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Kenya Eyes Nuclear Power Development

Kenya is seeking to develop a viable nuclear energy program within the next 15 years to meet its growing energy demands. A government commission formed last year is conducting a feasibility study and the University of Nairobi is setting up programs to train people for the nuclear program. Critics say they're concerned about plant worker safety and the risk of environmental contamination.

Some 86 percent of Kenyans do not have access to electricity, relying on firewood and kerosene to meet their energy needs. Electricity is expensive, and the supply is limited.

Kenya produces around 1,400 megawatts of electricity, more than half of that from hydroelectric plants.

But massive deforestation and other factors have led to decreasing rainfalls and the drying up of rivers and lakes, making hydroelectric power less of an option.

Kenyan officials say nuclear power may be the answer.

David Otwoma is secretary of the Energy Ministry's Nuclear Electricity Development Project.

"If the cost of electricity can be reduced, then more of our people will be having access to electricity and with that other uses of electricity - like cooking, for example, our children being able to read," said Otwoma. "It will enhance the standard of living of our people if we have nuclear energy in the energy mix in the near future."

Otwoma said Kenya is striving to become a middle-income country by 2030, and that a steady, reliable power source is vital to industrializing the country.

He says a nuclear power facility would benefit the region, because  Kenya is a member of the East Africa Power Pool, a nine-member group working to make affordable, environmentally-friendly energy more accessible.

"Whichever country has a nuclear power plant, that electricity will not only be confined to that country," he said.

To that end, Otwoma's group is conducting a three-phase program to study environmental, economic and technical issues of nuclear power, with the aim of constructing one or more reactors within 15 years.

Likely locations for reactors are along Kenya's coast, inland rivers or lakes.

The University of Nairobi's Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology is working with the government on technical and personnel issues.

Scientist Gichuru Gatari tells VOA there needs to be more students in the institute, particularly those studying nuclear engineering. He says there is a big challenge with providing students hands-on experience.

"Look at it. We teach them nuclear science, nuclear reactors, accelerators," said Gatari. "There is no chance of seeing any one of them [in Kenya]."

Gatari says the institute needs money for equipment and sending students abroad to get the necessary experience.

"The scholarship fund is very limited," he said. "The research fund is very limited in the country. It is as if, when the project started, it has lost interest because there was no nuclear power, and people saw it as if we are going to develop a nuclear bomb. So the support was weak, even from donors."

A fear among many Kenyans is the safety of nuclear power. Images of damaged nuclear reactors in Japan and the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster loom large in the public eye.

Regional stability is also an issue, especially with attacks by the militant group al-Shabab in neighboring Somalia.

And the safe disposal of spent nuclear fuel is a continual, worldwide concern.

Kenyan officials say they are examining these and other issues in their pre-feasibility study, and they expect to produce their report within the next 18 months.

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