Facing our nuclear future (1)

on   /   in Tonye Princewill 12:05 am   /   Comments

By Tonye Princewill
“WE have plans to generate power from atomic energy and we must pursue it seriously”.

That was President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, last September, inaugurating a new Board of Directors for the Nigeria Atomic Energy Commission, NAEC–and sending a very clear message to critics of the nation’s nuclear power programme.

As if to quell any lingering doubts, Bukun-Olu Onemola, Nigeria’s Deputy Envoy to the United Nations, hammered the point home again, two months later. He assured the General Assembly that nuclear generated electricity remains a “major priority” of the Jonathan administration.

Politically, the President’s timing is courageous—and that’s putting it mildly! His proclamation follows the earthquake-and-tsunami induced nuclear accident of March 2011, at Fukushima Daiichi, Japan not to talk of the current situation playing itself out in Iran.

Until catastrophe struck at Fukushima, the nuclear power industry was riding a global wave-crest of public popularity. This “nuclear renaissance” was due, ironically, to a political u-turn by many environmentalists, who suddenly saw nuclear reactors as a “green” alternative to hydrocarbon fuels.

That outlook was never widely held in Nigeria. Even before Fukushima, NAEC was sailing on stormy political seas, with critics conjuring up the horrors of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island—without any awareness, of what actually happened at those installations.

But NAEC is only the most visible target. Anything “nuclear” will attract the animus. When Chief Ikedi Ohakim, former Governor of Imo State, signed a memorandum of understanding with three U.S. firms, to import a small modular reactor, pictures of mushroom clouds appeared on Igbo World Forum.

Nevertheless, NAEC trudges on. With a new Board of Directors, and a resounding endorsement from the Head of State, the Commission is enjoying its own “renaissance”. Indeed, it has commenced the training of 2000 engineers and nuclear scientists.

NAEC started up in 1976, and then floundered. President Obasanjo revived the Commission in 2006, under the pioneering Chairmanship of Dr. F. Erepemo Osaisai, a nuclear chemist.

Osaisai presides over two campus-based research centres, at Ahmadu Bello University (Zaria) and Obafemi Owolowo University (Il-Ife), plus the Sheda Science and Technology Complex, SHESTCO, near Gwagwalada, in the Federal Capital Territory.

Prospective sites for reactors are the Geregu/Ajaokuta area in Kogi State (North Central zone), Itu in Akwa Ibom State (South-South), Agbaje/Okitipupa in Ondo State (South West) and Lau in Taraba State (North East). Construction is envisaged, as from 2014, with first power by 2020.

 

NAEC’s controversial centre-piece is a small Chinese-built Neutron Source Reactor, housed at Ahmadu Bello University. The reactor went critical April 3, 2004, when its enriched uranium fuel rods ignited. The heat from these fuel rods creates the steam that drives electricity generators.

Nuclear reactors are neither the cheapest nor the most practical alternative to hydrocarbon fuels. Other available options include hydrogen, biomass, wind, wave and solar energy.

Biomass is a nonstarter. Our farmers need to focus on feeding Nigerians, rather than trying to produce raw materials for fuel. They could never meet the huge demand our energy consumption generates. Also, burning biomass releases carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Bayero University in Kano, and the National Space Research and Development Agency, have developed indigenous solar power systems. But earth-based solar energy cannot replace hydrocarbon fuels. Nor can wave or wind-driven turbines.

Hydrogen definitely has promise. But I will save my thoughts on this for another time. My focus is on nuclear energy, because the Federal Government is catching so much flack–most of it from well-intended but ill-informed individuals.

“Critics question why Nigeria needs to spend money on speculative future nuclear projects,” wrote Felix Onuah of Reuters, “when vast gas reserves sit untouched under the ground or are flared into the sky”.

This is good common sense. But policy makers can’t rely on contemporary common sense judgements. Their decisions must look beyond prevailing conditions and project decades into the future. It is unlikely, for instance, that anyone will be burning coal or gas 50 years from now! Mineral resources and the contention surrounding them need to be a factor.

The Punch is a great newspaper. But on September 15, its Board of Editors published an editorial that shows just how little grasp even informed Nigerians have of this complex issue.

The editors averred: “The trend globally now favour a shift to sources other than nuclear energy because of the risks”. In the U.S.A., they claimed, “no new plant has been ordered since 1973”. They cited the use of coal-powered turbines in South Africa, Australia and China as examples for Nigeria.

But these examples undermine the editors’ argument. The assertion that no U.S. nuclear power plants have been ordered since 1973 is false and misleading. Out of 435 active reactors, globally, 104 of them are in that country. So the U.S. is not necessarily compelled to order reactors.

Even so, the World Nuclear Association, WNA, reports that “there are proposals for about 20 new reactors and 12 combined construction and operating license applications for these are under review, with the first one issued in February 2012…some of the new reactors will be on line by 2020”.

WNA data show one U.S. nuclear power plant under construction, while Mark Lackey, an American investment strategist, told the Streetwise Energy Report that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had approved two plants in the state of Georgia.

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