IN a public lecture, titled: “Energy security and sustainable national development: A case of Nigeria’s nuclear power programme” organised on October 4, 2012 by the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, (NIIA) in Lagos, Dr. F. Erepamo Osaisai, chairman of Nigeria Atomic Energy Commission (NAEC), masterfully argued in defence of the need for Nigeria to pursue a nuclear technology programme to expand its electricity generation base.
In spite of the brilliant lecture delivered by the chairman of NAEC, the Lagos audience expressed fears on safety issues and needed to be further convinced that nuclear power plants (NPP) is a viable alternative and that the risks are not more than the benefits. This is predicated on the fact that there are serious issues at the planning, development and management stages of the project that Nigeria needs to address. Therefore, in the nation’s quest for nuclear electricity generation, safety of applications has now become a very serious topic in the front burner of our national discourse.
First and foremost, NAEC’s argument of the projection that oil and gas deposit in Nigeria will be depleted in the next 25-50 years, hence, the need to diversify to nuclear fuel is, at best, not tenable, after all there are other abundant energy sources such as solar and wind which are renewable and inexhaustible that could be used as alternatives. Moreover, any resource that is continuously consumed without a way of replacement must inevitably finish including the nation’s uranium (nuclear fuel) deposit.
There is, therefore, a need for an investigation of the quantity and quality of uranium deposit in Nigeria. This is to determine if there is sufficient quantity to sustain the nation’s nuclear program and enable the nation to be proactive in addressing the problems that may be associated with achieving sustainable adequate supply of uranium fuel for our NPPs.
However, if Nigeria plans on importation of uranium fuel for its NPPs, it means we have not learnt anything from history. We will end up with similar problems we have been facing in the importation of refined oil, despite the nation’s abundant deposit of crude oil. This arrangement will only enrich the pockets of vested interests (nuclear cabals) in the nuclear project.
We should not be quick to forget that the oil subsidy fraud revelations are yet to be addressed and the bribery case trial is still pending in court. Another related issue for serious reflection is the complex processes involved in the mining and milling of the nation’s uranium deposit to produce nuclear fuel. If we fail at this point, the entire nuclear project is doomed to fail.
Furthermore, the most serious issue in the deployment of a nuclear reactor for energy production is safety, that is, the use of nuclear energy must be safe, and it should not cause any injury to people or damage to the environment. Safe applications of nuclear technology, even for peaceful purposes must conform to international safety standards which include: safety of the nuclear power plant (NPP) itself, nuclear emergency preparedness of the host nation, disposal of nuclear reactor waste, safety of spent nuclear fuel and protection of ecological equilibrium. The siting of a nuclear reactor plant is a major consideration in the planning stage of a nuclear project. This is aimed at protecting the plant against vandalisation as well as minimise environmental threats.
According to international best practice, nuclear reactors are to be sited such that the vicinity surrounding the plant extends to about a kilometre. Additionally, the plant site should have the reactor in a sparsely populated area and far away from densely populated centres. The additional outer layer of surrounding for an ideal nuclear station is called protective zone with a circumference of about five kilometres radius from the reactor.
Land use restriction must be enforced within this zone; dense settlement and high traffic of people are to be restricted within this zone. A wider layer of nuclear surrounding is called emergency planning zone extending to about 20 kilometres around the reactor. This is expected, for public safety, to be covered by detailed emergency and rescue plans in the event of a nuclear disaster. In these zones, radiation level and exposure monitoring devices are to be installed for efficient monitoring of radioactive emissions into the atmosphere. In addition, on-site emergency responders are made available within the zones. Alternatively, NPPs are set up underground where the atmospheric influences such as wind direction will be unable to disperse radioactive releases. These arrangements are put in place in countries where nuclear power programmes have been successfully implemented.
Sadly, the country’s existing nuclear reactor centres which are sited mainly on university campuses and SHESTCO research complex are far from being compliant with these international standards. Offices, accommodation hostels and staff quarters are even built within our nuclear protective zones. Therefore, one cannot but wonder if Nigeria is ready for nuclear power programme in the light of these situational realities.
In addition, policy somersault is a common phenomenon in Nigeria’s political process. It is a factor that cannot just be wished a way as it has been part of our development process. Different energy policies in the country have often been torpedoed by virtue of Nigeria’s political landscape which does not guarantee continuity of policy implementation. The trend is that development progresses made by one administration are reversed or truncated by succeeding administrations. Therefore, this must be part of our considerations for Nigeria’s readiness in undertaking a nuclear power program.
Another issue is the failure of the country to successfully develop much less complex technology systems, such as iron ore, steel, hydropower, oil refinery projects etc., even after 52 years of independence. In addition, the nation’s failure to effectively prevent and manage common disasters such as flooding, oil spillage etc., cast a lot of doubt on the country’s preparedness for nuclear technology.
Unemployment problem is a crucial issue as production of nuclear scientists in our universities without employment opportunities may lead to a fatal end. An idle hand is the devil’s workshop as the saying goes. If by any chance nuclear scientists are left to roam the street without jobs, they may be targets for easy recruitment by terrorist organisation. When this happens, we are all toast!
Therefore, employment opportunity must be guaranteed for the nuclear scientists to be trained in master’s programs. As we all know, thousands of Nigerians have been trained for bachelors, master and doctoral (electrical power engineering) degrees with limited opportunity to practise. Despite the large number of certificate holders, Nigeria cannot boast of any meaningful impact on the power sector. The reason is obvious: the infrastructure and the opportunities are not just there.
Moreover, the idea that nuclear energy is very clean and environmental friendly vis-à-vis the poor infrastructural systems management culture in our country is hard to reconcile. This is because the management of radioactive emissions into the atmosphere from nuclear reactors is a major international regulatory issue. In my considered opinion, all energy is clean, it is the bye-products of the production and consumption process of most energy sources that contaminate the environment and destabilise ecological equilibrium and nuclear energy source cannot be exonerated.
Another disgraceful matter is the inability of our emergency response agencies to predict accurately the magnitude and time of disasters, based on available data and act proactively. This has been a major cause of failure of disaster management in the country. This explains why a dam will be opened and a substantial portion of a state capital will be sacked by flood.
Most unfortunately, in any event of nuclear disaster, there is currently no effective medical treatment available for severe radiation poisoning. Treatment for mild cases of radiation exposures includes blood transfusions and bone-marrow transplants. Sadly, turnkey clinical technology to carry out such advanced treatment which requires huge funding, is non-existent in Nigeria. Yet, we plan to go nuclear high-tech with this poor emergency response services.
Finally, the courage of the management of NAEC must be commended in their effort to realize the nation’s dream of energy security by diversifying into nuclear technology. We can only hope that Dr. Franklin Erepamo Osaisai and his team are given all the support requisite for addressing the highlighted issues which are very paramount for the success of the nuclear power projects so that all the deliverables necessary for safe, secure and sustainable functioning of existing and proposed nuclear reactors for energy development across the country are achieved.
However, if Nigeria is unable to meet these basic requirements of safety, security and sustainability, it is in the best interest of our future and the future of our unborn children to discontinue the nuclear project as proposed and think of something else. As the sayings go, to be fore-warned is to be fore-armed and a stitch in time saves nine.
•Babatunde S. Emmanuel wrote from the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), Lagos.
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