By Emeka Chiakwelu
Nuclear energy and nuclear technology can be of great aid to Nigeria in her endeavor to supply steady, reliable and clean energy for her domestic electric consumption. Without doubt Nigeria at this stage of her industrial stage must do something about the paucity of electricity to power her industries and residential homes. Nuclear technology with its entire prospect has its challenges that must be appreciated and be given the requisite attention in order to avoid any catastrophe. Nigeria must do thorough feasibility study, and comprehend the convoluted technology, and implement the intricate precautionary measures and mechanisms required to operate a highly sophisticated technology.
Many countries have sorted and utilized nuclear energy for substantial deliverance of reliable electric supply."As of July 2008, there were more than 430 operating nuclear power plants and, together, they provided about 15 percent of the world's electricity in 2007. Of these 31 countries, some depend more on nuclear power than others. For instance, in France about 77 percent of the country's electricity comes from nuclear power. Lithuania comes in second, with an impressive 65 percent. In the United States, 104 nuclear power plants supply 20 percent of the electricity overall, with some states benefiting more than others." Nigeria can join these nations but she must play by rule of the game: Safety is everything.
Analyzing and dissecting the pros and cons of building nuclear plants to supply clean and steady energy to the country will not negate nor slow down the project but will strengthen the hands of Nigerian government. There is a reasonable danger associated in nuclear plants operations but with well trained technicians, technologists and scientific bureaucrats an error free management and operations are possible. As a nation, we must be frank to one another; we do not have or seems to be sustaining a maintenance culture. Nigeria is quick to build or set up shining and glaring projects but falter in rendering first class management and maintenance. The recent multi-million dollar Nigerian satellite (NigComSat-1) built and launched by the Chinese in May 2007, was shut down to prevent it spinning out of control and damaging others in orbit. The satellite project an example of a "white elephant in space" was a waste of time and resources. The billions of naira invested in the satellite technology can be utilized to solve the earthly problem of waste disposal in Kano or supply borne tap water to a struggling villages in the interior of Nigeria. Nigeria must make sure that the nuclear project will not suffer such a fate like the satellite (NigComSat-1).
Murtala Muhammed International Airport, at its inception was among the greatest aesthetic and architectural wonders of Africa but it has since deteriorated considerably due to lack of maintenance. So is the Ajaokuta Iron and Steel industry, has it not become a dead wood? All these are toddlers' picnic compared to the effects of nuclear mismanagement and God forbid a nuclear accident or incident. In nuclear technology operation, concerns must be attended to, before they metamorphosed to catastrophic accidents and incidents.
In case of nuclear power plants, they must be safely run, for there are no second chances in nuclear accident. Nigeria has the human capital and technical know-how for such a convoluted and elaborated project but lethargy poses the greatest threat to scientific development in Nigeria.
Nuclear accident and Risk management: The Chernobyl effect
No one can discuss about nuclear accident, without recollecting and mentioning the disaster of Chernobyl in the defunct Soviet Union. "It is the 20th anniversary year of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, where a reactor testing at Chernobyl (now in Ukraine) went terribly wrong on the night of April 25th-26th. This led to the world's worst nuclear disaster involving radiation exposure and explosions. Other nuclear power plant accidents include Chalk River, Canada in 1952, Windscale Pile No. 1, England in 1957, East Germany (near Greifswald) in 1976, Three Mile Island, USA in 1979, Tokaimura, Japan in 1999 and Mihama, Japan in 2004. Some of these disasters led to immediate deaths, chronic diseases like thyroid cancer and leukemia, and major damage to the environment such as groundwater contamination and burning up of plants and trees. Property was rendered useless while expensive rehabilitation, remediation and monitoring programs were carried out. The nuclear power plant disasters were due to either or all of these: improper reactor design, equipment failure and human error." Nobody can accuse Russians of scientific inferiority, notwithstanding, the industrial accident of Chernobyl happened. Nigeria has to be prepared for any eventuality which must be back up with elaborated standard operation procedure to handle any unforeseen disaster. The most important is to have safe proof paradigm designed to prevent any accident by well experienced risk managers and scientists. Nigeria can do it and operate successful nuclear plants with a solid foundation rooted on discipline, concentration and circling competence.
Nuclear Technology cost
Without doubt, in this era of declining oil price, it is very expensive to build and maintain nuclear plants. It will cost billions of dollars to build nuclear plants.. The exorbitant cost for construction notwithstanding, further resources are needed to run, buy and replace parts of nuclear plants as it wears and tears. Our bureaucrats cannot afford to mismanage this venture and leave sour taste in our mouths as with Nigerian Airway, NEPA, Ajaokuta Iron & Steel and many white elephants abandoned in the dumpster of Nigerian industrial experiments. In this era of democratic capitalism, government must not monopolize the project because of their inefficiency, corruption and over compensation. The private companies and citizens will be given opportunities to participate into the ownership of the nuclear plants. Government has to float a limited liability company in which the stocks will be available to the public to buy. Nigerian government can still own the majority stocks but there must be an injection of free enterprise mindset and reality that will be a booster for efficient and transparent run of the nuclear plants. The partner between government and the public will lessen the cost burden and embolden transparency and probity.
Peaceful and nuclear security
Nigeria is only interested in the safe and peaceful utilization of nuclear technology for domestic energy consumption. Security must be the cornerstone for safety: Our enemies can betray us by stealing the uranium (the natural occurring element/raw material for nuclear energy) and enriched them for destructive purposes. Nigeria must create a well guarded security post to prevent any peripheral intervention, ready to exploit the technology for building bombs and destroying lives. Nigeria must be prepared with seasoned and well equipped security apparatus that has the skill to stop outside interference. Nigeria must make sure that the internal enemies of progress will not use the capture of the nuclear plants to blackmail the people and government of Nigeria.
The disposal of nuclear waste
The half life of uranium (the time it takes for half its atoms to decay) is problematic and which implies that a storage place is necessary. The waste made during nuclear fission including uranium, plutonium, and other elements are highly radioactive. These elements including uranium have long half-lives (the time it takes for half its atoms to decay) some longer than 100,000 years thus creating long time periods before the waste will settle to safe levels of radioactivity. Nigeria will not be immune with this problem of nuclear waste storage; even highly technological nation like America is still gripping with the issue. Daren Briscoe writes in NEWSWEEK (American magazine) recently: "A bigger problem than the safety of the reactors themselves is what to do with the deadly waste they produce. Nuclear power is praised for its zero carbon emissions, but it comes at price-radioactive fuel rods that remain toxic for thousands of years. If you're looking for a reason to feel queasy about building more nuclear reactors, this is it. While politicians bicker over where to put it all-nuclear waste is the ultimate "not in my backyard" dispute-the stuff is piling up. As things are now, a lot of it is simply stockpiled at the plants, submerged in open pools of water for as long as five years and eventually sealed in steel and concrete casks. "You have more than 100 reactors storing waste on-site, under what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission calls a temporary license, in the worst of all possible places." So if America is having some issue with this, what must Nigeria do to handle such a difficult challenge? Nigeria must be creative, resourceful and willing to learn from others.
In totality, a storage place must be built to contain these radioactive elements, which must be warehoused in safe storage area until they poses no risk to man and the environment. Our forest, water and natural wild life must be protected from the devastating effect of uranium contamination and pollution.
What Nigeria must do
As a strategist, patriot and scientist, this paper seeks not to discourage Nigeria, who has come of age. But to elucidate the incessant vulnerability associated with this technology to Nigeria's policy makers and bureaucrats. Such a project associated with a danger of this magnitude proportion cannot treat in nonchalant mannerism akin to Nigeria's structural and institutional weakness. Nigeria needs a steady power supply and nuclear technology can play an active role in supplying reasonable quantity of energy to Nigeria. However, Nigeria must have diversity of energy supply - solar, thermo, wind and of course nuclear. Nigeria cannot make nuclear technology the principal energy supply but to initially build few numbers of nuclear plants at this stage, then as they learn and gain experience in optimum operation of nuclear plants, Nigeria can build more plants.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that ensures "Atoms for Peace" for members in nuclear field can be of great aid to Nigeria. The IAEA is a repository of information and safety guidelines on efficient operation of nuclear plants for peaceful purposes. In addition, Nigerian indigenous scientists scattered around the world can be invited to be advisers to the projects - great scientists and technologists are invariably great minds that are needed for such a Nigerian project.