FRANCIS LUNGU, Lusaka
UNDERSTANDABLY, the greens are not alone; even the elites balk at the idea of adding nuclear energy to the power mix.It is perhaps why the initial reactions in Chongwe, where the Centre for Nuclear Science and Technologies (CNST) has been earmarked, are not entirely surprising.
It is partly because of that that the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation (ROSATOM) hosted a media boot camp in Lusaka on nuclear energy to try and explain a few things around nuclear energy.
The Zambian and Russian governments have signed four Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) to turn Zambia into a hub of nuclear science for peaceful purposes.
The Centre for Nuclear Science and Technologies, which is principally aimed at establishing a base for nuclear studies, is as a result of one of those agreements.
But why was Chongwe chosen in the first place?
Experts explain that Chongwe was picked because it is closer to a bigger city [Lusaka] which has infrastructure like higher learning institutions, medical facilities such as the University Teaching Hospital (UTH) as well as a good communication network.
The media boot camp was attended by high-profile experts flown from South Africa and Russia, who addressed some of the concerns around nuclear energy.
One of the key questions asked was: why nuclear for Zambia’s energy mix?
It was noted that the benefits are embedded in a threesome approach focusing on the environment, security of supply and economics, which is called energy trilemma.
The experts from Russia and South Africa, led by Dmitri Vysotski, director of Nuclear Research Reactors at Rosatom Overseas, took turns in explaining to the media participants that once the centre in Chongwe is operational, it may in future facilitate the pioneering of Nuclear Power Plants (NPPs), which takes about 60 months to construct from the foundation.
The first stage of construction could be completed in the next three years and the next two years a nuclear reactor exploration stage could as well be done, according to the Russian nuclear energy experts.
Mr Vysotski said Russia specifically picked on Zambia because of its geographical centrality, political stability and especially for steady economic growth among other reasons.
Through this partnership, Mr Vysotski said Zambia has an opportunity of becoming a regional hub for nuclear technology as the centre would have the capacity to handle 8,000 diagnostic and 3, 000 therapeutic procedures.
All these activities would in turn make nuclear medicine become affordable for the Zambian community and attract patients from the neighbouring countries, according to the ROSATOM director.
Apart from creating 500 to 700 jobs at the construction stage for the locals and co-opting some if not all the Zambian students currently pursuing undergraduate studies in nuclear energy in Russia, the centre would contribute in mitigating the effects of climate change through the setting up of NPP which is low in carbon emission and is also low in the cost of electricity generators.
This electricity, generated at a reasonably lower cost, would also provide power export opportunities, influence growth in other economic sectors such as construction through enhanced social infrastructure development.
But how safe is all this?
“[A] Nuclear Power Plant cannot explode like a nuclear bomb because the level of uranium is as low as five per cent compared to bombs with over 80 per cent uranium,” Ryan Collyer, ROSATOM communications director for central and southern Africa, said.
In further demystifying nuclear energy myths, Mr Collyer submitted that the assertion that nuclear energy, is bad for the environment is not true at all. He said on the contrary, coal energy generation for instance caused 4, 000 more deaths globally compared to nuclear energy.
Perhaps it is because of the fears surrounding the word “nuclear” that penetration of nuclear energy particularly in Africa has been low, if not non-existence.
Only South Africa has a nuclear energy plant which has been in operation for 33 years. Mr Collyer explains: “We need strong political will, understanding by the nationals to accept the project. So many African countries have wanted to build nuclear energy since the 1960s. We need energy mix. We cannot rely on a single mode of energy supply. Hydro [energy] is important but we need alternatives.”
A ROSATOM official believes the media is a major stakeholder as it has the platform to sensitise the masses on what nuclear energy is all about.
Citing an example of India’s Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant project, which initially was not welcomed by the fishing communities in that country, the official said the media played a critical role to change people’s perceptions.
“Media has a huge responsibility on its shoulders in trying to relay simplified information to the people,” the official said.
Additionally, Mr Vysotski indicated that global experience demonstrates that the development of nuclear technology has contributed to significant technical progress in numerous social and economic fields.
The nuclear centre the Zambian government plans to build in Chongwe will boost the country’s social and economic development as nuclear energy has various applications in medicine, agriculture, mining exploration and industry, according to Mr Vysotski.
“In future, the development of nuclear will encourage the creation of innovative sectors in the economy. It is capable of improving the quality of education, creating new highly-paid jobs and the emergence of new specialists,” he said.
ROSATOM, with over 70 years’ expertise in the nuclear field, brings together over 250, 000 people in more than 300 enterprises and scientific institutions, including all Russian civil nuclear companies, research organisations and the world’s only nuclear-propelled icebreaker fleet.
FRANCIS LUNGU, Lusaka