Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen) is being considered by the Ministry of Energy to be the operator of Kenya’s first nuclear power plant whose construction is expected from 2027 through 2034.

KenGen is 70% government-owned with a generation mix totalling 1,903.7MW comprising – hydropower (43%), geothermal (42%), thermal (13%) and wind (2%). KenGen is also the operator of the 55MW Garissa solar farm belonging to the Rural Electrification and Renewable Energy Corporation (REREC).

“KenGen could become the operator of the nuclear power project,” Energy principal secretary Alex Wachira said at the launch of a 5-year strategic plan by the Nuclear Power and Energy Agency (NuPEA) –which was created in 2012 to shepherd and fast-track Kenya’s development of nuclear energy.

Insider sources who spoke to Kawi Hub said there are three options on the table in eventually deciding the nuke operator – either KenGen or NuPEA itself, or the government might create a special purpose vehicle (SPV) involving both public and private investors.

In 2021, Kenya received the green light from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to proceed and set up the infrastructure for the planned reactor.

NuPEA has identified the coastal towns of Kilifi and Kwale as potential sites for the plant to sit on 400 acres of land.

NuPEA CEO Justus Wabuyabo said that the tender bidding window for the reactor would be opened in 2026, with the actual construction expected a year later and commissioning by 2034.

NuPEA’s 5-year roadmap covering 2023 to 2027 would cost Sh36.2 billion ($268 million) to implement, including capacity building and developing research reactors and labs for energy, medicine and agriculture. This budget excludes the construction cost of a nuclear power project.

PS Wachira said Kenya would most likely go for small modular reactors (SMRs), starting with a 300MW unit, to be scaled up over time as the country races to strengthen its national network.

The rule of the thumb within the energy industry, and as a contingency measure, is to avoid having one plant holding over 10 percent share of a country’s total power capacity.

Kenya has a total installed capacity of 3,043MW, comprising – geothermal (949MW), hydropower (838MW), wind (437MW), solar (173MW) and 646MW for thermal (diesel and kerosene-fired generators).

“We cannot industrialise and meet the growing needs of our rapidly growing population with only one baseload (geothermal), thus the need for nuclear power which is a reliable, affordable and low-carbon power source,” said Wachira.

New peak demand

“Demand is ever growing. Our new peak load hit 2,185MW last week on Wednesday (March 13), yet our effective power capacity is barely 2,900MW. Also, all thermal plants in Kenya would be retired by 2035, this is about 500MW being pulled out of the national grid. They have to be replaced with a better alternative and that’s nuclear,” added Wachira.

In the strategic plan, NuPEA has flagged several risks that might potentially block Kenya from achieving its nuclear energy plan. There’s inadequate staff capacity number and skill mix, with the agency having just slightly over 10 nuclear power engineers sponsored by the Kenyan government to undertake nuclear studies at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea.

Other identified hurdles on the road to nuclear power is low stakeholder support of Kenya’s nuclear power programme, weak monitoring, evaluation and reporting of project activities, inadequate regulatory framework and information security and cybercrime, among others.

Industry players questioned Kenya’s capacity to ensure nuclear safety and security should the country go ahead with the plan.

“The elephant in the room is the question of safety and security. The coastal location has been identified primarily because of the need for huge amounts of cooling water for the reactors, you know, from the ocean,” said Joe Ng’ang’a, a Kenyan energy and policy expert.

“But these coastal towns are closer to our weak underbelly of Al Shabaab terrorists. Are we ready and capable of offering the desired level of security, and in the event of a breach can we handle the safety considerations thereafter? The jury is out on that.”

Kenyan officials hold nuclear power both as a long-term solution to high fuel costs, incurred during times of drought when diesel generators are used, and an effective way to cut reliance on weather dependent hydropower.

PS Wachira said that while Kenya currently relies on geothermal for baseload and has headroom to ramp up steam power production, studies indicate the steam fields can only produce up to a given level before getting exhausted. Equally, he said that Kenya had nearly exhausted weather-dependent hydropower sources and that while solar and wind sources are clean and easy to tap, they remain intermittent.