The odds against nuclear-generated electricity
Recent reports that the Federal Government is giving serious consideration to sourcing additional electricity from nuclear energy, has to be spine grating. The ambition, as an aspect of modernization may be healthy and attractive but, can and should a country, literally broken and grounded by indiscipline and corruption-driven incompetence, take on and manage the very high cost, enormous risks and dangers of the highly sophisticated and potentially dangerous business of harnessing nuclear technology for electricity generation and distribution? The first and only other state in the West African region with a gifted nuclear reactor, if it is still operational, wisely uses it for medical research.
In the seventies of the last century, a better-disciplined military government took good advice and decided not to open the nuclear front for electricity generation. At a time of healthy economic performances, the then enormously high cost of eighty million to eight hundred million dollars ($80,000,000- $800, 000,000) per German water-cooled reactor, raised hairs and the economics of the enterprise put the project out of the reach of the country. A National Atomic Energy Agency was actively considered and quickly shelved by a highly responsible and responsive government. This was before the fairly well contained disasters of Chernobyl in the then USSR and more recent Fukushima in Japan, two highly disciplined, successful industrialised and high tech states and societies.
We are in 2016 and Nigeria remains heavily import-dependent even in food and refined petroleum products. The country is struggling to maintain and manage its ageing hydro, gas and mechanical sources of electricity generation which regularly fail to produce and deliver the installed capacity of 4000MW. Five petroleum refineries have been run aground, the criminal farce of our squandering millions of petrodollars on dubious gains in acquiring space technology, failed iron and steel, paper production at Ajaokuta and Iwopin respectively lead the catalogue of shameful failures and gargantuan corruption and waste which characterize our national technology window and history.
These, most fortunately, are passive and safe areas of technology and carry no serious risks of major ecological disasters and/or huge losses of life as they fail us and we fail them. Yet, managing nuclear capacity, its installations, systems and facilities is highly sophisticated industrial science and technology requiring even at the lowest and ground levels, an industrial society whose citizenry is knowledge driven and protected. Are we such a society? Have we created such a citizenry? Shamefully, the answer is no.
Happily the country is in the hands of a disciplined retired General who was in the past punished for wanting to take Nigeria away from the path of failure to that of success and greatness. He has now like France’s Charles de Gaulle, been popularly elected to pilot the country out of the threat of disaster, social insecurity and economic immobilism. Surprisingly he has been reported, hopefully wrongly, as showing more than a passive interest in the idea of sourcing electricity from nuclear energy.
Does anyone know better than President Buhari that Nigeria is economically on its knees? Should anyone know better than Buhari the pain and shame of a collapsing state and society he has been elected to address, arrest and reverse? Need Buhari be warned or reminded that he is surrounded by a public service culture of deep moral and material corruption? Must Buhari’s nose be rubbed in the shame of our staggering failure and incompetence in managing education, health, agriculture, communications and other vital socio-economic infrastructures?
Dealing with the above should be more than enough to stun and challenge a superman. President Buhari is only a human being, adequately steeped in high moral fibre; and one can only imagine, wounded and tortured by a high level of desire for change. If these are distantly correct observations, he must not be lured into seeing nuclear power as a quick fix for boosting electricity generation in Nigeria. He must avoid adding to Nigeria’s woes or committing her to the path of dangerous and disastrous adventurism, especially, at a time when all efforts must be focused on matters basic – security, full and youth employment, diversification of the economy for growth and development, restoration of infrastructural efficiency and effectiveness, punishing of high crimes committed by highly placed persons as is going on in Brazil, to name the obvious.
To leave these undone or badly executed is to reinforce the near certainty of Nigeria as a failed experiment and as a wholly African managed enterprise like Haiti. To move from this horrid possibility and open the nuclear front at this point in time, is to put at risk whatever remains of the integrity, intelligence and courage of Nigeria’s leadership under President Muhammed Buhari. To expose the Nigerian population to the risk, danger and possible disaster of a nuclear meltdown is to commit a crime of historic proportion.
On moral and material grounds, this cannot be the time for Nigeria to begin thinking of investing in nuclear energy or actively examining the possibility. We cannot, should not and must not divert what will become a huge chunk of our dwindling resources to buying nuclear reactors, storing nuclear waste, and importing the danger of a nuclear meltdown in a society whose state structures cannot efficiently or effectively manage a major road accident or deliver basic technological goods and services to its population. Nigeria cannot acquire at this point or even receive as a gift, a deranged bull elephant which is what a nuclear reactor basically is; a disaster waiting to happen even in the most capable of societies.
We of course now have a breed of public servants who will likely push this project and programme but only see nuclear energy as another safe avenue for milking the Nigerian cow, even if it is now ailing and gaunt.
• TAO is Ambassador Timothy A. Otunla.