‘It could wreak havoc’: Kenya’s nuclear plan casts a shadow over wildlife and tourism hotspot

<span>The coast around Kilifi in Kenya is a popular tourist destination.</span><span>Photograph: John Mawer/Alamy</span>
The coast around Kilifi in Kenya is a popular tourist destination.Photograph: John Mawer/Alamy

Kilifi County’s white sandy beaches have made it one of Kenya’s most popular tourist destinations. Hotels and beach bars line the 165 mile-long (265km) coast; fishers supply the district’s restaurants with fresh seafood; and visitors spend their days boating, snorkelling around coral reefs or bird watching in dense mangrove forests.

Soon, this idyllic coastline will host Kenya’s first nuclear plant, as the country, like its east African neighbour Uganda, pushes forward with atomic energy plans.

The proposals have sparked fierce opposition in Kilifi. In a building by Mida Creek, a swampy bayou known for its birdlife and mangrove forests, more than a dozen conservation and rights groups meet regularly to discuss the proposed plant.

Kana nuclear!” Phyllis Omido, an award-winning environmentalist who is leading the protests, tells one such meeting. The Swahili slogan means “reject nuclear”, and encompasses the acronym for the Kenya Anti-Nuclear Alliance who say the plant will deepen Kenya’s debt and are calling for broader public awareness of the cost. Construction on the power station is expected to start in 2027, with it due to be operational in 2034.

“It is the worst economic decision we could make for our country,” says Omido, who began her campaign last year.

A lawsuit filed in the environmental court by lawyers Collins Sang and Cecilia Ndeti in July 2023 on behalf of Kilifi residents, seeks to stop the plant, arguing that the process has been “rushed” and was “illegal”, and that public participation meetings were “clandestine”. They argue the Nuclear Power and Energy Agency (Nupea) should not proceed with fixing any site for the plant before laws and adequate safeguards are in place. Nupea said construction would not begin for years, that laws were under discussion and that adequate public participation was being carried out. Hearings are continuing to take place.

In November, people in Kilifi filed a petition with parliament calling for an inquiry. The petition, sponsored by the Centre for Justice Governance and Environmental Action (CJGEA), a non-profit founded by Omido in 2009, also claimed that locals had limited information on the proposed plant and the criteria for selecting preferred sites. It raised concerns over the risks to health, the environment and tourism in the event of a nuclear spill, saying the country was undertaking a “high-risk venture” without proper legal and disaster response measures in place. The petition also flagged concerns over security and the handling of radioactive waste in a nation prone to floods and drought. The senate suspended the inquiry until the lawsuit was heard.

“If we really have to invest in nuclear, why can’t [the government] put it in a place that does not cause so much risk to our ecological assets?” says Omido. “Why don’t they choose an area that would not mean that if there was a nuclear leak we would lose so much as a country?”

Peter Musila, a marine scientist who monitors the impacts of global heating on coral reefs, fears that a nuclear power station will threaten aquatic life. The coral cover in Watamu marine national reserve, a protected area near Kilifi’s coast, has improved over the last decade and Musila fears progress could be reversed by thermal pollution from the plant, whose cooling system would suck large amounts of water from the ocean and return it a few degrees warmer, potentially killing fish and the micro-organisms such as plankton, which are essential for a thriving aquatic ecosystem.

“It’s terrifying,” says Musila, who works with the conservation organisation A Rocha Kenya. “It could wreak havoc.”

At Mida, those making a living from the land and sea, including workers in tourism, fishers and several dozen beekeeping groups and butterfly farmers around Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, have concerns about their futures. The forest is a Unesco biosphere reserve.

Justin Kenga, 51, a tour operator from the town of Watamu, who has worked in the industry for decades, says: “In tourism, we depend on the biodiversity around us – our tourists are very conscious about the environment – so anything that can alter or destruct our environment, it will destroy our livelihoods.”

A British property owner and real estate agent, who spoke to the Guardian on condition of anonymity, says that beachfront property owners in Watamu are concerned that a nuclear plant on their doorstep would not only trigger a downturn in tourism but also cause property prices to drop.

“This is a tourist town. People swim in the ocean, they scuba-dive and water ski. There would [certainly] be fear of going into the ocean a few miles down the road from the nuclear power station … And if tourism dies then people who own properties will not be able to afford to maintain them. Ultimately, people won’t want to buy a property here, they’ll look elsewhere.”

At the nuclear agency offices in the capital, Nairobi, plans to establish the £2.9bn (500bn Kenyan shillings), 1,000MW plant are in full swing. Kenyan leaders see nuclear power as a low-carbon pathway to increasing energy security.

“For our current levels of development, the renewable energy resources that we have are sufficient, but as we aspire for industrialisation, we need more sources of base load,” says Justus Wabuyabo, Nupea’s CEO, referring to the minimum amount of power the country will require in the future.

About 90% of Kenya’s electricity comes from renewable sources, but solar and wind are not available around the clock and hydro power is under strain from climate-induced drought.

The use of nuclear power would make Kenya dependent on imported uranium, used to generate nuclear fuel. Russia controls almost half of the world’s supply of enriched uranium, and countries including the US are scrambling to reduce their dependence on it.

But government officials believe nuclear could be the “gamechanger” and argue that it has become “indispensable” to tackling carbon emissions in the face of the climate crisis, pointing to pledges by nearly two dozen countries, including Britain and the US, to triple their own nuclear power.

“It’s a technology that’s in the future,” says Wabuyabo. “We as a country should embrace it.”

But experts say the overall cost of a plant will run much higher than the £2.9bn construction price, and expect technical challenges.

Musa Wafula, an engineer with a US energy company who has worked on Kenya’s national grid for many years, says that without significant and costly upgrades to power transmission infrastructure, introducing nuclear would upset the country’s energy balance of supply and demand and trigger power cuts.

We do not have a steady grid, nor the capacity to transfer power from the coast to supply the whole country. It’s a recipe for blackouts

Musa Wafula

“Nuclear power plants need a steady grid,” says Wafula. “We do not have a steady grid, nor the capacity to transfer power from the coast to supply the whole country. It’s a recipe for blackouts.

“Once we have [stabilised the grid], we can handle what they are proposing here, but until then, this would be a disaster.”

Meanwhile, tensions between anti-nuclear activists and the government are growing. The UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, expressed concern over police violence against people in Uyombo, a potential plant site, during a protest in April. Activists said their peaceful protest was met with excessive violence, beatings, arrests and intimidation.

Nupea did not comment on the incident. Nupea representatives also told the Guardian that Uyombo was earmarked for a meteorological station. It did not say when the location for the plant would be announced.

“It is not the case that nuclear plants can’t be near tourist attraction sites,” says Wabuyabo. “What we need to [ensure] is that the presence of the nuclear power plant on that site does not have adverse effects, and that is what we will be focusing on.”

Nupea published an impact assessment report last year that recommended policies be put in place to ensure environmental protections, including detailed plans for the handling of radioactive waste; measures to mitigate environmental harm, such as setting up a nuclear unit in the national environment management authority; and emergency response teams. It also proposed social and economic protections for affected communities, including clear guidelines on compensation for those who lose their livelihoods, or are displaced from their land, when the plant is set up.

Nupea said a power station could create thousands of jobs for Kenyans and said it had partnered with Kilifi universities to start nuclear training programmes that would enable more residents to take up jobs at the plant. Wilfred Baya, assistant director for energy for Kilifi county, says the plant could also bring infrastructural development and greater electricity access to a region which suffers frequent power cuts.

But unease and resistance remain.

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“The sea is where we make a living from, so we know if a plant is put up there, no fishing will be allowed,” says Elisha Bombosho Mzee, the head of beach management in Uyombo.

“This is not only where I get my livelihood to take care of me and my family. Our fish takes care of the fish dealers, market women and supports big hotels too, so for us as the fishing community, we have no need for the nuclear plant,” he says.

“That’s why we are saying no to the plant,” says Kenga.