Friday 6 May 2016

#MustRead: Is Nigeria Ready For Nuclear Power?

Nuclear Power plant
by: Greg Odogwu

For more than one year now, the Nigerian government has been playing around with the idea of acquiring nuclear technology for electricity generation. It started at the twilight of the past administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan, when it was reported that his government signed an agreement with a Russian company, Rosatom, to cooperate on the design, construction, operation and decommissioning of an atomic power facility.

Then, two months ago, President Muhammadu Buhari received the Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mr Yukiya Amano, at the Presidential Villa with the Vice President, Yemi Osibanjo and some key ministers, where it was reported that the President told the IAEA boss that Nigeria welcomed the support of the agency for our country’s aspiration to generate electricity using nuclear energy. It was revealed that the power to be generated would be in the neighbourhood of about 4,000 mega watts.

To be candid, all this while, I did not really believe the government was serious about actually deploying nuclear technology. So, in as much as there was enough convincing evidence showing a policy thrust towards that, I still took the concept with a pinch of salt. Not until recently when a serving senator, Shehu Sani of Kaduna State, revealed that N2bn is already in the current budget for the proposed nuclear power project. I then realised that the government is actually serious about this nuclear thing.

Then, I panicked!

How could one even start to imagine that our dear country, with all the infrastructural lapses, zero maintenance culture and poor leadership could handle a nuclear project of whatever size? Nuclear power is not tea party, it is not a try-fail-and-repair project, and, seriously, it is not a matter of my-government-is-better-than-yours!

The Igbo man would say it is not a dance session that you embark on while cradling a portion of tobacco powder in your palm.

Let me paint a picture. If the abandoned Ajaokuta Steel factory in Lokoja were to be an abandoned nuclear sight, by now the whole country would have been a nuclear desert. This is because as you read this piece, scavengers and vandals are still taking materials from Ajaokuta and selling them as scrap around the country. They come in by night in boats, in collusion with security, go in and pull out any perceived valuable component of the factory, and cart them away via the river channel.

Most of the time, the scavengers and vandals do not even know the value of what they are stealing apart from the fact that these materials in their perception “are valuable”. It is the dealers, to whom they sell, that decide which is which.

That was also how the components of the Katsina State wind energy turbine were pilfered by miscreants, thereby ending a billion naira project that would have marked the first deployment of wind power in Nigeria!

The result of such “scavenging and vandalism” could be seen in what happened in Brazil in 1988 when two metal scavengers broke into an abandoned radiotherapy clinic (a nuclear project) and removed a teletherapy source capsule containing powdered Caesium-137. By the time of diagnosis, 249 people were contaminated, 20 people seriously ill and five people died, right in the immediate neighbourhood of the two scavengers who decided to take the poached material home.

The Nigerian government must be reminded that no matter the size or purpose of a nuclear plant, accidents do happen with radioactives and the effects of uncontrolled radioactive contamination are reported around the world, with many unreported. We can never be prepared enough.

Secondly, ours is a country in a serial battle against insurgents and anti-government elements. These individuals over the years have used all sorts of weapons to fight both the government and the people. We have seen cases of improvised bombs made in people’s bedrooms. We have also seen sophisticated shoulder-launched anti-aircraft guns wielded by these insurgents. We have seen them poison water reserves to kill civilians as a maximum impact strategy.

Now, what prevents insurgents from invading Nigeria’s nuclear facilities to acquire materials for dirty bombs? Even on the Internet, one could learn how to string together radioactive elements with conventional explosives for terror purposes.

I do not think our security system is that sophisticated enough to prevent a perimeter breach when the nuclear plants are built. In fact, knowing the corrupt system we operate, foreign terrorists could embark on a project of extracting raw materials for nuclear bombs from Nigeria. We have to remember that the same process used to manufacture low-enriched uranium for nuclear fuel also can be employed for the production of highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.

Thirdly, if Nigeria starts a nuclear plant, where shall we dispose our nuclear waste? As the plant begins operation, enormous quantities of radioactive waste are created during nuclear fuel process, including high-level radioactive waste, and low-level radioactive waste. Even a country as sophisticated as the United States finds it excruciatingly hard to dispose of its nuclear waste. Official and carefully groomed repositories are commissioned and decommissioned accordingly.

These are no waste products you throw away like we throw away our hazardous hospital waste in poor people’s neighbourhoods. Once you throw away nuclear waste carelessly, be sure that both the poor and the rich will suffer immensely.

It was just a couple of days ago that the Chernobyl nuclear disaster’s 30 years anniversary was marked. After the Chernobyl accident, 220,000 were displaced; and the nuclear fallout rendered 4,440 square kilometres of agricultural land and 6,820 square kilometres of forest in Belarus and Ukraine unusable. That is a land mass that is more than that of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.

What of Fukushima, a nuclear accident that was triggered by natural disaster in a country as advanced as Japan? Twenty thousand people died, and the remediation is going to scrape off more top soil than that Nigeria is to do in Ogoniland.

And remember, Ogoni contamination is mere oil, where humans are still living in the affected communities. Compared to oil, a nuclear contamination is apocalyptic, leaving associated casualties in their thousands. After Chernobyl, for instance, more than 100,000 of people involved in fire fighting and clean up operations have died so far because of radiation exposure from the accident.

With all considered, I could hazard that President Buhari did not really think through the nuclear project before receiving the IAEA boss. He may have just been following up on the past administration’s projects just like he did with the Centenary City project, which drew so loud outcry concerning its embedded corruption.

I believe that no thoughtful government would trade the security and environmental safety of its citizenry for just 4,000 mega watts. It is like giving off one’s feet to be cut off in order to be given brand new designer shoes. The man gets the dream shoes, but has no feet to wear it.

Nigeria has so much sun that could readily give us 4,000 mega watts with less money than we would spend setting up a hazardous nuclear plant to generate same quantum of power.

So, apart from the usual braggadocio of an emerging market – which we do not need for now – I do not see any value to the proposed nuclear project. If President Buhari wants to make any “nuclear statement”, he should revive the half-completed N50bn Gamma Irradiation Facility lying dormant at Sheda, Abuja, and costing Nigeria N6bn per annum in maintenance alone!

By the way, why go nuclear when other developed countries like Germany, are shutting down their own nuclear plants, in order to embrace 100 per cent renewable energy?

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