Atomic Energy Boss Talks Progress Towards Nuclear Energy Solutions in Rwanda

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The Rwanda Atomic Energy Board (RAEB) says it is currently working on the establishment of a Center for Nuclear Science and Technology (CNST), to customise nuclear energy applications to the country’s needs for social and economic development, among other things.

The centre will then pave the way for the establishment of a proposed nuclear power plant based on Small Modular Reactor (SMR) technology to address the ever-growing demand for electricity.

Both developments, according to RAEB, could be realised “relatively soon” in a time period of five to eight years and would require more than 600 well-trained employees.

Meanwhile, Rwanda’s venture comes at a time when nuclear energy is “a fancy option” limited to the industrialised world, with only South Africa having a nuclear power plant.

But with several countries on the continent devising to become middle-income countries in the medium term, there is a need for a reliable and sustainable energy supply.

The New Times’ Edwin Ashimwe caught up with Fidel Ndahayo, the Chief Executive at RAEB, in what turned out to be an insightful discussion on the current progress of the centre and the plant, capacity-building opportunities for Rwandan youth, as well as priority sectors of nuclear applications.

Excerpts:

Two years after it was established, what are the goals and focus of RAEB?

In 2021, the agency was established to promote the peaceful use of atomic energy in Rwanda.

The board is responsible for promoting the peaceful use of atomic energy in Rwanda while ensuring the safety and protection of the public and the environment.

The primary goal is to develop and implement nuclear science and technology solutions in various sectors of the Rwandan economy such as health, agriculture, industry, and energy.

And what is the focus currently?

We are currently focusing on a number of projects, one of them being the establishment of a centre for nuclear science and technology that will pave the way for the construction and operation of a nuclear power plant based on small modular reactor (SMR) technology. And we are opting for those with an output of less than 300 megawatts capacity.

For the centre, we are currently conducting a technical and economic feasibility study.

At the same time, we are also conducting a pre-feasibility study for the establishment of the nuclear power plant in Rwanda, based on SMR technology.

Once reports of these studies are available, the country will decide on the best-case scenarios based on the findings.

This development requires capacity and high-level skills, meaning that we are also focusing on building the human resource capacity needed to run all these initiatives.

It will be a centre in which we will have a research reactor among other facilities that will promote the solutions we are looking at.

There are several ways of developing nuclear energy applications. What makes the small modular reactor (SMR) strategy an attractive option for a country like Rwanda?

SMRs are compact, self-contained nuclear reactors that can be built in a factory and transported to their installation site.

SMRs are also designed to be safer and more efficient than traditional large-scale reactors, making them an attractive option for countries like Rwanda that are looking to develop their nuclear energy capabilities to respond to the high demand for clean and sustainable energy.

It is one thing to have such technologies and another to have them operational. What are you currently doing to see that both aspects are aligned?

The country is in the early stages of developing what we call the nuclear infrastructure. It includes a range of facilities, equipment, personnel, and regulatory frameworks necessary to support the entire life cycle of a nuclear programme, from the development of nuclear power plants or other nuclear facilities.

More than 100 Rwandan students have been facilitated to undertake different programmes in nuclear science and engineering and some of them are already hired here at RAEB.

But to be able to operate the centre fully, we will need at least 300 staff. For the plant, more than 300 will be needed. A total of at least 600 staff will be required to operate both facilities.

In what areas/ways does Rwanda see nuclear energy as a valuable enterprise?

Rwanda sees nuclear energy as a valuable enterprise that can help to drive its economic development and improve the quality of life for its population.

Some reasons include diversifying energy sources for instance to decrease dependency on fossil fuels for its electricity, enhancing medical diagnosis and treatment in the healthcare sector but also improving crop yields and soil fertility in agriculture, among other areas nuclear energy is expected to play a key role.

According to the government, one of the keys to succeeding in this new effort will be international partnerships. Have we seen any progress on this?

Rwanda is a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which supports the country’s efforts to develop its nuclear infrastructure.

The IAEA provides technical assistance to Rwanda in the areas of nuclear safety, radiation protection, and nuclear security.

Through bilateral cooperation, Rwanda is also building partnerships with countries known as nuclear technology suppliers to develop its nuclear technology.

Is there any specific opportunity for capacity building, provided such technologies require advanced skills?

Yes, there are opportunities for capacity building related to nuclear technologies.

Developing a nuclear energy program requires highly specialized technical skills and expertise, and it is essential to have a well-trained workforce to ensure the safe and successful operation of nuclear facilities.

The country has cooperation agreements with a number of international partners in terms of capacity building.

The main partner is IAEA which provides technical assistance and capacity-building support.

Rwanda is also a member of the African Regional Co-operative Agreement in Research, Development, and Training related to Nuclear Science and Technology.

The AU African Commission on nuclear energy is also setting up a platform to assist African countries to integrate civil applications of nuclear energy into their respective socioeconomic development programmes.

Would you like to list the major developments Rwandans should expect from the board in the short term?

RAEB is currently working on the establishment of CNST to customize nuclear energy applications to the country’s needs for social and economic development.

Later on, the country plans to establish a nuclear power plant based on SMR technology to address the ever-growing demand for electricity.

We are currently in negotiations with private companies involved in the development of these SMR technologies with the long-term objective to make Rwanda a suitable place where technologies will be tested and produced for the wider African market.

Parting shot

The parting shot, which I also understand is a concern for many, is regarding radioactive waste management. I want to reassure Rwandans that the current existing standards of licensing have embedded the standard requirements on how to construct units responsible for radioactive waste management. No unit can be allowed to operate if it does not meet these standards.

There should, therefore, be no fear. The waste will be managed in the facilities. These are some of the restricted facilities even for some staff.

Source: The New Times