Rwanda: Gatete Highlights Rwanda's Nuclear Industry Priorities

29 October 2020

The Minister of Infrastructure Claver Gatete has said the government is committed to leveraging nuclear science and technology to drive Rwanda's development needs, especially around energy, health, agriculture, and mining.

This follows the approval of the Rwanda Atomic Energy Board (RAEB) - a new institution to coordinate nuclear science and technology activities - by the cabinet on Tuesday.

"Any country on the development path globally uses elements that consist of nuclear technology, from scanners on doorways to radiology equipment in hospitals," Gatete argued.

To be able to advance in science and technology which is the country's vision, he added that there is no way "we can ignore the potential nuclear industry presents to us."

Rwanda has an ambitious plan to leverage nuclear science and technology to drive development, and Gatete believes it is critical for the country to explore possibilities the industry offers.

So, why is Rwanda interested?

Gatete says Rwanda wants to use nuclear technology for energy extraction, medical purposes, and agriculture, among other sectors.

"As people develop, the demand for electricity increases. Much of our power is extracted from hydro and our hydropower sources are drying up," he told the media on Thursday.

The minister highlighted that the country has been relying solely on Mukungwa, Ntaruka, and Nyabarongo, as the source of its predominantly used hydropower, but those sources are reaching their last phase of extraction.

"The remaining option is Lake Kivu, which we share with the Democratic Republic of Congo. We have Rusizi 1, 2, and 3 which will generate 200 megawatts, before extracting the fourth last phase of hydropower," he noted.

The other source of power will be the methane gas, but Gatete says that still there is a limit of extraction the country cannot exceed, which is 300 megawatts of methane power.

"We are already at 26 megawatts of Kivu Watt, which will be supported by an additional 56 megawatts of Shema plant. We shall probably add 50 more megawatts," he explained.

Beyond that, there would be no more other large sources of energy except tiny sources like solar energy, and that poses a challenge for a country whose industries are growing very fast.

"In the future, the demand for electricity will be much more than what we currently have. This, therefore, means we need nuclear energy," Gatete said.

The country is looking to explore the application of nuclear technology to boost agricultural productivity, particularly through improved soil water nutrients and pest management, and improve livestock productivity through breeding, artificial insemination, and disease control.

In the healthcare sector, the minister mentioned there are many medical equipments in hospitals across the country that use nuclear technology. "How then can we fail to invest in nuclear science to produce our own equipment using that same technology?"

The country has a target to focus on promoting medical tourism through luring manufacturers of equipment that use nuclear technology as opposed to always importing them.

"We realized to achieve all that we needed a specialized institution that studies and oversees our priorities. This is why we set up the Rwanda Atomic Energy Agency, which is also in line with international standards," he noted.

Concerns

Critics of nuclear technology point to the danger the industry poses to the lives of people, particularly due to the fact that it requires specialized skills, and management to ensure maximum safety of the people.

Lack of that has seen several accidents happen, including the famous ones such as Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan and Chernobyl disaster in what is now Ukraine.

The other vast challenge is the management of nuclear waste, the earth's most hazardous waste to the environment and human health, and which can last for thousands of years.

Scientists still struggle to find the best ways to manage millions of metric tons of used solid fuel from nuclear power plants worldwide and the millions of liters of radioactive liquid waste from weapons production that sit in temporary storage containers.

Even the world's leaders in nuclear such as the US, Russia, France, China and the United Kingdom, are still puzzled with nuclear waste management as the aging containers, in some cases, have already begun leaking their toxic contents.

That is why countries like Germany have opted for phasing out their nuclear power plants by 2022.

But Gatete insisted that technologies for waste management are being developed and that Rwanda will ensure maximum safety measures before it can set up a nuclear power plant.

The journey

The country's journey to tap the nuclear industry started around 2011 when Rwanda became a full member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with an aim to achieve safe, secure, and peaceful use of atomic energy.

In 2018 the government enacted radiation protection law, which gave power to the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (RURA) to regulate radiation elements in the country, including nuclear energy and other radioactive materials like X-rays used in medical facilities.

In a span of less than three years (2018-2020), the government has pursued a number of actions that lay foundation for the country's use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

Last year, the country invited industry experts to train locals in legal and regulatory environments, as well as sent a team of Rwandans to Russia to pursue everything from nuclear physics, medicine, to nuclear chemistry, and the economics of those industries.

So far, a team of 50 Rwandans is in Russia to pursue nuclear studies.

The same year, Rwanda signed a partnership agreement with Russia for the establishment of a Centre for Nuclear Science and Technology in the country, which will comprise of research reactors, lab complexes, and centres for nuclear medicine.

This year, the parliament voted the law approving the ratification of the agreement between Rwanda and Russia, on cooperation in the construction of the Centre of Nuclear Science and Technology on the territory of Rwanda.

The law was voted for by 76 members of parliament out of 78 who were present at the plenary. Two of them, both members of the Green Party, rejected it.

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