David Otwoma

Ep 268: David Otwoma - Chief Scientist, National Commission for Science Technology & Innovation
00:00 / 01:04

Shownotes

Kenya’s Radiation Protection Board
Q: Tell us about your personal story and how you became an expert in the nuclear space.
A: David Otwoma graduated from the University of Nairobi in 1987 with a major in physics. In early 1988,
he joined a new entity called the Radiation Protection Board as a radiation protection officer. At that time,
physicists traditionally became teachers or inspectors at factories. The Radiation Protection Act, enacted
in 1982, implemented the new Board in 1986. When David first joined the Board, it was part of the
Ministry of Health because the people in human health knew about the hazards of radiation due to the
use of x-ray machines. In 1969, Kenya acquired the first Cobalt-60 for cancer therapy. Around the time
David was hired on, the Board started making a registry of radiation sources and found there were more
uses in industry than in human health, such as in construction and non-destructive testing for welding.
People in industry were less enlightened about the concerns of radiation sources. In welding, Iridium-192
or an x-ray machine could be used, dependent on where the weld was located. In road construction or
agriculture, emission beryllium sources could be used to test moisture content. Hydrology is also an
industry application in the search for water. One university application put a radiation source at the tip of
the lightning arrestor with the thought it would create ionization and attract lightning. In 1993, David and
the Board had to collect all the sources and mobilize them in drums filled with concrete. During his first
trip to the U.S. in 1994, David came to think about nuclear power and the different radioactive materials.
The casing of cobalt-60 is depleted uranium and was the only uranium in the country, used to treat
cancer in a patient. When the Radiation Protection Board was created, the International Atomic Energy
Agency (IAEA) became interested in Kenya. The first regional training for radiation protection officers
was held in 1988 in Nairobi and brought participants from all over Africa. At the time, Kenya was the only
country in the West Africa region that had regulation for radiation sources. In 1989, Tanzania also
created a Radiation Protection Board and now has the Tanzania Atomic Energy Commission. During
work with the IAEA, David began to learn that most users of radiation sources are in electricity
production, not human health or agriculture. In 1999, David was hired by IAEA as a Nuclear Safeguards
Inspector, allowing him to get more exposed to electricity-producing nuclear facilities. His training took
him to Austria, Germany, Hungary, and Los Alamos in the U.S. A safeguards inspector goes to peaceful
facilities to ensure the technology is not being retrofitted for bad nuclear purposes.

Least Cost Power Development Plans
Q: After your training, did you set out to be a safeguards inspector around the world?
A: After his training, David Otwoma set out to be a safeguards inspector around the world. The
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had divided the world into three regions; David was initially
assigned to the European region, where he did most of his inspections, returning to Kenya in 2007.
Kenya suffered from a drought in 2009; at the time, hydroelectricity was approximately 80% of the
electricity and there was not enough electricity production. In the current presidency, the National
Economic and Social Council tasked the Ministry of Energy because the manufacturers were threatening
to leave the country for places where electricity was more readily available, reliable, and affordable.
When David came back, he joined the National Council for Science and Technology to provide
advisories to both the executive and national government. David was able to present information on the
use of nuclear energy for electricity production and collaborated with a gentleman from South Korea who
was involved in his country’s nuclear development. In 2011, the Nuclear Electricity Project Committee
was created to follow the IAEA milestone approach. The first milestone as a country is to make a
knowledgeable commitment to nuclear power. In 2008, David implored the Ministry of Energy to stop
relying on ex-patriates to stop making Kenya’s energy plants. Kenya’s Least Cost Power Development
Plan was created as a twenty-year rolling plan with the vision of having Kenya as a middle-income
economy which is industrialized by the year 2030. To realize the vision would require anything between
32,000 and 36,000 megawatts of electricity. Right now, Kenya is generating just below 3,000 megawatts.

If the potential for hydroelectric was exhausted, Kenya could reach 5,000 megawatts. Kenya also has
geothermal energy, which could product 10,000 megawatts. Coal, gas, and nuclear started popping up
as options. Coal and nuclear were competitive because of cost, since fracking technology had not yet
been established. The Nuclear Electricity Project Committee was transformed into the Kenya Nuclear
Electricity Board. In 2019, the Parliament passed the Energy Act which created the Nuclear Power and
Energy Agency. One mandate is to promote nuclear energy for power generation. The other mandate is
to research energy possibilities in all sectors. In December 20219, the president signed the nuclear
regulatory authority into law. Kenya conducted training with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
(NRC) alongside Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan, Burundi and Rwanda. The legal framework in place;
the next step is to train the next generation. Kenyan students went to Texas A&M to study at the
university during the summer months. South Korea’s Korea International Nuclear Graduate School has
also hosted Kenyan students since 2010.

Electricity Supply and Demand in Kenya
Q: At what point do you think you’ll be ready to actually have a reactor built in Kenya?
A: The first nuclear development plan in Kenya was made in 2009, which planned for construction in
2026. After the government shift in 2013, another development plan was made in 2017 and pushed
construction to 2036. Right now, there are discussions of having a memorandum of understanding
(MOU) and a partnership agreement between Kenya’s Nuclear Power and Energy Agency (NuPEA) and
NuScale. However, there is a fear for having first-of-a-kind until Kenya’s leadership can be more
pragmatic and radical. Fulfilling the electricity demands of Kenyans and allowing the people to afford the
electricity are necessities. In order for manufacturer’s to be competitive, the cost of electricity needs to be
down and the source needs to be reliable. Kenya’s population of people who are 50 years old and above
make up 6 percent of the population, while people 18 years and below make up 40 percent. Towns now
make up 30 percent of the population as people leave rural areas to live in places with more accessible
electricity. Most of Kenya’s high level leadership has a planning life span of five years and plans only for
the short term to find quick wins. In order to have nuclear power, a country needs to think of time spans
of 100 years or more. Up to 1997, only one company was generating electricity in Kenya and the same
country was distributing the electricity. Now, Kenya has unbundled the industry, separating the generator
from the transmitter and distributor. The country now has independent power producers. Recently, an
independent power producer has built a wind farm which contributes 300 megawatts to the grid. The
Energy Act passed in 2019 recognizes a place for independent power producers and created a regulator
for petroleum, coal, and electricity. Any independent production above one megawatt will allow the
producer to sell the excess electricity to the distribution company in that region. Some places in Kenya
have concentrated companies, such as locations where phosphates are used for fertilizers or where iron
deposits are home for steel companies. Economic zones have special tax laws and if what they are
producing is set for export, they have dedicated sources of electricity.

Retaining Kenya’s Talent
Q: How do people on the ground feel about nuclear power?
A: David Otwoma sees Kenya’s population as a triangle, with few older residents and many younger
residents open to nuclear power. In 2010, Ministers in Kenya were politicians that were members of
Parliament, picked by the President to be on the Cabinet. One member went to her rural area where she
had gotten votes, where the electrification was less than 10 percent. While she was on the podium, she
asked the people if they wanted electricity and if they minded if it came from nuclear power. Like hungry
people don’t care which type of food they eat, people without electricity aren’t particular to the source.
The young people are in. They don’t have electricity in their house and it is not affordable. Even small
businesses that have electricity cannot rely on it, especially in bad weather. The demand for electricity
exists in Kenya. Right now, COVID-19 has stopped young people from moving to Europe for work. To
keep the young people, Kenya needs the things that Europe has. Roads need to be built, houses need to
be built, and factories need to be built. This would allow Kenyans to consume in their towns. Kenya must
up their game in many areas. Looking forward, Kenya the young people need the right skills and the right
technology to create the economy in Kenya. If it comes to having a first-of-a-kind technology, like
NuScale, Kenya must not be afraid because small power plants are needed to make Kenya a consumer
society.

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