Small modular reactors (SMR) and not large-scale nuclear power plants are a better fit for Uganda, according to Enobot Agboraw, the Executive Secretary African Commission for Nuclear Energy.
Plans to add nuclear power to Uganda’s energy mix continue to take shape, after the country hosted the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) experts in 2021 to evaluate the status of nuclear infrastructure development.
Last year, it was announced that Uganda had identified a site in Buyende district where it intended to construct the first nuclear power plant with a capacity to generate 2,000MW by 2037. It is hoped that the first 1000MW will be connected to the national grid by 2031.
However, speaking to this website on the sidelines of the Africa Nuclear Business Platform 2023 (AFNBP2023) held at the Munyonyo Commonwealth Resort in Kampala recently, Agboraw was concerned that Uganda would struggle to overcome the countless challenges that come with large scale nuclear power plants.
“Large plants are difficult to finance. Not only would Uganda spend a lot in borrowed money building the plant but it would also spend greatly servicing the loan,” he said.
It would also require investing significantly in transmission and distribution infrastructure – probably similar in size to what is already currently in place. Uganda has an installed generation capacity of about 1,400MW although it only consumes about 800MW.
At least $10 billion is needed to build Uganda’s first nuclear power plant (or about $5m per megawatt – for the proposed 2,000MW plant).
On the other hand, for a small modular reactor of between 100MW to 300MW, the country would require just about $3m to produce one megawatt – or about $300m for a 100MW plant. This is well in the range of the accepted costing by the Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA) for hydro power plants – the most affordable power option in Uganda.
“Small modular reactors are more viable for Uganda and African countries in general because of not only the costs involved, which is cheaper than diesel plants, but also because they can quickly be set up anywhere no matter the infrastructure,” Agboraw said.
An SMR can be up and running within three to four years. And unlike the large plants, which require many technicians to operate, only five to 10 people are needed to manage an SMR. And if the need to ramp up its capacity arose, it would not be difficult to do so.
Agboraw wants to see African countries collaborating and collectively bargaining with nuclear reactor manufactures for continent-centric modular designs – since it will not only lower the costs but also ensure efficiency in the technology provided.
He appreciates that achieving this requires unwavering political will.
“Africa’s leaders need to sit down together and figure out how their countries will transition to nuclear energy. We need, for instance, to know what each country brings to the table. Sometimes we have been quick to make benchmarking trips to America, Europe or Asia yet what we seek is here on the continent,” Agboraw says.
For instance, South Africa – the only African country producing nuclear energy currently – has a world class nuclear power plant where many lessons can be picked, he says. To his point, one of the French companies that attended the conference, is headed by a South African executive.
Then there is Morocco, which has the technology to read nuclear energy data, a service Nigeria has been getting from France.
With Africa producing 14 per cent of the uranium on the global market, the continent has the capacity to produce its own fuel to run its reactors going forward.
More research and dedicated training of the human resource that will not only run the plants but also shape policy is needed as well, says Agboraw.
It is however important that emphasis is put on producing more of electric, piping and joining technicians rather than on engineers and professors – since plants need the technicians more.
Uganda’s Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development (MEMD) signed a memorandum of understanding with Soroti University at the conference, which will see the institution introduce nuclear and atomic energy courses.
A combination of climate change and increasing urbanization and population growth have amplified the popularity of nuclear energy across the world in the last two decades. It is considered a clean energy option with low carbon emissions.
Seven sub-Saharan African countries, including Uganda, have committed to having nuclear energy as part of their energy mix between 2030 and 2037. The other countries are Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan, Rwanda, Kenya and Zambia.
In 2021, the IAEA experts made recommendations and suggestions to the Uganda Nuclear Power Programme and identified good practices in national position, stakeholder involvement and local industrial involvement.
According to Ruth Nankabirwa, the Energy Minister, Uganda has taken significant steps towards implementing the IAEA Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review Mission (INIR Phase1) recommendations and suggestions to support the development of its nuclear power programme.
Uganda is however one of the 11 African countries that have not ratified the ‘Pelindaba Treaty’, also known as the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty.
The Treaty prohibits the research, development, manufacture, stockpiling, acquisition, testing, possession, control or stationing of nuclear weapons, as well as the dumping of radioactive wastes.
It also outlaws any attack against nuclear installations in the zone by Treaty parties and requires them to maintain the highest standards of physical protection of nuclear material, facilities and equipment, which are to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.
We understand that a delegation from Uganda’s Ministry of Defense will visit Pretoria, South Africa later this year on a fact-finding mission at both the nuclear power plant and at the headquarters of the African Commission for Nuclear Energy.
Large NPP vs SMRs
There are two options when it comes to construction and operation of nuclear power plants i.e. the large-scale nuclear power plants (NPP) and the small modular reactors (SMRs).
In the case of the large NPP, upfront costs are higher and construction takes longer than other energy sources. However, once they are built, they become the backbone of a nation’s baseload power, serving as a reliable and affordable source of energy.
SMRs on the other hand are much smaller than a traditional reactor both in terms of size and power capacity, and each SMR consists of several parts — the reactor, steam generator, and coolant pumps — that can be assembled as a single unit.
SMRs have a number of advantages over larger nuclear power plants. First, they save upfront costs and construction time. They also offer flexibility because reactors can be added in modules, allowing a scale up of power capacity to meet rising energy demand. SMRs would also ease the burden of having to build new infrastructure in places without enough transmission lines, ports, and roads.