Olajide Olutuyi, Founding Partner, Greentouch Consulting Inc., Canada

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The need for nuclear power in Nigeria’s energy mix 01 Sep 2015

Recently, Nigeria Atomic Energy Commission announced the ongoing talks between Nigeria and Russia's Rosatom State Nuclear Energy Corporation to build as many as four nuclear power plants in Nigeria. One of the greatest drawbacks to the country's economic development is its inability to generate adequate electricity. When the largest economy in Africa with a population of over 170 million people generates a meagre 4600 megawatts, its recently attained peak, there should be cause for concern.
Our brothers from the southernmost tip of the continent with a population of 53 million people generate about 44,318MW of electricity, out of which over 70% is from coal while nuclear power plants contribute about 2.4%. South Africa's plan is to ensure that nuclear energy comprises 17% of their energy mix by 2030. South Africa is the only country in Africa with a commercial nuclear power plant.

I find the history of nuclear power plants quite fascinating. The first power plant generated electricity in 1948 in Tennessee, United States. It was also the first to power a light bulb. In 1951 a second one was built in Idaho, U.S. In 1954, Russia had the honour of operating the first nuclear power plant to generate electricity for a power grid. But it was not until 1956 that the first full-scale power station opened in England. In April 2010, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that there are 435 nuclear power reactors in operation in 31 countries.

If Nigeria and its leadership are serious about lighting up the country, nuclear energy as an alternative source of power needs to be looked at. Let us take a look at how nuclear energy is faring in some advanced economies.

In the U.S., there are numerous options for generating electricity; nuclear energy, fossil fuels, hydro, wind, solar, geothermal and biomass. However, the three largest sources are coal, natural gas and nuclear energy. America's electricity mix comprises about 20% of nuclear energy, which is more than any other source in seven states. The country's nuclear power is supplied by ninety-nine commercial reactors with a net summer capacity of 98,621MW.

The ninety-nine nuclear reactors in the U.S. generate substantial domestic economic value in electricity sales, estimated at about $40-$50 billion each year, with over 100,000 workers contributing to production. Nuclear energy is America's largest source of clean-air, carbon-free electricity, which produces no greenhouse gases or air pollutants.

The case of its neighbour to the north is not different. As of 2012, about 17% of Canada's electricity was produced by nuclear power. The Canadian Energy Research Institute states that Canada's nuclear reactors contribute $6.6 billion per year to the GDP, creates $1.5 billion in government revenue and generates some $1.2 billion in exports. The institute concludes that the nuclear power industry directly employs 21,000, 10,000 indirectly as contractors and is responsible for another 40,000 jobs.

Its impact on the Canadian economy is huge, but it did not come cheap. The country has spent about $13.26 billion (Canadian dollars) on its nuclear power programme from 1952 – 2006. With its population of about 33 million, it generates about 13,500MW from its nineteen reactors.  

France has the largest share of nuclear power in its energy mix in the world. Its nuclear power energy is about 76.8% of its total energy generation. It is followed by Slovakia at 56.8% and Hungary at 53.6% of their total power generation.

Now, one can argue that it is unfair to compare Nigeria with these advanced economies. To better compare, we should do so with some developing countries. In India, nuclear energy is the fourth largest source of energy. The country has twenty-one reactors in seven nuclear plants generating about 6000MW, 3.7% of the country's energy. It has an ambitious plan to generate 63,000MW by 2032.

China's first nuclear power plant was connected to the grid in 1991. By 2014, China had twenty-three reactors in eight plants generating 19,000MW which makes up 2.4% of the country's energy mix. It has a plan to increase this to 6% by 2020.

In South America, Brazil has two nuclear plants that produce about 1900MW, 3% of the country's electricity. Its first plant was connected to the grid in 1982. It has a plan to add four plants by 2020.

Argentina has three power plants generating about 1700MW, 4% of the country's electricity. South Africa was earlier mentioned. It is the only country with nuclear plant in Africa.

Nuclear power plants are expensive and controversial infrastructures. It requires strong leadership, long-term planning as well as political determination to initiate and build them. It is a highly dependable source of energy as it is not subject to changing weather conditions. Adding nuclear power plant to Nigeria's energy mix will improve the country's dilapidated energy situation.  It is also the only source that provides large amount of energy around the clock while also providing clean energy for sustainable economic development.

The history of Nigeria's energy situation is mired in corruption, nepotism and inept leadership. When America passed the Clean Air act in 1970, nuclear energy was only 1% of the country's energy mix. It has taken her long-term planning, strong leadership and political will to increase it to 20% today.

Some may ask why Nigeria needs to go nuclear. There are fears that building nuclear power plants in Nigeria is likened to giving a three-year old grenade to play with. They argue that if Nigeria cannot properly handle the ones they have now, what makes us think they will be able to handle toxic chemicals properly? The Fukushima accident of 2011 is also cited as a bad example of using nuclear energy for power. The damage caused by the tsunami produced equipment failures that caused the disaster.

A country with a population of over 170 million needs energy security. The country is blessed with so many energy sources but we must understand that most of our energy sources are finite. Oil, gas and coal are fossil based and fossil-based energy sources have a finite period.  Nuclear power must be in the mix and planning must start now.  

To get the country's nuclear energy plans off the ground, the organizations responsible for nuclear technology need to be strengthened and refocused so that they can help calm these fears and concerns.

There is the Energy Commission of Nigeria (ECN), charged with the overall planning, coordination, formulation and implementation of national energy strategies and plans. This organization is meant to serve as the national focal point for energy on behalf of the federal government. Whether this is being achieved remains to be seen.

The Nigerian Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NNRA) is the regulatory body bestowed with the responsibility of setting requirements, ensuring compliance, assessing risks as well as ensuring the protection of life, health, property and the environment.

There is also the Nigeria Atomic Energy Commission (NAEC) established as a specialized agency for the promotion and development of nuclear technology. Its responsibilities include catalyzing and fast tracking the process of development and deployment of power plants for electricity development in Nigeria. As a start, this organization's name needs to be changed and I will get to that in a minute.

The act establishing NAEC was enacted in 1976, but did not take off till 2006. It is instructive to note that the president that created it in 1976 was the same President who activated it in 2006. Now this may explain why NAEC still bears its name.

The word 'atomic' has certain negative connotations, Nagasaki and Hiroshima comes to mind. The two bombings, which killed about 140,000 people, remain the only use of atomic bombs for warfare in world history.This might decelerate acceptance and hinder the work the organizations needs to do. Most countries had the phrase “atomic energy' in their respective commission's names but is has since been removed, changed or totally abolished. In the U.S., the Atomic Energy commission was abolished in 1974 and replaced with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Argentina has divided its National Atomic Energy's functions to the Nuclear Regulatory Authority and the Nucleoelectrica  Argentina.

A visit to NAEC's website is proof that the organization is not ready for business. It is a five-page website which from all indications has not been updated since 2009.

In ensuring that the country enjoys nuclear power in its energy mix soon, these commissions must be reengineered for optimal performance. They must put in place ambitious and achievable plans that will increase the country's power supply. All approved contracts must be critically assessed and must be to the benefit of Nigerians. The Rosatom agreement indicates that Rosatom will hold a controlling stake in the power plants being built. I am not able to determine if this is in our interest.

A reengineered regulatory body will be better prepared for the anti-nuclear critics that come with nuclear projects. The anti-nuclear critics have genuine concerns regarding nuclear power plants. Some of these are nuclear accidents, radioactive waste disposal, nuclear proliferation, high cost of the plants and attacks on nuclear plants. These are genuine concerns that require adequate and appropriate responses from all organizations overseeing our nuclear projects.

Nigeria has one of the lowest net electricity generation per capita in the world. One source of energy cannot reverse this trend. Only an ambitious, aggressive and achievable long-term road map for nuclear power generation can save the tide.