KIGALI, Rwanda — Rwanda’s atomic energy board says it has signed a deal with a Canadian-German company to build its first small-scale nuclear reactor to test what the company asserts is a new nuclear fission approach in one of the world’s most densely populated countries.
Rwandan officials said Tuesday that the reactor won’t produce any electricity for the country’s grid. Instead, it will explore the technology developed by Dual Fluid Energy Inc. to address the need for cleaner sources of energy.
If all goes well, officials said, Rwanda and the company could set up a production line of such reactors in the central African nation as the country turns to nuclear power to help meet growing energy needs and adapt to climate change. Much of the country’s electricity comes from hydropower and diesel plants, according to the Rwanda Energy Group, and only about 68% of people have access to electricity.
Dual Fluid Energy, founded in Canada in 2021, is one of more than 20 small modular reactor projects in development — using various approaches and fuels — that were assessed in a report this year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency.
According to the report, it’s one of the projects in the earlier stages of development, including in licensing and sourcing a commercial supply of qualified fuel.
Small modular reactors in general differ from larger conventional ones by requiring less fuel, being safer, offering more flexibility in location and having the ability to be prefabricated and shipped, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. More than 70 commercial reactor designs are being developed worldwide, the IAEA said.
Dual Fluid Energy is pursuing a nuclear fission based on “liquid fuel and lead coolant” that it claims could produce emission-free electricity, hydrogen and synthetic fuels “at costs below those of fossil fuels.” It asserts that with its approach, nuclear fuel is used “up to a hundred times better” than in traditional light water reactors.
“We are now convinced that we have found an ideal partner for the first realization of our groundbreaking technology,” CEO Götz Ruprecht said in a joint statement announcing the deal.
There are major challenges ahead, experts say.
“The claimed operating temperature of 1,000 degrees Celsius is not easily attainable with a lead coolant without using expensive high temperature alloys, with no real experience,” said Juan Matthews, a visiting professor at the Dalton Nuclear Institute at the University of Manchester.
The design has features that are interesting, Matthews said by email, “however, it has a very low technology readiness level and would require a lot of work to confirm that the design is feasible.”
The reactor is expected to be operational by 2026, with testing of the technology to be completed by 2028, Rwanda’s government said in the statement. Rwanda is providing the site and infrastructure while its scientists receive training in the technology.
State-run The New Times reported that the deal was worth 90 billion Rwandan francs, or $75 million.
The announcement comes a week after the first Africa Climate Summit issued a unanimous call for a shift to more clean energy use along with a global tax on fossil fuels.
The CEO of the Rwanda Atomic Energy Board, Fidel Ndahayo, said the deal is part of a strategy of partnerships with startup companies developing small modular nuclear reactor technologies.
“The Dual Fluid technology has nuclear safety design features that make it accident-free,” Ndahayo asserted in the statement. “The technology will produce relatively low amounts of radioactive waste that will be safely managed” along international safety standards.
“It is practically impossible to be guinea pigs in this agreement,” Ndahayo told The New Times, describing a washing machine-sized reactor core surrounded by a vessel containing liquid lead in a concrete-shielded hall the size of four tennis courts.
But Matthews, the professor, said “the claim that there is no hazard from a test reactor is overstated.”
Rwanda, with more than 13 million people, is the most densely populated country in Africa.
Its atomic energy board was established in 2020, shortly after Russia and Rwanda signed an agreement to construct a nuclear science and technology center in Rwanda.
At the time, lawmaker Frank Habineza was a rare objecting voice. “Living near a nuclear energy plant is like living near a nuclear bomb which can explode and cause more damages,” The New Times reported. “Considering the highly population density in Rwanda, there is no place where the plant can be built and the safety of Rwandans and neighbors is ensured.”
The government has said its nuclear ambitions are for peaceful purposes to help drive development.
Anna reported from Nairobi, Kenya.