Power Sector Woes: Nuclear Power Generation Not The Solution

Power terminal

Power terminal

ACCORDING to Franklin Erepamo Osaisai, the Chairman and Chief Executive of the Nigeria Atomic Energy Commission, the Nigerian government has set up a Joint Coordination Committee for negotiations with Rosatom, a Russian company, on the financing and contracting for nuclear power generation plants.

This current proposal would involve the construction of a series of multi-billion nuclear power plants to generate a total of 4800 MGWs of electricity by 2035, with the first plant, generating 1200 MGW to be operational in 2025.

Planning for this nuclear power option apparently began in the waning years of the Obasanjo administration, and both the Yar’Adua and Jonathan administrations endorsed the planning process. Until the 2011 nuclear power disaster in Japan, nuclear power generation was enjoying a revival due to its limited carbon footprint compared to coal and other fossil fuels, in a context of growing concern about climate change.

However, following this accident, enthusiasm for nuclear generation changed to fear and, accordingly, governments across the globe began to reassess their policies and the plans for nuclear power plants.

While Nigeria should aim for diversity in its power sources, nuclear power plants are very expensive to construct and fraught with serious risks; diversification does not start with the most expensive and risky option.

Nigeria needs more electricity now and a promise of 1200MG in 2025 and 4800 MGW in 2035 will not make a dent in those needs. Nuclear power generation is not the solution to the current energy conundrum in Nigeria. Since the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in March 2011, the revival of nuclear power generation has suffered a reversal.

Fukushima was a reminder of the earlier nuclear reactor meltdown at the nuclear plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine (then part of the USSR) in April 1986.

Radiation from this accident affected a wide region in the Ukraine, Russia and Belarus and the adverse effects continue to be felt across the region. The cities and towns around the plant, deserted after the accident, are still not safe for human habitation.

Post-accident assessments of the two major nuclear disasters indicated human error as the cause of the meltdowns. While the tsunami triggered the Fukushima disaster, the operators and regulators had failed to take countermeasures against a large tsunami, even though scientific knowledge had indicated the likelihood of an earthquake and resulting tsunami of the magnitude that occurred in March 2011.

Human error was the primary cause of the explosion and fire at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl. Fukushima disrupted the livelihood of people living in surrounding regions and the cost of dealing with the aftermath of the disaster has been enormous. Developed countries, with their populations fearful of the dangers of nuclear facilities, are promoting other options for power supply, particularly wind and solar generation.

In the United States, the largest supplier of commercial nuclear power in the world, plans for several new nuclear power plants were cancelled and a number of aging nuclear reactors and power stations have been permanently shut down. Nuclear power plants and generation are capital intensive and costly to construct and dismantle.

On the other hand, nuclear plants have limited carbon footprint and long life spans of about 50 years, about 10 years and 30 years longer than fossil fuel plants and solar and wind renewables respectively.

Nigeria has massive needs for power now and with a wealth of energy resources – coal, oil, natural gas, hydro, solar and wind, a US$20 billion commitment for nuclear power generation of 5000 MGW could be applied to the generation of significantly more power from these resources in the medium term.

That Nigeria has attempted without much success to generate more power through the conventional resources does not imply it cannot be done. The obstacles have been founded on government policies and management tactics that engender deficiencies in project conception, selection and implementation and the maintenance of power plants and transmission lines.

These deficiencies are not limited to the power sector; they also undermine the effectiveness of public investments in all sectors. Working with a foreign company as proposed for the nuclear power plants would not necessarily eliminate the project conception and implementation risks, as demonstrated by the failures of the Ajaokuta steel facility, the oil refineries, the Oku-Iboku paper mill and other large public sector ventures.

A nuclear reactive disaster will engender the health and livelihood of Nigerians and other inhabitants of West Africa. Such disasters could stem human error in the design and operation of the plants and even acts of terror.

Managing, regulating and securing nuclear plants and coping with any disasters will be very challenging for Nigeria. Further, Nigeria and its neighbouring countries are prone with internal conflict and terrorists and the activities of disgruntled groups such as the current Boko Haram would increase the risks of nuclear accidents.

It would be imprudent to disregard these sources of risk perhaps by assuming that they pose no such threats and that Nigeria would develop the capacity to effectively handle nuclear power security and accidents; and that internal and external conflicts would be under control.

To prevent penetration by unauthorised persons, nuclear facilities are usually fortified but they can hardly be made impregnable. Serious dissidents always seem to find ways to thwart well-laid plans against them.

Apart from the risks to health and livelihood, other risks of this proposed project include: (i) the prospects of cost overruns are high, particularly in such a project of long run duration; (ii) external control of the security and power generation by the Russian company, a putative world power with fragile economic and political foundations; and (iii) with a long time frame, a nuclear accident anywhere in the world would ignite opposition to the project by local and international forces that could hinder implementation, with the possibility of international sanctions on countries with “unsafe” nuclear installations; and (iv) with rapidly changing technology in the power sector, the project could become a white elephant project before it generates the first watt of power.

The handling of this nuclear power deal testifies to the opaqueness of government policy-making and the lack of analytical rigor and transparency in Nigeria, leading to disaster-prone decision-making.

The huge amounts of money proposed for the project would imply significant increases in external debt. Information on this project is scarce; the Nigerian Atomic Energy Commission is apparently taking the lead on this project but its website has only dated general information and no technical material on the project.

There are a number of questions the promoters of this project need to answer. Obidiegwu, PhD, wrote from the United States of America.

With substantial costs and risks involved, Nigerians deserve to know much more about this project ant it should not move forward until Nigerians have had a chance to weigh in on it. As the need for electric power in Nigeria is already substantial, would the nuclear option be the fastest and least cost way to boost power supply in Nigeria in the near and medium term?

Has government done detailed analytical and feasibility studies that would examine the costs and benefits of this project and alternative options such as power generation from hydro, coal, natural gas and renewables?

Are there any associated plans for safeguards, risk mitigation measures and disaster management for the nuclear power project?

If studies and consultations have been carried out, should they not be made public to motivate and facilitate informed public discussions of the project? In addition, it would be useful to know what process was used to select Rosatom and its technology and whether other firms and technologies were considered.

Unless there is an opportunity for the public and other disinterested experts to scrutinise the planning and project proposals, Nigeria would either end up with a white elephant project that has swallowed billions of dollars (or trillions of Naira) or build and operate a plant that is a perpetual source of danger to its population. Obidiegwu, PhD, wrote from the United States of America.

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