Experts laugh at Uganda’s nuclear energy ambitions

It takes about 10 years to build a nuclear power plant at a minimum cost of $10 billion (about 21.7 trillion) and at least 15 years to train a nuclear scientist to run a plant

OTTAWA, CANADA-Experts have advised Uganda to go slow on a plan to generate electricity using uranium because it is a very costly venture.
But the government says future economic development will depend on ability to attract business and industrialisation, which can only be possible with adequate supply of competitively priced electricity.
Government also says that the available hydropower potential cannot guarantee enough electricity even if all feasible sites were to be developed.
A Canadian firm, IBI Corporation, was hired to give Uganda technical guidance on how to generate nuclear energy as an alternative.
The IBI President met President Museveni in January with a proposal that they can turn the recently discovered uranium into nuclear energy and generate electricity.
In March, a team of experts, businessmen and government officials coordinated by IBI, formed an advisory board that seeks to develop the Nuclear Energy Programme for Uganda (NEPU) in about six months.

 “We will come forward with all the steps required to get (nuclear energy). Let’s just say hypothetically it’s probably a ten-to-fifteen-year project…very, very large undertaking,” said 
IBI President and CEO, Gary Fitchett.
Although the idea sounds exciting, experts have warned that Uganda has no financial capacity to tap nuclear energy.
Bangladesh, Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Namibia and oil-rich Nigeria are said to be some of the countries that toyed with the same idea only to chicken out because of the cost.
“It is a very long process and in any case having uranium is just a very small first step,” said Trevor Findly, an international affairs scholar at Canada’s Carleton University.
“It is [also] hugely expensive--$10 billion at least, for a French ARIVA reactor and I am sure that when the Uganda Government sees the bill for any reactor, it will pass-out,” he said.
In addition, Uganda would have to set up a completely new power grid to carry the nuclear electricity generated.
Building a nuclear power plant takes more than 10 years and there is no guarantee that it will actually work, says Findly, a nuclear proliferation expert said.
The IBI President, however, dismisses skeptics, arguing that the most important components to the whole project are: “solid base for uranium” and the “need”, which he says are both available. Though he agrees that the cost is high, he maintains that the “investment is worthwhile” because it has World Bank backing – which can bring in the money. 
“The world community appreciates what President Museveni is doing to enhance the economy and the way of life for the people of Uganda and therefore (external) support may be forthcoming to help,” he said.    


Experts further say that the quality of the uranium also matters. The $47million joint World Bank and AfDB study did not establish the quantities and grade-levels in Uganda.
Canada, Australia, Kazakhstan, Namibia, South Africa and Niger are some of the largest exporters of uranium and they are prospecting for new mines – meaning they are here to stay. Spot uranium prices also continue to drop—from about $150 per pound in 2007 to as low as $58 last year.
“There are already lots of huge competitors,” said Findly. “Uganda is coming very late into the market. I am not sure Uganda is in the position to compete (although) I don’t know the size and quality of the discoveries”. 


Uganda has friendly ties with Iran, which continues to deny allegations that it is enriching uranium in a bid to make nuclear weapons. Former Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami, visited Uganda in 2005. President Museveni has also maintained engagement with the reclusive regime in North Korea – also in the spotlight over its nuclear bomb plans.
It is feared in Western capitals that Uganda too could seek nuclear weapons, changing the balance of power in the already volatile Great Lakes Region.   
Also, Iran is under UN nuclear sanctions and Uganda would be violating this embargo if it chose to export uranium to Tehran. Besides, Uganda is party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty policed by the very rigorous International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.

Nevertheless, a nuclear reactor consumes tones of uranium – which essentially removes the notion that Uganda’s find could be sold on the black market. 
Uranium also has to be refined and enriched to be of any use – processes that take years and big investments.
Prof. David Mutimer of the York University Centre for International and Security Studies, says there is a huge difference between enriched uranium for energy and that for a bomb.
“To have electricity, enrichment goes to about 10%, whereas for a nuclear bomb, it has to be enriched to more than 90%,” he explained.
Another shortcoming is that Uganda does not have the skilled manpower needed to carry out such a programme. Some experts estimate that it can take at least 15 years for nuclear scientists to study, plan, site, build, manage and finally run a power plant.
Jim Wurst, a nuclear proliferation expert with the New York-based Global Security Institute, says there are indications that the uranium in Uganda may be mined in Lake Albert.
“I have never heard of anybody mine for uranium under water. One thing you might want to look into is the pollution aspect,” he said in a phone interview.


© 2016 Observer Media Ltd