By Soni Daniel and Ben Agande
Professor Lawrence Anikwe Dim, a renowned Nuclear Physicist and Engineer, is the Director General of the Nigerian Nuclear Regulatory Authority, NNRA, which regulates and monitors the use of nuclear materials in Nigeria. Until his appointment, Dim was a Professor at the Center for Energy Research and Training (CERT), Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. In this interview, the NNRA DG speaks of the effort of the agency to make Nigeria a safer place through proactive measures and the place of nuclear potentials in electricity generation in the country.
What is the difference between other safety Agencies in Nigeria and the Nigerian Nuclear Regulatory Authority?
The Nigerian Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NNRA) is charged with the mandate to regulate the possession and application of ionizing radiation and nuclear materials in all its ramifications in Nigeria. It means that wherever any premises or programme uses anything that is emitting ionizing radiation or contain nuclear material, we must get to that facility or premises to know what they are doing. By our mandate, we regulate and monitor the use of radioactive materials, activities of employers and employees in the health, petroleum, manufacturing and mining industries as well as educational and research institutions, agricultural and water resources and nuclear installations across Nigeria. So, the NNRA has a strategic duty to ensure safety, security and safeguard of nuclear materials so as to protect the lives and environment in Nigeria.
How different is the work of the Nigerian Atomic Energy Commission (NAEC) from that of the Nigerian Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NNRA)?
The Nigerian Atomic Energy Commission is charged with the emplacement of nuclear installations and activities in its ramification in Nigeria. Recently the federal government asked them to develop nuclear power programme in Nigeria with the aim of affording Nigerians with the opportunity of having nuclear electricity or to add this nuclear electricity in our energy mix. Government set NNRA up because of the application of nuclear technology and nuclear science in Nigeria. The Nigerian Nuclear Regulatory Authority would not have come into existence if Nigeria had not realized the importance of nuclear science and technology. You would recall that during his first coming, former President Olusegun Obasanjo realised the importance of nuclear science and technology and its applications and quickly introduced it into our educational and technological curricula.
To be able to do all of these, the International Atomic Energy Agency or the international community requires you to have a regulatory agency such as NNRA. In other words, the NNRA must necessarily be created before the international community recognises Nigeria’s application for any nuclear activity to be conducted in the country. If you don’t have it there is no recognition for you and you won’t be allowed to practise nuclear-related activities in any form. So, the NNRA is a specialised agency that has been created for regulating the possession and application of nuclear science and technology in Nigeria. In terms of nuclear power programme, NAEC is the operator whereas NNRA is the regulator.
Given the enormity of the task and the fact that your organisation needs to enforce the laws dealing with very serious matter, how do you ensure enforcement and compliance by users of nuclear materials?
The NNRA recognises that Nigeria is a very large country and we have therefore established our offices in the six geo-political zones of this country to be able to carry out our task with ease. As time goes on and with better funding, we will be able to set up offices in every state of the federation in order to fulfill our mandate. As you rightly noted, one of our assignments is that of enforcement, which is the last thing we want to do anyway; but we do enforcement and we have memoranda of understanding, MoU, with Nigerian security agencies and paramilitary organisations to be able to handle that task effectively.
As a matter of fact, we work with a national committee comprising these agencies because one of our core mandates is ensuring safety and security. If we have an enforcement problem it is very easy for us to arrange with the relevant agencies of government to get it sorted out immediately. But let me say that we do not carry out enforcement action often. We do so only after we have given enough warning. We work with the police, police bomb squad, intelligence agencies and a host of other paramilitary agencies.
There is a mechanism that we developed to determine whether any threat exists in the Country. It is called Design Basis threat (DBT) which is incorporated in our licensing process so that people will comply with this in building the system for the facility. We developed this document with the assistance of the paramilitary, the police, the army, the intelligence community and so on. So, we are working effectively with the relevant bodies/stakeholders in Nigeria to ensure safety, security and safeguard of nuclear materials and radioactive materials and premises.
This raises another issue. Does it mean that you know all the individuals and organisations that make use of radioactive materials in Nigeria so that if you were to be asked you will have a comprehensive record of those people?
Yes, we have a database and we are still compiling. That is why we created zonal offices and still trying to reach out to more organisations/ premises. As a matter of fact, if the law establishing the NNRA had not been put in place, nuclear materials would have been entering the country illegally because these materials are still being used in the oil industry and other private sector projects. Even up till now we still have a search and secure programme to be able to identify the places and people who are making use of nuclear-related materials so as to monitor them for compliance with the law. You know that Nigeria is a very big country and you can hardly cover the whole place in a very short time. So we are still looking for radioactive materials and sources; this search and research programme is actually that of the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, and we have to tap into it.
We did it this year and whenever we get more money we will send people out to search round Nigeria.
Hospitals also use radiation materials in their quest to save lives but this can also lead to abuse. So what do your men look for when they go to the hospitals? What would constitute an abuse of ionised and radioactive materials in the hospitals?
Radioactive materials are used in almost all industries in Nigeria including the hospitals. That we have oil today is because there is this material used to detect oil where it is. In the hospitals you must have heard about X-ray machines and all that. X-ray is not nuclear radiation but it is an ionizing radiation. The hospitals also make use of radio isotopes and radiation emitting devices. Some of these radiations are used to kill tumors. This also should not affect the healthy tissue or organ. This is like a “point-and- kill” process which does not require radiation to affect the healthy skin and other human tissues/organs. This practice is on and it is the specialists in that area that clearly understand the operation. So, this has to be effectively monitored by our team to save lives. NNRA ensures that this practice is done securely and safely. You have to be sure that the person doing this practice while trying to kill cancer doesn’t go and kill a healthy organ. So this is the work we do there and this is what we try to ensure in the hospitals. We make sure that their machines are well calibrated and that the people who are using those machines are certified and qualified.
Is the certification done by your organisation?
We do some of the certification. We employ the services of consultants too. Again, if an organisation making use of these materials does not have the competence, we help them in suggesting the right personnel so as to save lives.
Given the porous nature of the Nigerian borders, what do you do to ensure that unauthorized people don’t come into the Country with nuclear materials?
We have put certain measures in place to ensure that illegal materials do not enter this country although some persons would still want to try to do so. But the point is that under our template, no user of radioactive material can be given any approval to import any nuclear or radioactive material into Nigeria if our license is not seen. Of course, people using these sources know this, if the NNRA license is not attached to what you want to bring into this Country, they would not sell it to you.
And to prevent the possible abuse, the NNRA has made it a law that only one airport in Nigeria is approved for the importation and transportation of radioactive materials into and out of the country. In Nigeria that can only be done at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport. We need to replicate this in some other international airports like Port Harcourt airport, Enugu airport, Kano and even Abuja so that you can bring them through these other airports.
There was a time that some of the users of these facilities complained bitterly that they were short-changed because of the high fees they are asked to pay to be able to obtain licenses to operate in Nigeria. Has that been resolved?
Actually there is a little fee we charge to enable us carry out our inspection assignment as approved by government and in accordance with the law. The little amount we charge is approved by government.
But you know that whenever some people have access to the media they can say anything just to make their own side of the story better. But the truth is that nobody is being short-changed in any form because everything we do is with the consent of all our stakeholders. Since I came in as the DG we have been discussing with the stakeholders before action is taken. I realise that we need to work together so that we can achieve much more. We cannot do it alone because some of these materials are being used by the hospitals to save lives while some are being deployed for teaching and research purposes and the fees charged for these categories cannot be at par with those that are meant for commercial and profit-making purposes.
Prof, as things are in Nigeria today, can we say with certainty that Nigeria is safe regarding the use of radioactive and nuclear materials?
Yes, we can say so. But the point being made is that we have put the necessary processes and personnel in place as required and we believe that the system we are running is in tandem with international best practices. So, given our structures on the ground and our personnel in the field doing the work, we are satisfied that the basic things are in place to secure our nation against possible abuse.
What punishment is there for those who abuse the use of nuclear materials in Nigeria?
There are very serious punishments awaiting those who abuse the law. Most of the punishments are prescribed by international statutes which Nigeria is a signatory to. There are a lot of international sanctions. We have tough resolutions regarding sanctions. They include but not limited to Resolutions 1540. Among others, these resolutions cover any abuse and use of nuclear material to harm people and can lead to the arrest and extradition of offenders by the International Police Organisation, Interpol.
In Nigeria what are the laws?
Nigeria is a signatory to these laws and anybody who breaks them is liable to face the dire consequences imposed. These are international laws and we only need to domesticate them in our law. Now we are reviewing our law to accommodate these issues as well as general issues of nuclear power programme which were not covered in the old law.
What would you say you have been able to achieve since you took over as the DG?
When I came here I had a lot of issues on my desk but one of the things I have started is what we call strategic plan and monitoring of the organisation. We have started work and it is ongoing. This I think is a major achievement. Once we get this done I think we are in the right track and that will be a major achievement for the organization.
How far has it gone?
The plan has been done completely but you know when you do a strategic plan there is a part of it that isn’t published; which is the detailed timelines for all the activities. We are developing it and it is almost completed.
So what are your challenges?
One of the major challenges for us is to have enough competent individuals because there is a lot of work before us. We are developing a nuclear power programme so that nuclear electricity is added into the country’s energy mix. We haven’t done this before. It is a new type of work. The development of nuclear power is basically to enable us put nuclear electricity in our energy mix so that Nigerians will get electricity from nuclear energy. The project is ongoing and it isn’t a project that can be completed at once. It may take up to 25 years to put this to use. Already, the International Atomic Energy Agency has outlined the 19 infrastructural elements that must be undertaken before nuclear energy can become a reality. It takes a minimum of 10 years but once this technology is in place, it will run for another 100 years. So we need to build the capacity for the different phases of the project. This is a challenge because the technology is foreign as well as the knowhow. We have experience in regulating the radioisotope in the industries; the hospitals, the oil and gas and industrial applications but the new challenge is in the placement of nuclear power programmme for electricity generation. So we need to train our people to be able to develop regulations for siting, for design and construction and even for the commissioning of the power plants. This is what we have now and there is need for us to have human development in all these areas that I have mentioned.
As the head of a nuclear watchdog Agency in Nigeria, what message do you have for Nigerians?
The strong message I have for Nigerians is that they should know that NNRA is their friend, and that they should trust the agency for its ability to work and safeguard them at all times.
NNRA cares for the Nigerian people because that is our mandate. Nigerians should abide by what we ask them to do because we are saying it from the position of knowledge and expertise meant to protect and defend them from harmful effects of ionizing radiation. This is how it is everywhere. What we say and do is derived from the mandate given us by the government for the overall interest of the country and its people. We are set up to protect Nigerians, to protect life, to protect the environment and the health of the people.
What message will you give to those who would want to try to do the opposite?
The message I will give them is that they should think twice because NNRA is on the watch and will not spare any offender. We like to assure them that although nobody ever sees radiation, the NNRA has the means and the eyes to detect it and take steps to stop anything harmful to the people.