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Uganda Mining Company To Lead Uranium Exploration

Bateebe, the permanent secretary, Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development (MEMD)

The newly incorporated Uganda National Mining Company will lead the exploration of uranium in the country, a mineral that the government considers critical in meeting its ambition of setting up a large nuclear power plant by 2031.

Irene Bateebe, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development (MEMD), says the state mining company has already been incorporated and now awaits cabinet approval of its board before it starts operations.

“We are advancing to Cabinet to have the board approved. Come financial year 2024/2025, the National Mining Company will be operational. And then at that point they will start their processes of exploring, undertaking reconnaissance studies, and moving into the exploration programme. All of that will be subject to that Cabinet decision on the role of the National Mining Company,” she said.

Bateebe was speaking at the end of an eight-day review workshop by the Integrated Uranium Production Cycle Review ((IUPCR) team of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at the Commonwealth Resort in Munyonyo. The IAEA team was in Uganda to check on the progress of the country’s nuclear energy programme, under which the exploration of uranium falls.

Uganda is planning on adding nuclear into its energy mix by commissioning the first of two large nuclear reactors, each with a capacity of 1,000MW, by 2031. The government has already selected 30,000sqkm of land in Buyende district, where it intends to set up the reactors. Currently, the government is in the process of acquiring this land by, among other things, compensating the occupants.

Concurrently, Uganda’s government, through the Directorate of Geological Survey and Mines (DGSM), has been digging up holes and acquiring samples, especially from the districts of Buhweju and Sembabule, and testing them for uranium.

Other identified areas with potential for uranium production are in the districts of Arua, Pakwach, Agago, Masindi, Kabarole, Mbarara and Hoima.

No final results from the DGSM tests have been publicly announced. There is also no reliable data of how much uranium deposits Uganda has.

There has been very little, if any, exploration of uranium in Uganda in the past.

For Uganda to start producing nuclear energy, it needs nuclear fuel. This nuclear fuel is a fissionable and fertile material that is used in a nuclear reactor for the purpose of generating energy. This nuclear fuel is made up mainly of processed uranium or uranium dioxide.

Preliminary studies point to Uganda lacking enough uranium resources to power a large nuclear reactor. Considering Uganda’s schedule of commissioning a nuclear reactor, there are strong indications that the country will import nuclear fuel from suppliers that the IAEA recognises. However, using the country’s available uranium resources to lower the cost of the project remains the government’s key objective.

The first reactor of 1,000MW is estimated to cost $4.8 billion – an amount that government intends to mobilise through a sovereign-based model so that it can have some control over the tariff of the electricity from the project.

Uganda slapped a ban on the issuance of licenses for uranium projects to private players more than 10 years ago due to the lack of a regulatory framework and the sensitivity around the mineral. However, Bateebe said there is now room for investors to participate after the introduction of the new Mining Act, 2023, especially for those who wish to partner with the National Mining Company.

The IAEA is supporting Uganda’s nuclear energy plans by mainly offering advisory support. This support started in 2014 when Uganda signed a five-year agreement (2014-2018) with the IAEA for safe application of nuclear technologies, focusing on uranium exploration and nuclear power. 

This time round, during their visit, the IAEA mission reviewed 16 aspects of the uranium production cycle. Some of these aspects included the national policy, legal and institutional framework, just to mention a few. The team, which was led by Adrienne Haly (Technical Lead Uranium Resources and Production, IAEA), agreed to compile and deliver an assessment report of its visit to Uganda within three months.

Haly (extreme left) and the rest of the IAEA team

A key barrier to Uganda’s nuclear energy plan remains the absence of a robust regulatory framework. Uganda is in the process of repealing the Atomic Energy Act, 2008, and replacing it with a completely new piece of legislation.

Bateebe said that institutions like the Atomic Energy Council will be strengthened and new ones like the Uganda National Nuclear Company will be established as provided for in the Atomic Energy Bill 2024, to address the capacity gaps in the regulation and development of the uranium production programme.

“As we speak the first parliamentary council has already submitted the draft bill. So, we are going to go through the process of submission to cabinet and subsequently to parliament. So, in this, one of our focus areas, will be to strengthen the Atomic Energy Council, who are the regulator,” she said.

The Energy Policy for Uganda, 2023 envisages the development of 52,481MW generation capacity in the long term to meet the country’s future energy demands of which 24,000MW has been earmarked for nuclear power.

Uganda is not the only African country bidding to have nuclear energy, which is considered clean. Egypt is currently constructing large reactors, while Ghana is expected to announce the name of its preferred vendor for its nuclear energy plant next week. Rwanda, Kenya, and Zambia are some of the other African countries that have already started on achieving their nuclear energy dream.

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