It was surprising to read in one of the local dailies yesterday that the Kenyan government delegation, led by the Prime Minister, which was attending the Investment in the New Kenya conference in London had asked UK investors to help Kenya develop a nuclear energy sector.
It was surprising on several grounds. First, the debate on the merits and demerits of nuclear power generation in Kenya has not even started here; certainly not in the public domain. This means that Kenyans are nowhere near reaching a consensus on this controversial and even dangerous idea; and that the consent of the governed is even farther from being sought or secured. Second, and following from the first, this news was breaking in London, not Nairobi -- which is not the way to go about such consequential matters.
Third, the timing of this nuclear idea could not have been worse -- and this makes both the idea and its timing patently frivolous. Why do I say so? One has simply to consider the idea in the context of the raging controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear ambitions, and the long-running geopolitical tensions fuelled by North Korea's nuclear programme (which is now to be scaled down or even, hopefully, wound up), to arrive at this unhappy conclusion. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it is reported that the audience which heard the Energy Minister's (Kiraitu Murungi's) suggestion, which was supported by the Prime Minister (Raila Odinga), responded with "laughter."
I read that laughter to signal both surprise and discomfort.
The arguments advanced for the nuclear option were essentially that: (a) it is a significantly cheaper source of electricity than hydropower; and, b) the sources of hydropower are under threat from the wanton destruction by Kenyans of water towers, the emblematic one being Mau Forest. This suggests to me that if the water towers were to be secured against destruction, then the case for the nuclear option, at this time, might not be persuasive simply on the grounds of its relative cheapness -- and when there are viable alternative sources of energy (such as geothermal, solar, wind and even coal).
So, why has the leadership failed to secure the water catchment areas -- and why are they not embarassed to own up to this failure, and to see it for what it says about them and us? The answer, my friends, as one might say, is blowing in the uncertain political winds.
Let's face it: It is not yet the time for nuclear power generation in Kenya, and it is not likely to be before 2050. The home-grown technical expertise and capital base for such a venture are simply not there yet -- and are decades away from being in place. Kenya does not yet have a private sector entity with the muscle to do so, and the public sector is paralyzed by self-interest and private deals -- which are not in the public interest. If we were to go for nuclear energy now, we might in effect be doing it for other interests with greater financial muscle and political motivation: such as Libya's sovereign wealth fund, to which we seem to be surrendering everything that matters lately (oil pipelines, oil refineries, petrol stations, hotels and prime city plots).
The level of corruption in the country remains too high to allow for the safe introduction of nuclear technology at this time. One remembers, for example, that we could not, in the recent past, ensure the procurement of appropriate water purification chemicals, instead of plain chalk. How, in this kind of atmosphere, are we going to ensure the safe keeping and disposal of spent nuclear fuel-rods? And how are we going to protect the public from the dangers of radiation leaks and other accidents arising from a dysfunctional and intrusive polity? In whose parochial hands are we going to insist that the contracting for -- and, more importantly, control of -- nuclear facilities must always be?
The national political tectonics are also still too volatile to have such a facility in the country, which might be the focus of attention or warring ethnic bands. Before we can start serious planning, let us go through another three to five general elections to have some clarity about the stability and direction of our political culture and institutions. In the meantime, let us empower our universities to build up a critical mass of expertise in this and related fields. And let us allow time for our private sector to mature and acquire the requisite capacity. In the meantime, let us fully exploit our potential in hydro, geothermal, solar, wind, coal and fossil fuel.