megawatts will be commissioned by 2031. The World Nuclear Association (WNA) in 2009 said the average construction time for reactors worldwide was between 5 to 8.5 years. It’s not clear whether Uganda will meet the 2031 deadline.
The World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR) 2009 equally said the cost of generating nuclear energy was between USD 112 and USD 189 per MWh.
While Uganda’s determination towards nuclear or atomic seems irreversible, there is a global debate on whether atomic energy or nuclear should be part of the energy transition technologies. Others have asked whether nuclear is the most suitable and cost-effective technology for countries like Uganda that aimed to expand energy access to resolve the so-called energy poverty.
Ugandan Energy Scientist and Kyambogo University Lecturer Dr Justus Masa said while he supports the politics around building nuclear power plants, but is of the view that Uganda should have invested in solar which is much cheaper compared to nuclear.
“Germany has installed solar capacity of 50,000 Mw. It has only about six months of sunshine a year. During the summer, they can go 100 per cent renewable. Looking at the price of solar energy. I see that solar has enormous potential for us in Africa. I could see that solar is cheaper than nuclear,r” observed Masa, also a Senior Staff Scientist with the Germany-based Max Plank Institute for Chemical Energy.
According to Masa, rather than pushing for bigger energy projects when the country has excess power at peak, Uganda should instead build the capacity of Ugandans to consume the energy and make it affordable. “…Why would you generate more energy when you can’t consume it? I think for me that is a dysfunctional market,” Masa said.
The founder and Global Executive Director-Minerals Africa Development Institution MADI Frank Dixon Mugyenyi agrees with Masa that Uganda needs to tap into the low-hanging fruits in form of solar and geothermal. He is however of the view that in the long term, nuclear should be part of the broader plan.
“When you look at Ukraine, as of 2021, 55.5 per cent of its electricity was produced by nuclear. They have four nuclear plants. I don’t see why we should shy away because of the sensitivities of nuclear,” argued
Mugyenyi is also the former Coordinator of the Africa Minerals Development Centre (AMDC) a Specialized Agency of the African Union responsible for the implementation of the Africa Mining Vision (AMV)