President of the Nigeria Atomic Energy Commission (Nigatom) and, chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Nigeria Energy Commission, Simon Pesco Mallam in this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, talks about the need for the country to embrace nuclear energy, the advantages that can be derived and its lofty goals of achieving nuclear sovereignty by mid -2020s.
What is Nigatom doing at the 2018 AtomExpo Conference and what are your plans for the country regarding nuclear energy?
We are at this conference to discuss some of our cooperation, drafts, and agreements and do some negotiations if possible. We have been attending this conference for years and this year is not any different. We have several plans and though we may not like to disclose them all now, we are certainly in negotiations with Russia regarding several issues.
There has been much talk of nuclear energy and nuclear plants, how far has Nigeria gone in terms of catching up with the rest of the world in nuclear energy for power generation and other purposes?
Nigeria has been in the nuclear field for quite some time but to be honest, our journey so far has been a little bit bumpy. The government took a decision in 1976 to involve the country in nuclear activities and that was when the act creating the Nigerian Energy commission was signed. However, it took a while before government could activate the commission, which took place in 2006, which is 30 years later. In between this time however, government launched two centres, one in Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife and the other at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria. Both centres have been involved in quite a number of activities to the extent that we have a research reactor at the centre in Zaria, which became critical in 2004 and we have a standing accelerator at Ife. Along the line, government took a decision to set up a Science and Technology Complex, which took off in 1992 with an intention to set up a 30 megawatts research reactor but this had its own problems.
During this period, the government felt we needed to do something and the set up an irrigation facility, which we all know about and was commissioned during the Obasanjo presidency in 2007. At the inception of the activation of the commission in 2006, the commission was charged to start a nuclear power plant programme and this is what we have been pursuing. If you ask me, there in nuclear applicator everywhere in the country, from medicine to radiotherapy, in agriculture and several other spheres. However, as a coordinated programme, it is our responsibility, which we are doing and we are gradually setting up the different level of infrastructure, working with technical partners to set up a regime as well as build a much bigger reactor in the country.
The country doesn’t have a nuclear power plant yet, but tell us the benefits that Nigerians would enjoy when the country fully decides to go nuclear?
I am happy you have heard others speak of their experiences. What is our power generation presently in the country? Maximum is 4.8 or 5 gigawatts, this is the maximum we can generate. We are still talking of gas, how long can gas take us even if we decide to marshall all our efforts into it? We have several IPPs but we can’t supply gas to them. We build gas infrastructures but some people are sabotaging it which is part of the reason we cannot exceed 5gigs. As for hydro resources, though the country is blessed with hydro, the total numbers of dams are not more than 11 and given our population and demand, this is useless in the face of our energy needs. A lot of people talk of renewables like solar, but even that comes with its own problems. You don’t get sun every time and you have to store the energy generated and the technology for this is still advancing. For us as a country, we are not saying these are not good but government took the deliberate decision to pursue a balanced energy mix. There hasve been studies on when and how we are going to introduce nuclear in the country considering different energy scenarios, different regions and so on. If we are going to have a sustainable energy mix, we certainly have our way of doing it and that is not to concentrate on what is not needed. Look at the United Arab Emirates, they have gas and solar all over the place, yet they are building four nuclear plants and I hear they are commissioning one now. Go to Jordan, go to other countries and see; it is not a matter of copying other people but we are not the only ones and given our situation and demand for energy, nuclear certainly has the advantage.
How many plants does the country have now?
Nigeria doesn’t have a nuclear plant yet but we have a programme to develop (if we get the first plant on ground soon, our timeline to get the others is sometimes in the mid 2020s) them. I don’t want to give a particular date yet so that Nigerians don’t wake up on that day and said I promised them this and that, I am not in that game. We have to be realistic; nuclear is not something you switch on. It is a deliberate plan; you have to get it right from the onset because it is not like our gas plants that we switch on and off as we like, saying it is off the grid. You have to get the appropriate infrastructure, you have to dredge to be able to move very heavy equipment to the site, government has to provide the right infrastructure on ground. The railways are working but can they carry heavy equipment to where we would site it? We have a roadmap and that is by mid 2020s; we hope we can get a commercial plant and add three more in 5-10 years. As to whether we would partner with Russia or not, we have a good agreement with Russia, but we have not signed any contractual agreements yet. We have signed operational agreements, project development agreements but not any commercial contractual agreements. Some newspapers have been claiming that we signed a 20 billion dollar contract with Russia but I want to tell you that this is not true. We only cooperation agreement with Russia and we are hoping that if all works well, we would develop the infrastructure and eventually sign a contractual agreement with them but we are not closing our doors to other partners that may be interested and are ready to work with them. If we work with Russia, fine, but if we need to work with others, we are fine with that. Russia can change their minds at any time for any reason so we have to keep our options open but certainly, we are willing to work with them.
Is the agreement with Rosatom or with the Russian government and what is this plant going to cost the country financially?
Our agreement is with the Russian Federation, signed on behalf of Nigeria by the Nigeria Atomic Energy Commission (NAEC) and Rosatom in 2009. Later on, we developed an agreement specifically targeting Nuclear power plants and that was signed by both parties again on behalf of our government in 2012 and these agreements were ratified by the Federal Executive Council (FEC). IN 2016, we signed another agreement on the research reactor centre in Abuja between both countries and signed by the same two parties. However, on October 30 last year, we signed a project development agreement on the research reactor and power plants between NAEC and Rosatom Overseas. As for the infrastructure on ground, we recently hosted an integrated nuclear infrastructure review mission in 2015, where the international Atomic Agency came to access the level of our infrastructure and our regulatory body which is the Nigerian Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NNRA) who also had the mission to review their infrastructure. We cannot develop the entire infrastructure in one day and as we move to each phase, we have different requirements and needs that you develop stage-wise. The key ingredient for any nuclear development plant, whether it’s for power or not, is personnel and human resources. We have a three phase programme and the first is to get the appropriate human resources and that is what we have been concentrating on for a while. As for the cost, I cannot specifically give any figure because it depends on the type you want to build and the infrastructure you have. It also depends on location and several other factors. But going by the rule of thumb, it is about 5,000 dollars per kilowatt of energy; so if you take a thousand megawatts plant, you are talking of about 5-6 billion dollars. As you improve the safety of the plant and its longevity, the price may go up significantly. A nuclear power plant is not a thing of one generation; it can last between 60-100 years so you have to be careful and concise when you want to venture into it. We want our first plant to generate between 1000-1,200 megawatts, then we up it to four plants of the same capacity. Hopefully, when we are done, this would be about 4.8 gigawatts in total; we cannot build all of them at a go.
Regarding safety, what are you doing to allay the fears of Nigerians on the general safety of a nuclear power plant being constructed?
Nuclear is a phobia everywhere in the world and everyone has their ideas regarding it. Yet, the same Nigerians use planes that can crash at any time and are not worried. They drive their cars despite the fact that they could be involved in road crashes. You cannot say because you are afraid of carjacking not leave your house yet some people, because of their phobia, claim nuclear is dangerous. What in life isn’t dangerous? Safety has always been a major concern in the nuclear industry, right from the planning stage. The regulatory body has to ensure that things are done properly and we are putting in place the entire appropriate infrastructure, in terms of planning, in terms of technology selection, partnership building, appropriate sourcing of human resources because these are all things that contribute to the safety and security of the plants. I don’t have to jump out and start making noise; I believe in talking to the appropriate groups at the appropriate time. I don’t want to talk of its safety with mouth alone, instead I will present the facts, organise talk shows to educate people. I am challenging the press to do more in educating the masses because the onus lies on the media. Nuclear has the least waste compared to other energy sources. The C02 that we are emitting, nobody talks about it, the acid rains, nobody talks about that but nuclear plans the disposal of its waste from the start. People might be afraid because of one or two reasons but I would say categorically, it is safe and we would do whatever it takes to educate and engage Nigeians not just on safety but also on the need for nuclear energy. We have taken it gradual because Nigerians expectations are very high and if for whatever reason, things do not work out as planned, people would think we are lying. We have immense support from the government despite funding issues we are battling with now but it is normal.
In the light of these funding issues, can you still meet our mid 2020 target?
We will do our work and leave government to do theirs to provide the necessary tools. All the governments we have had have been supportive of these plans, right from Obasanjo to Yar’adua then Jonathan and the present government. Funding depends on the exigencies of government and as we know, there are so many issues fighting for the available money at hand and you have to be able to balance the budget so that everyone gets a piece. As for sourcing uranium and uranium enrichment, we are not contemplating that yet at this stage because it is complicated and the cost of doing this is enormous compared to the extent of our nuclear power programme. If we are to do it, we are going to incur unnecessary costs, money that could be used to build the plants and that is not something we want to focus on. We don’t have to have uranium in the country, if we sign an agreement, it would be covered in the agreement. Very few countries enrich and fabricate their own uranium, and most countries that have had issues concerning nuclear weapons have been because of uranium enrichment, nothing else. There is a borderline between uranium needed for nuclear weapons and what is needed for technology. Considering our need for four plants and other issues, circumstances do not favour us enriching uranium at this stage.
Source: The Guardian