Energy in Africa


Safety concerns dog Nigeria’s nuclear dream
Lanre Idaomi
Published: 20-OCT-06

Last month, Nigeria took another tentative step towards the realisation of this 30-year old dream, which is being revived as President Olusegun Obasanjo’s final term enters its twilight months.

This country of an estimated 130 million people and several thousand small-scale businesses generates only 3500MW of electricity, whereas the country’s demand output has been estimated to be twice that. To solve this problem, her leaders want to build two nuclear plants. The price of each is estimated to be between $1 and 2 billion.

Nigeria’s electricity problems date back to the late seventies when rising population figures in most of its major city centres spiked the power needs of households and businesses.

Last month’s inauguration of the board of the National Atomic Energy Commission (NAEC) by Obasanjo came three decades after he first mooted the idea of a nuclear plant as a military head of state.

“Today ... marks day one in the timeline of our national nuclear electricity programme. When we established the Atomic Energy Commission, what we envisaged was that sooner or later, we would exhaust all the known available resources for power generation that we have been endowed with by God. We are unequivocally committed to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty,’’ Obasanjo said at the inauguration. Obasanjo, who regretted that the administrations that succeeded the military regime he headed never promoted the idea, has reassured the international community that Nigeria’s nuclear plan is peaceful and geared towards development.

Already, the International Atomic Energy Agency seems sold on the idea. IAEA officials are collaborating with the Nigerian government on the project and the country’s only nuclear reactor, a small one built for research purposes, was the result of the collaboration of Nigerian and IAEA nuclear scientists.

In spite of this support IAEA keeps an eye on Nigeria and has undertaken visits to the country to confirm that her nuclear research is for peaceful purposes. One such visit was occasioned by the controversy surrounding the loss of some radioactive materials containing Caesium-137 by multinational firm, Halliburton, in Port Harcourt in December 2002.

The materials were later found in a recycling plant in Germany and later moved to the USA. These visits and Obasanjo’s assurances seemed to have paid off as one of the biggest backers of the nuclear project is no other than the director-general of the IAEA, Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei.

At home, the country’s nuclear aims have generated little debate among Nigeria’s usually vociferous media and civil society groups. Is this a sign of approval?

Nnimmo Bassey, the executive director of Nigeria’s foremost environmentalist group, Environmental Rights Action, says this silence should not be taken for public approval.

“We have a strong movement against gas flaring and other environmental issues, but this is not on the front burner in Nigeria. Civil society is now faced with a raw struggle for survival and political space. But the issue will come up in Abuja next month, when we will have a conference on the energy question and the nuclear energy project will be x-rayed,” he says.

Bassey, who described the project as a “sinkhole”, is certain that indifference will soon give way to the passion with which Nigerians debate and squabble over public issues; he believes that civil society will soon start to take more than a passing interest in the issue.

“Nuclear energy is not desirable for Nigeria. For one thing it has serious negative environmental implications for us. As a nation with a suspect emergency response facility, as well as a low technological development, going nuclear amounts to a suicide attempt. I can’t imagine that those who advise government looked at the pros and cons. It should be the last thing that we should be looking at.

“The idea is a time bomb. It is a time bomb for the future; even where it has been harnessed no one has an idea of how to handle the waste. I sincerely believe that they haven’t significantly considered the implications, the negative effects outweigh the positive.. This is a disastrous idea,” Bassey says.

Internationally, the nuclear dream of Africa’s most populous nation is also being criticised. These criticisms revolve round safety issues. Experts are voicing concerns about Nigeria’s ability to harness nuclear energy in a safe and environmentally suitable way.

Critics have argued that Nigeria would do better to look at alternative sources of energies while ensuring that existing power plants are upgraded and operated at maximum levels.

With government determination so strong, a clash with the environmentalists is inevitable. That fight however appears to lie in the future, as Obasanjo has said that the dream needs a decade to gestate. “It takes about 10-12 years from project conception and planning to the actual commissioning of a nuclear power plant project. This timeframe is an international benchmark, and with sincerity, we shall mobilise the necessary resources needed to achieve it,” Obasanjo said.

This article was published in Business in Africa Magazine (West Africa Edition), October 2006. To subscribe click here. For more energy related stories, go to Energy in Africa.

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