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Uranium can power Uganda’s growth, but at what cost?

Uganda’s Vision 2040 estimates that the country will require 41,738 MW of installed capacity by 2040, of which nearly 60% (24,000 MW) will come from nuclear. In this second article about Uganda’s nuclear industry, Luke Williams talks about how much uranium has been found to date and Uganda’s ambitious plan to use its resources to power its economy.

In 2004 the Department of Geological Survey and Mines (DGSM) under the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development (MEMD) embarked on the Sustainable Management of Mineral Resources Project (SMMRP) with financial support from the World Bank, African Development Bank and Nordic Development Fund, in addition to the Government of Uganda. One of the main objectives was to promote Uganda as a destination for mineral exploration by domestic and international companies.

Slide from a presentation by Eng Irene Muloni (MP). Minister of Energy and Mineral Development in June 2014 at the Mining on Top: Africa – London Summit.

Slide from a presentation by Eng Irene Muloni (MP). Minister of Energy and Mineral Development in June 2014 at the Mining on Top: Africa – London Summit.

As part of this work, a High Resolution Airborne Geophysical Survey, including gamma ray spectrometer surveys, was conducted covering around 80% of the country. This culminated in the production of high resolution radiometric (i.e. uranium) data.

These surveys show that Uganda has about 52,000 square kilometers of uranium prospects. This includes 18,000 km2 in the Buganda-Toro region; 12,000 km2 in the Karagwe-Ankole region; 5,000 km2 between Lake Albert and Lake Kyoga; 5,000 km2 around Lake Edward; 900 km2 on the Buhweju plateau and 12,000 km2 in Lake Albert.

The exact amount of uranium deposits or reserves, however, is still unknown although Water and Environment Minister, Ephraim Kamuntu, has been quoted in the media as saying that “Uganda is seated on a pile of Uranium.” Companies involved in uranium prospection and exploration in Uganda include IBI corporation, Canmin Resources (Uganda) Ltd, Uranium Hunter Corporation, Magnus International Resources Inc. and Signature Metals Ltd.

The Rössing Uranium Mine in Namibia is the longest-running and one of the largest open pit uranium mines in the world

The Rössing Uranium Mine in Namibia is the longest-running and one of the largest open pit uranium mines in the world.

Apart from South Africa, the other African countries that are producing uranium are exporting it.  Namibia is the largest African producer, shipping out around 4,000 tonnes of Uranium annually, while Niger and Malawi each produce and export around 1,000 tonnes of uranium per year.

For the case of Uganda, however, President Museveni has repeatedly spoken out against exporting Uranium in its raw form, insisting on exploiting it to make up for the country’s energy deficit. “As long as I am in the chair, nobody will touch the Uranium in Uganda,” he told a Summit of East African leaders in Kampala in 2013.

To put this ambition into perspective, South Africa is the only country in Africa that has operable nuclear power stations. Since 1984 they have been running two plants with a combined capacity of 1,830 MW (or 6.2% of the country’s power supply in 2014). According to the World Nuclear Association, the country plans to build a further eight nuclear power stations over the next decade that will add another 9,600 MW.

As stated in the previous article, only 27 tonnes of enriched fuel is required each year by a 1,000 MW reactor. Therefore, if Uganda were to generate 24,000 MW using nuclear energy (say from 24 power stations with capacity to generate 1,000 MW as stated in Vision 2040), it would require around 648 tonnes of enriched fuel every year. The most important question though remains, where will the money to build these plants come from?

Strategic partnerships with nuclear powers

Comprehensive preparation and planning of a nuclear programme requires cooperation with other countries and organisations. Significantly, Uganda signed a Country Programme Framework with the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) in October 2008 and again more recently covering the period 2014-2018. The focus is on aspects of human resource development, energy planning, human health, water resources, food and agriculture and radiation protection. One of the key components is the Agency’s support in conducting pre-feasibility studies for the first nuclear power plant.

Reports also state that Uganda has approached India for technical advice on how to exploit its uranium reserves for the generation of electricity. According to Minister Kamuntu, Uganda is keen on a mutually beneficial cooperation with India to develop energy resources. The country has been in discussion with India about helping to assess its uranium reserves and train engineers in the sector.

Uganda has also reportedly had discussions with Iran around nuclear cooperation. An Iranian delegation led by their Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarrif visited Uganda in February 2015 and met with Uganda’s State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Henry Okello Oryem. They signed a Memorandum of Understanding that “will emphasise diplomatic relations as well as identify priority projects between the two countries.”  According to a statement on Uganda’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, the Iranian minister made it clear that Iran has no interest in nuclear weapons, but rather only the peaceful use of this technology. It is unclear exactly how the two countries will work together in this area.

Uranium mining and environmental considerations

In most respects the environmental aspects of uranium mining are the same as those of other mines where rocks containing metallic elements are found. However, the radioactivity associated with the uranium ore requires some special management in addition to the general environmental considerations.

Uranium itself actually has a very low level of radioactivity, comparable with granite and is handled with gloves as a sufficient precaution. However, uranium is also toxic chemically, being comparable with lead, and this must also be managed. Mining methods, tailings and run-off management and land rehabilitation will be subject to government (NEMA) regulation and inspection. They will also be subject to national health and radiation protection codes of practice applying to both workers and members of the public. All of these arrangements must be in place well before operations commence.

Before mining commences detailed feasibilities studies and environmental impact assessments must be conducted by developers and should be made publicly available for comment. After careful consideration by a wide range of state authorities, approval and the necessary licences may be given.

Uranium mining and processing, not to mention nuclear power generation, will inevitably raise lots of questions within the country and region. It is paramount that the whole process is open and transparent right from the start to avoid any additional scepticism and public mistrust. The industry is already perceived as secretive and dangerous and the best way to combat this is through dialogue and engagement. The issue of public support will be absolutely key with opposed groups inevitably spreading half-truths about the risks of terrorism, nuclear proliferation and perceived Chernobyl scale meltdowns.

Institutional, legal and policy arrangements

In the meantime, the Government of Uganda has made some steps towards establishing the necessary legal and institutional framework for nuclear power generation. There are provisions in the Uganda Vision 2040, National Development Plan (2020/11 – 2014/15) and Energy Policy for Uganda 2002. Additionally there is the Atomic Energy Act 2008 and Nuclear Power Development Strategy 2013/14-2015/16.

The Atomic Energy Act 2008 established the Atomic Energy Council (AEC) as an independent regulatory authority and the Nuclear Energy Unit (NEU) to promote and develop the use of nuclear energy for electricity generation and other peaceful purposes.

The function of the NEU is to prepare a strategy and implementation plan for the acquisition of nuclear power plants for power generation; prepare a long-term sustainable programme for the supply of nuclear fuel; and coordinate the technical cooperation programme between International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Uganda. Under the NEU are various working groups including Technology Deployment, Policy and Legal, Regulatory Infrastructure and Human Resources Development.

The NEU have sent at least seven people abroad to undertake specialised training in fields including nuclear science and technology, quantum engineering, international nuclear law and policy and nuclear engineering. However, it is clear many more will require training to effectively deliver the mandate of the NEU.

In the medium term there will be need for a detailed assessment of the human resource needs for safe regulation and operation of nuclear installations as well as the capability of public universities in Uganda to conduct nuclear related training and skills development. In the long term, local tertiary institutions will establish relevant nuclear training programs.

The next article will discuss Uganda’s options ranging from mining and exporting the raw material only, sending it elsewhere to be processed and buying the finished fuel back for power generation, building facilities for different stages of the process or having a complete nuclear fuel cycle in Uganda. It will look at the potential issues and costs of each option and draw lessons from other countries.

Luke Williams is an Environment, Health and Safety professional with five years experience in the UK civil nuclear industry, working for Westinghouse Electric UK.

editor@oilinuganda.org