Nigeria’s quest for nuclear power: The delay, fears and intricacies

After the deal that Nigeria, through the Nigerian Atomic Energy Commission (NAEC), signed with Rosatom in October 2017 to construct four nuclear power plants with total capacity of 4,800MW, much wasn’t heard again about nuclear power in the country until the recent announcement by the Director-General of the Nigerian Nuclear Regulatory Agency, Dr Yau Idris, during the Nigerian International Energy Summit in March, 2022, that bids for the construction of a 4,000MW nuclear power plant in the country had begun.

Because the problems of the power sector in Nigeria are multifaceted; pipeline vandalism, lack of gas agreement /insufficient gas supply to the electricity generating companies, low water level in hydro stations, systems collapse and ageing infrastructure, being some of the causes that have often led to periodic nationwide blackouts and epileptic electricity supply, the quest for diversifying the nation’s energy sources has become one of the viable solutions to the sector. It was on that idea that nuclear power was mooted to contribute to the nation’s energy mix in the manner of providing a base-load reliable power supply.

Stable power supply has always appeared on the manifestoes of every party and candidate vying for the presidency since advent of the Fourth Republic because of the importance that electricity plays in industrialisation, economic development and agricultural mechanisation cannot be over-emphasized. Just to lend credence to the assertion that electricity challenge is a national challenge, the Former President, Late Umar Musa Yar’Adua, in 2008, declared a national emergency on the power sector. But despite the many power sector reforms that have been and are still being implemented to make the sector efficient and effective, electricity supply still remains epileptic and it appears to most Nigerians that the pursuit for reliable power supply may be quixotic.

The Federal Government has been embarking on renewable energy projects to fight against energy poverty, boost economic productivity and decarbonise. One of such projects is the ‘Solar Power Naija’ that was launched in 2020. The project is expected to roll out 5 million new solar-based connections in communities and electrify 25 million Nigerians that are not grid-connected, while creating 250,000 jobs in the near term. Another of such projects is the 10MW wind farm in Katsina, which is billed to be the largest wind-based energy development in West Africa when it becomes operational. It is made of 37 turbines, each with a capacity of 275kW and will provide power for over 2,200 homes when commissioned.

Electricity generation through nuclear technology has not gained much attention, even though Nigeria is a signatory to the International Atomic Energy Agency and home to five academic nuclear centres. Despite the existence of the National Atomic Energy Act since 1976, nuclear is yet to be included in the energy source generating electricity for the country. The issues of manpower limitations, late activation of relevant agencies, financial constraints, are some of the reasons Nigeria is yet to have a functional commercialised nuclear power plant.

Genesis of Nuclear Technology in Nigeria

Nigeria’s aim of developing a nuclear energy programme dates back to 1964 when the country was admitted as a Member State of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Military administration led by the then General Olusegun Obasanjo in 1976 enacted the decree that established the Nigerian Atomic Energy Commission (NAEC). The commission was saddled with the responsibility of developing atomic energy for the country. That led to the establishment of the Centre for Energy Research and Development (CERD) at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife and the Centre for Research and Training (CERT) at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in 1978. Both CERD and CERT were the pioneer nuclear training centres in the country, specifically set up to provide requisite manpower for nuclear technology development in the country. In 1991, the Nuclear Technology Centre (NTC), which was the third research centre, was established at the Sheda Science and Technology Complex in Abuja.

The country to date has established 3 more nuclear centres namely; Centre for Nuclear Energy Studies and Training (CNEST), Federal University of Technology, Owerri, Centre for Nuclear Energy Research and Training (CNERT), University of Maiduguri, and Centre for Nuclear Energy Studies (CNES), University of Port Harcourt.

National roadmap for nuclear power

The President Olusegun Obasanjo-led administration was instrumental to the technical framework for the development of nuclear power plant in the country. According to the Nigerian National Report of the Convention on Nuclear Safety in August 2016, the National Council of Science and Technology in one of its meetings in 2004, after identifying nuclear as a potential energy source, directed relevant stakeholder institutions within the aegis of the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology to develop a nuclear roadmap for the country.

After a roadmap was submitted in March 2005, and in furtherance to determining the feasibility of a nuclear power national programme, another inter-ministerial committee was inaugurated in 2005. The committee’s report favoured the construction of a nuclear power plant. That led to the activation of the NAEC to further provide technical framework that will include manpower training, regulatory and licensing approvals, infrastructure development for nuclear power plant development and deployment. The Federal Government in February 2007 approved the implementation of the NAEC technical report. Consequently, the approval for national strategy implementation was finalised in December, 2009.

Progress so far

Based on the announcement by the NNRA director-general about the on-going bid for nuclear power plant construction, Nigeria is in the phase 2 development stage. The International Atomic Agency Commission, world’s foremost forum for scientific and technical cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy, lists three development phases in construction of a commercial nuclear power plant. The first stage is the consideration before a decision to launch a nuclear power programme is taken. It’s evident that Nigeria has passed this stage following a national nuclear development roadmap strategy. The invitation of five IAEA experts by the Nigerian government in June 2015 to review the country’s emergency preparedness to nuclear and radiological accidents and the selection of Itu, Akwa Ibom State and Geregu, Kogi State by the NAEC as the proposed nuclear power plant sites were crucial milestones to fulfilling the first phase.

The second development phase is the preparatory work for contracting and construction of a nuclear power plant. Fulfilling this phase involves invitation of bids and negotiation of a contract for plant construction, which is what the Federal Government, through the NAEC and Nigeria Nuclear Regulatory Agency, is doing. Phase 3 deals with the implementation of nuclear power plant through commissioning and operation.

1. Challenges that plagued Nuclear Power development

(i)Late creation/ activation of the NAEC

Although the Act establishing the NAEC was enacted in 1976, the commission didn’t become activated and operational until 2006, 30 years after its establishment. It didn’t become a full-fledged commission until March 2011 after it was reconstituted. And going by the strategic importance of the NAEC as being the national coordinating body for the country’s nuclear energy program, it stalled the development of a nuclear energy roadmap for the country.

The late activation of the commission also slowed down preparatory works for infrastructure development, design certification, regulatory and licensing approvals and construction and start-up of power plants. It also stalled early collaboration with other key national energy and environmental agencies such as; The Nigerian Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NNRA) which is in charge of licensing and regulation of nuclear power industry; The Energy Commission of Nigeria (ECN) in charge of energy planning and policy; The National Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) saddled with electricity pricing; The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) whose operational scope is emergency planning and management and The National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA)which anchors operation on environmental protection.

(ii) Manpower limitation/Paucity of fund

Although Nigeria has 6 nuclear centres to boost nuclear research, training and enhance technical capacity in atomic energy, it still doesn’t possess the domestic technical capacity to design, operate or manage a commercial nuclear power plant. The only nuclear reactor the country possesses is a research reactor; a 31Kw miniature neutron source reactor called named NIRR-1 situated at CERT. The reactor, built by China, is only used for neutron activation analysis, scientific experiments and training in nuclear science and technology. It does not power the grid.

Nigeria in 2018 relied totally on the expertise of foreign nuclear power vendors such as the United States, China, The United Kingdom, when it converted its reactor from Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) to Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) because of Global Threat Reduction Initiative and Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors campaign. China manufactured and tested the LEU fuel for NIRR-1 before it was commissioned and reached full power operations.

The worldnuclear.org, a website dedicated to nuclear advocacy, agrees that nuclear power plants are expensive to build. The projected cost for a 1,100 MW nuclear power plant ranges between $6bn and $9bn according to Energy Economics Inc. It’s, therefore, safe to opine that Nigeria cannot afford to build a nuclear power plant because of its high capital cost.

Speculations were rife that the Rosatom 4,800MW nuclear power deal would gulp $20bn, nearly half of the 2022 national budget, and to use the Build-Own-Operate (BOO) model. As it is with standard procedure, companies deposed to the BOO model carry out feasibility studies to determine net returns on proposed investment before embarking on such. As it stands, the Nigerian electricity market is far from being economical, thereby impeding returns on investment. Until the market is viable, economical and can guarantee investment yields, it may be challenging to find suitable nuclear power vendors willing to invest in constructing nuclear power plant.

3. Physicists’ thoughts about nuclear power

The use of nuclear technology in generating electricity is a sharply divided subject among physicists. James Hansen, a NASA scientists, atmospheric physicist and often regarded as the father of global warming whose 23 June 1988 testimony to the United States congress about global warming helped to raise global awareness, is of the opinion that nuclear power, being one of the biggest source of carbon-free energy, will play an inevitable role in phasing down fossil fuel usage and getting emissions reduced by 2050.

Hansen, a strong advocate for modern nuclear power development and deployment, posits that there are much better and safer technologies than the Fukushima nuclear plant that could only withstand a 3 metre Tsunami and required power for cooling. He enthused, in one of his comments about nuclear power, that gas would be required to complement intermittent renewable energy for electricity generation if nuclear power received scant attention. The problem of nuclear wastes, safety and radiation, he said, had been addressed and contained through modern nuclear power. He added, ‘With a fourth generation nuclear power plant, you can have a technology that will burn more than 99 per cent of the energy in the fuel. This means that you don’t need to mine uranium for the next thousand years.

However, Michael Mann, a climatologist and geophysicist who directs Earth System Science Centre at Pennsylvania State University, is sceptical about nuclear because of its dangers and the potential of its reactors’ vulnerability to climate change effects such as floods, drought. In one of his responses to the inevitability of nuclear in quest for global decarbonisation, he stated, ‘The problem with this argument is that it buys into the fallacy that nuclear power is necessary for us to decarbonise our economy.” We can do it with renewables and it would be cheaper. The average nuclear power generating cost is about $100 per megawatt-hour, compared with $50 for solar and $30 to $40 for onshore winds.’

4. Should Nigeria go the nuclear route?

Chikezie Ozuzu, who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Industrial Physics and a Masters in Radiation Protection Physics, did a quality audit and inter-comparison study of photon beams used in Nigerian radiotherapy departments, and is of the opinion that Nigeria isn’t ready for nuclear power plants. Being a quality assurance analyst and radiation safety officer, he said nuclear power installation must priotise safety to ensure mitigation of accidents and incidents that could lead to significant catastrophe for not only the country, but for the world as a whole.

He stated, ‘ Issues bordering on national insecurity (Boko Haram insurgency, unknown gunmen, etc), very poor maintenance culture, terrible waste handling procedures, high possibilities of incidents and accidents are a few of the major concerns with building a nuclear power plant in Nigeria.’ He went on to state that if the guidelines and regulations for radiation and nuclear safety as laid out by the national and international bodies such as the NNRA and IAEA are painstakingly followed, risks of incidents and accidents would be significantly reduced to their barest minimum.

The Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria, Dr Godwin Ojo, in a telephone conversation with the writer, said energy poverty in Nigeria was pushing the government and policy executors towards wrong actions; one of which includes the plan of constructing a nuclear power plant. He said the technology used in building nuclear power is the same used in building nuclear weapons. It would be catastrophic for the country, he stated, if such technology ended up in the wrong hands. Nigeria, according to the ERA/FoEN director, is not ripe for nuclear power. He posited, ‘The 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster clearly shows that nuclear power is dirty, highly dangerous and unclean. Therefore, rather than pursue nuclear power plant construction, the government must divest resources including finance, loans and subsidies from fossil fuels and invest them in the development of renewable energy that is environmentally friendly.

But a group named ‘Nigerian Young Generation in Nuclear’ has continued to advocate for nuclear power as a source of electricity generation. The group’s president, Jeremiah Mbazor, during a visit with the Energy Commission of Nigeria in March, revealed that it was carrying out a sensitisation campaign themed ‘Walk for Nuclear’ which would help to give nuclear power much consideration in the quest to solve the country’s power challenge.

He said, ‘Our concern is that Nigeria’s master plan for energy has a very small portion of it allotted to nuclear energy. But I want to urge us to look more deeply and critically in the nuclear energy aspects. The United Arab Emirate has enormous oil and gas reserves, but it has moved forward to construct four nuclear power plants. I was there in 2018. And it was a great feat they have done not because they don’t have other sources of energy, they have abundant renewables, they have abundant oil and gas. But they took the initiative to show example and leadership to other nations by building for nuclear power plant because they understand what it means to have such and I want to appreciate you for recognising the position of nuclear and why we need this.’

Share this post