Kenya has made significant progress in the development of the national nuclear infrastructure for its new research reactor programme, according to an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review for Research Reactors (INIR-RR) mission.

The IAEA team concluded a nine-day mission to review the preparations for a research reactor programme at the invitation of the Kenyan Government. The team reviewed the status of nuclear infrastructure development in accordance with the Phase 1 criteria and conditions of the IAEA's Milestones Approach for research reactors.

Some countries embarking on a nuclear power programme, including Kenya, are pursuing the development of their first research reactor, which can serve as a stepping stone towards their future nuclear power programme. Kenya plans to commission its first research reactor between 2030 and 2034.

The INIR-RR review team comprised two experts from India and the USA, and six IAEA staff members. Recommendations and suggestions were provided by the IAEA team for the further development of the nuclear infrastructure for the new research reactor programme.

“Kenya has demonstrated a sustained and very professional approach to the development of its research reactor programme,” said mission leader Andrey Sitnikov, Technical Lead of the IAEA Research Reactor Section. “We noted that before making the final decision, Kenya did a great job of developing and preparing laws and regulatory documents, actively involving interested stakeholders in the programme, and developing human resources of both the future operator and the regulator.”

Kenya’s Nuclear Power & Energy Agency (NuPEA) is coordinating implementation of the Kenya Nuclear Research Reactor (KNRR) project, based on the IAEA Milestone Approach, which includes a sequential three-phase development of 19 infrastructure issues. The completion of work at each phase marks a milestone and forms the basis of evaluation and decision-making on progression to the next phase.

NuPEA says implementation of the KNRR project will play a key role in the realisation of Kenya’s development agenda. The insights gained from the INIR-RR review will propel the Kenya towards achieving its goals of harnessing the potential of nuclear energy safely and responsibly, NuPEA noted.

Kenya became an IAEA member in 1965. It began considering nuclear power in 2010, and an IAEA Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review (INIR) mission visited in 2015. The Kenya Nuclear Electricity Board (KNEB) was set up in 2014 and in 2019, KNEB became the Nuclear Power and Energy Agency (NuPEA). Also in 2019, Kenya enacted the Nuclear Regulatory Act, established the Kenya Nuclear Regulatory Authority (KNRA), In 2021 another INIR mission said Kenya has made progress in implementing the recommendations made earlier.

In December, nuclear experts held an eight-day meeting in Nairobi, to discuss ways of promoting research in nuclear technology. The nuclear research reactor forum brought together more than 100 nuclear regulators, research agencies and scholars from Africa to review ways of using nuclear science and technology to help tackle major challenges including climate change, energy security and health challenges.

In his opening remarks, IAEA Deputy Director General Mikhail Chudakov noted that there are more than 200 nuclear research reactors that are instrumental in material testing, production of radioisotopes for medicine and industry operating in 53 countries around the world. “In Africa, several countries plan to implement national nuclear research reactors programmes to improve their health care, industrial and agricultural productivity,” he said.

NuPEA Acting CEO Justus Wabuyabo said Kenya is implementing the nuclear research reactor project guided by the IAEA. “The main utilisations envisaged for the nuclear research reactors include enhancing national research and development capabilities, improving and encouraging industrial competitiveness, enhancing material structure study for various applications,” he added.

According to NuPEA, the facility, which will be set up at the Konza Technopolis where 65 acres of land have been set aside. It will be deployed for various applications, including training, education, research, health, agriculture and industry as well as isotope production.

The research reactor will be set up separately from the planned nuclear power plant, which is being developed separately, also guided by IAEA and is expected to be operational in 2034.

“The research reactor is envisaged to be in operation by the end of 2030. The implementation of the nuclear reactor research project will play a key role in the realisation of the Vision 2030 goals. Such reactors have many applications in education and training, health, industry and energy and research," said Wabuyabo.

“It will be the heart of the nuclear research centre, which is envisioned to be a centre of education and training as well as technical support to the broad nuclear power programme.” He noted that Kenya had undertaken a feasibility study for the research reactor project. Which had confirmed Konza to be an ideal site.

Shaukat Abdulrazak, Director for the Division for Africa at the IAEA Department of Technical Cooperation, noted that the research reactor would support Kenya’s drive to achieve universal health coverage. “Kenya has plans to have at least one radiotherapy centre in every county. The research reactor will play a pivotal role in terms of production of radioisotopes,” he said, adding it would be key for capacity building among the youth interested in nuclear science.

Ministry of Energy administration secretary Wycliffe Ogallo described the research reactor as a game changer that would usher in a new era for different sectors in the country. “The project will accelerate economic development and improve the quality of life through the application of nuclear energy technology in scientific research, industry and healthcare as outlined under the bottom-up economic agenda,” he said.