Much has been said about the Nigerian nuclear power (NP) programme. Few believe the programme would deliver electricity to Nigeria. Most do not believe anything would be achieved due to mismanagement by the focal institution, the Nigeria Atomic Energy Commission (NAEC). The Commission was mandated in 2006 to achieve online electricity generation from nuclear fuel by 2017. Going by the current progress this may not be achieved in another 25 years.
The position of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the global nuclear watchdog is that “launching a nuclear power programme is a major undertaking that requires careful planning, preparation and investment”. IAEA is letting new-comer countries developing NP infrastructure know that “if wishes were horses, beggars would ride”, positing that developing national NP policy must involve broad range of stakeholders: politicians, policy makers, technical experts, community and non-governmental organisations (CBOs and NGOs), and the general public. These stakeholders must own the project and evolve a tailor-made programme with achievable targets, roles and responsibilities understood by all. Lack of such understanding appears the reason the programme is stalled.
The role of NP Programme in National Development
NP programmes are associated with high investment costs, ionizing radiation and radioactive wastes. Wastes management, safety and NPP economics remain issues of public concern. Despite these, developing countries with successful programmes have witnessed vertical and horizontal technological development in their economies. This is because one precondition for successful NP programme is human and institutional capacity development to support all elements of the technologies and their domestication in reasonable time. “In reasonable time” is underlined in the last statement because of typical long duration of the programme. IAEA recommends a 17-year structured programme, which would require four Presidents of four-year tenure or two presidents with eight-year tenure each in Nigeria to complete. Periods much longer than this requires more political players and runs the risk of failure unless focused leadership is guaranteed across the number of years and political players.
Besides nuclear, other associated technologies to be domesticated include construction hardware and materials; instrumentation technologies; steel, light and heavy machinery; electro-mechanical, chemical and allied technologies; hi-tech welding, fabrication of inputs to support operation and repairs for all facets of NP infrastructure, among others. Domestication creates the platform for increasing the fraction of technologies patented locally that is used in projects. With time the nation is able to advance and apply its own patented technologies in whole NPPs or projects in other economic sectors.
South Korea whose programme started just before Nigeria’s independence commissioned its first turn-key NPP in 1978 with 8% national content. This grew to 12% and 14% with 2nd and 3rd turn-key NPPs in 1982 and 1984. They went into modular NPP constructions with 79% national content attained in 1995 and finally reached 100% in 2012. Koreans now builds NPPs at home and abroad and one of the highest exporters of high technology goods and services globally. Achieving 100% indigenisation 34 years after its first turn-key NPP and 53 years after project inception is a significant feat Nigeria could emulate. Their economy has witnessed monumental expansion that is uncommon. Same is the case in China, India, Pakistan, South Africa and others in the NP club.
The Facts and Non-facts of Nuclear Power
Nuclear programmes have become highly controversial. However, issues are not factual but fueled by anxieties of World War II experience. Only a few serious NP accidents have actually occurred globally, one at Three Mile Island (1979), one at Chernobyl (1986); and three at Fukushima (2011). Most others are recorded as incidents. The Chernobyl accident, had more than 4000 fatalities, and 6 fatalities in 3 incidents in Japan, most others had zero fatalities. Despite limited accidents and improvements in safety many are not convinced that nuclear power is safe or could be made safer. Difficulties arise in sieving facts from non-facts. Nuclear facilities pose serious danger to the public if not adequately contained and managed. However, measures to protect workers and the public are increasing. NPPs are not unsafe in comparison with road, aviation, industrial accidents etc, which have higher frequency and annual fatality records.
That the world only witnessed few major accidents in over 16,000 cumulative reactor-years of commercial operation in 33 countries in over six decades attests to its relative safety. Accident risks remain low and declining. Current anxieties appear over-magnified and speculative. Can Nigeria with all its economic challenges afford to wait until safety is completely guaranteed before investing in the sector through articulated well-structured NP programme for greater national economic benefits?
Challenges Associated with Current NAEC Approach
Of the activities in NAEC road map document to actualise the NP infrastructure between 2006 and 2017 only site appraisal and initial training have been attempted. Both are yet to be fully realised. Most planned tasks remain pending. Since appraisal teams visited proposed sites in 2009, no single follow-up has been made to any site. Apart from media reports, the Governments of States and communities to host NPPs are yet to be formally briefed to allay fears. How then and when would specific site(s) be delineated and mapped to allow for characterisation and site-specific NPP design to commence? Failure to consult with stakeholders to ensure that they align with the project is a major discrepancy that could jeopardize the project if stakeholders decide to reject it.
The slow pace of the NP programme appears to result from the fact that the Chairman had set himself apart from the other Members of the Commission appointed by the President to work with him in decision-making. This would easily create “a house divided against itself” scenario, which remains a major risk for the programme and its ability to achieve its goal. In such situations, there is a strong likelihood that due processes in decision-making would not be followed and in the process, progress, which reflects the real work, takes a back seat.
R&D institutions have within this period not been able to integrate their financial requirements into the Commission’s budgets and are highly constrained to play their role in the Programme. This raises the challenge on how to actualise the programme without R&D inputs in training, infrastructure development, and domestication, which remains much slower than expected of a country that expected commissioning its first NPP in 2017.
The Commission has not formally articulated any NP financing model(s) to the President for approval. The adoption of such framework is a process rather than decision of an individual. Media report indicate that Nigeria has adopted the build, own, operate and transfer (BOOT) model for its first NPP. The President may not be availed of the options and prospects for each financing option. The project stands the risks of rejection if the Government does not understand its role and responsibility enough in the programme to plan how to meet them effectively. From Section 3(2) of NAEC Act, “no policy initiated by the Commission shall be implemented without reference to and prior approval of the President”. It is not clear if the President is aware of some strong policies like the financing model currently “adopted.”
Nigeria has commitments to be made irrespective of the financing template. Examples include transport of heavy equipment to site on arrival at the port, grid expansion, etc. If some expected equipment are too heavy for road, inland waterways (as currently dredged) or the current rail gauge, further inland waterways dredging or enhanced rail gauge to site(s) would be required. Such investments shall be on the shoulders of the government and planned a-priori. Machineries would otherwise remain at ports until transportation routes are ready leading to unwarranted delays. The President is not to be informed. The buck must stop at him in final decision and the ownership of the project in line with NAEC Act.
The Way Forward
Going forward, the time appears right for the Government to ensure that NAEC operates as a strong national institution rather than remain a governmental individual. Its enabling Law of 1976 is too old to allow current national aspirations to be met and hence overdue for review. This would give the Commission a new vigour to make the programme viable and able to bring the economic transformation the nation needs in reasonable time. The programme would only remain feasible if implemented with full stakeholders’ consultation and ownership. The President must be adequately consulted and so must political players, MDAs, NGOs, CBOs, and labour who must be partners in its implementation.