Nigeria’s nuclear power option: Better late than never

The World Bank recently described Nigeria as oil rich but energy poor.  The energy poverty described by the bank is at the root of the 33.3 per cent unemployment rocking the economy. Millions of the people in the labour market have skills they could use to create jobs for themselves and others.

Unfortunately, the power supply deficit is so devastating that even if someone wants to open a barbing saloon, he has to purchase a power generator that would sustain the business. Nigeria’s power supply crisis is intractable and no one in the federal government seems to know the way out of the problem.

There is a yawning gap between demand and supply in the power sector. Demand for electric power in Nigeria stands menacingly at 28,000 megawatts (MW). The total installed capacity of the power generation companies (GenCos) in Nigeria is 14,000mw, just about half of the demand.

The GenCos can at any given time wheel just about 7,000mw of electricity into the national grid. Ironically, the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN) can only wheel just about 5,000mw of electricity to the DisCos at any given time.

The DisCos are in even worse situation than TCN. With their archaic equipment, they can only distribute 4,000mw of electricity at any given time. That deficiency pegs daily power supply in Nigeria at a scant 4,000mw, less than 20 per cent of demand.

The DisCos are the weakest link in Nigeria’s power supply chain. They are at the root of the perilous debt contagion in the industry. Their distribution equipment deficit causes the GenCos huge loses daily in dormant power wheeled into the national grid.

At any given time, something close to 2,000mw of electricity is dormant in the system with the DisCos rejecting power supply even as some parts of the country is enveloped in darkness.

The DisCos cannot distribute all the power generated by the GenCos and they would not allow manufacturers with a measure of distribution facilities to tap the dormant power directly. The Franchise handed the Discos at the privatisation exercise in November 2013 has become something of an albatross to GenCos and consumers alike.

The federal government is deeply troubled by Nigeria’s energy poverty. Three weeks ago government dusted up the nuclear energy option and announced plans to add nuclear power to Nigeria’s energy mix.

At the national workshop on industrial participation in the design and construction of nuclear research reactor for multipurpose applications, in Lagos on December 8 and 9, Yusuf Ahmed, chairman and chief executive officer of the National Atomic Energy Commission (NAEC), announced plans by the federal government to build a nuclear reactor that would generate 1,200mw of electricity.

Ahmed said foreign investors were willing to build the reactor, sell electricity to Nigeria and recoup their investment.

In 2004, the federal government announced a similar plan to build a nuclear reactor to generate electricity that would fill the country’s intractable power deficit. The plan died on the drawing board.

This time there are strong indications that the plan might actually leave the drawing board for the implementation stage as foreign direct investors are keenly interested in the project.

The sleepy, hilly town of Itu in Akwa Ibom state and Gereku in Kogi state have been short listed to host Nigeria’s first nuclear power plant. It is not clear which of the two towns would host the first of the two nuclear reactors in the cards.

The two towns were penciled down on the basis of the availability of water and their being out of seismic fault lines which makes them less prone to earthquakes.

NAEC said the nuclear reactor would create at least 2,000 direct jobs and thousands of indirect ones. Above all, NAEC contends that the nuclear reactor would have a very high level of local content.

The workshop in December 8 and 9 was designed to assess private sector capability to provide the local content for the proposed plant.  The response from the local industries at the workshop was very encouraging.

The steel industry in particular indicated readiness to plug into the scheme as most of the components reeled out by NAEC at the workshop were something they could fabricate.

Despite the prospective gains, there are fears that Nigeria’s obdurate power infrastructure deficit could stand the way of the grandiose plan.

Experts at the workshop contend that if the federal government is building a nuclear reactor that would generate 1,200mw of electricity, TCN must build its transmission capacity to something close to 28,000mw.

At the moment, TCN can grudgingly wheel just 5,000mw to the lethargic DisCos. No one knows how TCN could fund the massive capacity upgrade.

Besides, the equipment to be imported into the country for the nuclear reactor are very heavy equipment. Even NAEC was worried that Nigeria needed to upgrade its rail system to standard gauge to be able to haul the equipment from the ports to the site. The roads themselves would have to undergo similar reinforcement to cope with the heavy equipment needed for the plant.

Equally worrisome is the management of waste from nuclear fuel used to power the reactor. Waste from the fuel of a nuclear reactor remains radioactive for thousands of years.

That raises the question as to whether Nigeria, a nation with reprehensible disdain for maintenance culture, is ready for a high risk venture like operating a nuclear plant.

The solace from that poser is that the International Atomic Energy Commission monitors the operation of nuclear reactors all over the globe. It would almost certainly flog any recalcitrant forces in Nigeria’s nuclear plant into line to avoid calamity.

The truth is that nuclear energy is the cheapest, safest and cleanest source of power. It is cheapest because the lifespan of a nuclear reactor hovers around 100 years. The long lifespan of the reactor reduces the cost of the product in the long term.

It is the safest because even Chernobyl, mankind’s worst nuclear accident, killed less than five people.

It is the cleanest at a time when fossil fuel plants have spewed millions of tons of carbon into the air and triggered calamitous climate changes flooding one part of the planet and causing catastrophic droughts in other parts.

Nigeria has a penchant for doing the right thing at the wrong time. It is going into nuclear energy when developed nations are leaving the industry. Belgium will shut all its nuclear energy plants by 2025. Germany is drastically reducing its dependence on nuclear power. However, Nigeria believes that it is better late than never.   

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