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The risks and benefits of going nuclear

In this finale of  a four-part series on the nuclear industry, Luke Williams assesses the benefits of Uganda’s planned nuclear program as the country seeks to reduce its power deficit and power an industrialised economy. 

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.

Before talking about reactor designs and nuclear fuel supply contracts, Uganda must firstly establish precisely how much uranium it has. One cannot just assume that the uranium ‘targets’ (or prospects) found to date are guaranteed to translate into commercially viable uranium reserves, let alone that there is sufficient quantities to generate the 24,000 MW of nuclear energy as stated in Vision 2040.

A detailed assessment of prospects is therefore required to establish both the technical (i.e. average and cut-off grades, depths and types of mining methods, processing requirements, environmental aspects etc.) and economic (i.e. capital expenditure, operating expenditures, life of mine, mining capacity, output tonnages, potential revenues, tax, royalties etc.) parameters . Only when this information is available and made public can Uganda genuinely start talking about next steps.

Benefits of nuclear

Uganda currently has one of the lowest electricity consumption rates in the world with 215 kWh per capita per year. Sub-Saharan Africa’s average is 552 kWh per capita and the world average is 2,975 kWh per capita – more than ten times that of Uganda! One 1,000 MW (1 GW) nuclear power station would produce four times as much power as the 250 MW Bujagali Hydroelectric Power Station (currently Uganda’s biggest) and more than the entire of Uganda’s current 822 MW capacity. This amount of power would sharply reduce the country’s power deficit bringing much needed energy to Ugandan homes and businesses.

Nuclear energy is undeniably reliable, providing on-demand baseload energy 24-hours a day – the average nuclear facility is on line 90 percent of the time. If indeed Uganda’s uranium prospects turn out to be significant and economically feasible to extract, then nuclear energy could greatly contribute to the country’s generation capacity and energy security.

It is important to note the safety record of the nuclear industry. Despite a bad reputation, there is evidence over six decades that shows nuclear power is actually extremely safe. The risk of accidents in nuclear power plants is low and declining. In fact, in terms of the number of people killed by one kind of energy or another per kWh, nuclear energy is actually the lowest (together with wind); coal is unsurprisingly the highest. Modern advanced reactor designs (unlike those built at Chernobyl and Fukushima) are generally considered inherently safe.

Finally, nuclear energy is considered to be a low carbon energy technology. According to the International Panel on Climate Change, the median carbon footprint of nuclear is 12 grams of carbon dioxide-equivalent per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated (gCO2eq/kWh), including construction and decommissioning. This compares to 820 gCO2eq/kWh for coal and 490gCO2eq/kWh for gas. Given the breakthrough deal reached in Paris at COP21 recently (which strives to limit global temperature rise to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels), nuclear energy’s low carbon credentials could become increasingly important, particularly as the world looks to move away from a fossil fuel driven global energy system. It could even be possible to attract international climate finance to support a Ugandan nuclear industry.

Local content and skills development

A nuclear energy programme in Uganda would certainly create many jobs, particularly during the construction phase but also in the operation of power stations and processing facilities and in ancillary fields such as waste management. On top of this, there will be a much larger number of indirect and induced jobs, in the supply chain for example, bringing wider economic growth and prosperity to the country.

However, the inevitable and significant skills gap between current supply and international nuclear industry requirements will pose familiar problems (as experienced already in the oil sector). There will be an opportunity for Uganda (with support from international partners) to invest in local institutions, from vocational training institutes to universities, giving Ugandans the skills necessary to obtain jobs in the nuclear industry.

The risk is that foreign companies will prefer to employ more experienced expatriate workers, particularly for the highly skilled (and highly paid) positions. This could result in the unexpected dis-benefit of newly trained Ugandans leaving the country in search of work. With this in mind, it would perhaps be better to focus efforts on training technicians and craft-persons, as well as preparing people for opportunities during the construction phase. Lessons learned from the oil sector with be valuable here.

The risks 

However well managed, mining activities will without question cause widespread environmental disturbance at sites across Uganda by generating large quantities of toxic (and to some extent radioactive) tailings and run-off. After closure, these mines will require lengthy land rehabilitation programmes.

Furthermore, mining will necessitate the relocation and compensation of large numbers of people which, as seen with the oil and gas industry, can lead to land grabbing and conflict as well as challenging social issues – often disproportionately affecting women.

Depending on where the uranium is mined and processed it will need to be transported – by road, rail and/or sea – on a regular basis over the course of many years. As well as the risk of accident during transport, there is also the unfortunate threat from terrorist groups (such as al-Shabaab) who could seek to attack transport containers, or even steel radioactive material which can be used to make a dirty bomb. (Note – this is not to be confused with a fission bomb such as the one used on Hiroshima in World War II.)

In terms of waste management it is the high-level radioactive waste (mostly spent fuel) that people will be most worried about. This is the material that is dangerous to people and the environment for thousands of years. Although it is important to note that whilst containing some 95% of the radioactivity, this actually makes up less than 0.1% of the total volume generated by the industry. Used fuel will need to be stored in ponds for 40-50 years before the heat and radioactivity is low enough for indefinite storage or permanent disposal. It should be noted that there is no accepted best practice for the disposal of high level waste and this remains an issue worldwide.

Finally is the issue of nuclear decommissioning. The government will need to factor in the clean-up of radioactivity, progressive dismantling and demolishment of all nuclear power plants, processing facilities and mines so that sites are eventually made available for other uses. This can be a long, expensive and complex process which has been known to cost taxpayers in other countries many millions of dollars.


An open pit uranium mine in Australia

An open pit uranium mine in Australia

Perhaps the most important factor in determining whether nuclear is good for Uganda or not is the cost. This includes the cost of mining, processing and generating energy as well as all associated activities. The Government will have the difficult challenge of ensuring that the cost of generating electricity is competitive with other technologies – a cost that will ultimately be passed onto consumers – while ensuring that the environment, health, safety, security and quality is not compromised.

The advent of a nuclear industry in Uganda will be a complex process and will involve working with numerous, mostly international stakeholders. This is likely to result in complex commercial negotiations with foreign companies and countries – a process that must be open and transparent to ensure both the government and any foreign companies are accountable.

There is no getting around it, nuclear power plants are expensive and will require a huge amount of capital investment. To give one high profile example, the UK has just announced that it will spend 24 billion pounds on the first British nuclear reactor for two decades – claimed to be the most expensive power station of all time!

One option for Uganda could be the emerging field of small modular reactors (SMRs). The UK Government recently announced funding of 250 million pounds over five years for the research and development of SMRs. If the technology comes online within the timescales needed by the Ugandan government, this could be a cheaper and more appropriate option.

Alternatives to nuclear

It will not have gone unnoticed that an estimated 1.4 billion barrels of recoverable petroleum have been found so far in the Western part of Uganda. There is also likely to be large quantities of gas which, together with regional coal, would surely be a cheaper option for Uganda.

Uganda is also endowed with abundant renewable energy resources including an estimated 2,000 MW of hydro and 450 MW of geothermal. According to the United Nation’s Sustainable Energy For All (SE4ALL) initiative, the overall renewable energy power generation potential in Uganda is estimated to be 5,300 MW. Whilst the power output for renewable energy systems is of course considerably smaller than nuclear, it is better for the environment and there is no need for expensive regulation, waste management and decommissioning. Renewable energy combined with smarter decentralised energy systems could help to deliver energy faster and more widely.

In conclusion, throughout the whole nuclear fuel cycle there are risks associated with environment, health, safety and security. If managed and regulated effectively these can be minimised. However, this is a highly technical and complex industry and one with which Uganda has little practical experience.

The biggest factor for Uganda will be the cost. Investors will be well aware of the risks and technical complexity of the nuclear industry so where will Uganda find the finance? Based on recent trends, the Government could look east to countries such as China who currently offer cheaper capital (and less political interference), but at what price?

The fact is that Uganda needs electricity to unlock its potential and fulfil the ambitions set out in Vision 2040. The question of whether nuclear is right for Uganda is complex and needs to be thoroughly analysed and compared to all alternatives – including fossil fuels and renewable energy sources. But whatever happens, transparency and accountability are paramount if the nuclear industry is to stand any chance of success in Uganda.

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