Nigeria is today, regarded as the biggest economy in Africa. However, its power sector is performing far below the level of an economy of this magnitude. Over half of the population has no access to grid-connected electricity and those who are connected to the grid suffer extensive power outages. Nigeria’s current installed capacity is estimated at around 13,000 MW, only half of this is operational, and only about 5,000 MW reaches the grid. 

Restricted output has been blamed on gas supply problems, water shortages, grid constraints and breakdowns. According to experts, Nigeria is currently spending roughly $14 billion yearly on off grid, particularly diesel generators. In view of such major energy deficit, the country shops for all available alternatives including renewable energy options like wind and solar. 

Lately, the country also signed agreement with Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation, ROSATOM to build a nuclear energy plant, after exploring a framework agreement in 2012 which indicated initial responsibilities of the parties to implement the project agreement. At the moment, Rosatom is working with Nigeria on two planned projects: the Center for Nuclear Research and Technology for which an agreement on cooperation in construction was signed in 2016, and the Nuclear Power Plant project for which project development agreements on construction and operation were signed in October 2017. 

However, since the signing of both agreements, criticisms bordering mainly on the dangers of nuclear waste, among others, have trailed the effort. Advocacy group that champions environmental human rights issues in Nigeria, Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN) has on several occasions raised concerns that the project would cause Nigeria more harm than good. 

Hi-Tech has contacted the Regional Vice President, Central and Southern Africa of Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation, ROSATOM, Mr Viktor Polikarpov who shared insights on the agreements and declared that with the project Nigeria may have started a future that economies of the world would depend on. 

Excerpts: Rosatom’s NPP agreement with Nigeria still attracts criticisms among the citizens who ordinarily should be the beneficiaries. Why do you think this is so? 

Nigeria started developing its peaceful nuclear program a decade ago and Rosatom has been working with Nigeria for roughly half of this time. A great deal has already been done in terms of the legal framework and educating specialists, both of which are part of the nuclear infrastructure development programme. Criticism in general stems from the perceived lack of free information about the technology. It is also based on nonfactual myths about disasters and radiation. The main goal is to provide transparent information. For example, Nigeria is now actively starting its work with various stakeholders and we at Rosatom are ready to provide the necessary assistance. 

One of the major factors of fear in this project is radioactive waste. What’s the guarantee that Nigeria is not buying death for its citizens? 

It is true that there is still much skepticism about nuclear technologies, however the positive perception of nuclear technologies and its beneficial impact are constantly growing and nuclear technologies are constantly developing. The fear of so-called “nuclear waste” has been debated for 50 years and it is a fact that the nuclear industry is subject to incredibly stringent international and national standards and regulations. Moreover, nuclear power is the only energy industry which takes full responsibility for all its wastes, and builds this cost directly into the product. International co-operation and systems are also in place to effectively control and track the movement of many materials, including radioactive material. Also, it is worth noting that nuclear power is characterised by the very large amount of energy available from a very small amount of fuel. The amount of waste is correspondingly very small. For example, 25 tons of uranium roughly generates the same amount of electricity as 2.7 million tons of coal. 

Environmentally, how is the impact of NPP better than fossil fuel? 

Globally nuclear energy helps to avoid nearly 2 Gt of CO2 emissions per year. Nuclear reactors emit zero greenhouse gases throughout their entire life cycle. For instance, the operation of nuclear power plants built around the world with the help of Russian technologies will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 2.4 billion tons annually by 2030 and contribute significantly to achieving Paris Climate goals. This is due to the fact that nuclear fuel produces energy through nuclear fission and not combustion; (there is no need for oxygen or any other oxidizing agent since the energy is produced uranium fission reaction) by nuclei interactions, not by chemical reactions. Hence, no CO2 is produced during the operation of NPP. Nuclear power also produces far less waste than their fossil fuel rivals. During my visit, I observed that the Russian NPP project in Novovoronezh is an isolated place, detached from thickly populated environment. 

Did you carry out environmental impact assessment on Nigeria’s choice of Itu in Cross River and Geregu in Benue as possible sites? 

All countries, which embark on peaceful use of nuclear technologies, do so by adopting the framework of the so called IAEA Milestone Approach. The IAEA’s Milestones Approach provides newcomer countries with well-structured guidance and a clear to-do list, which gives them a clear understanding of how to safely and effectively implement and manage their civil nuclear programme. The development of a nuclear power programme does not happen overnight and can take a number of years to implement. To monitor progress, the IAEA frequently sends Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review (INIR) missions to newcomer countries. In the summer of 2015, the IAEA conducted two missions to Nigeria in support of its nuclear programme, concluding that Nigeria’s emergency preparedness and response framework was consistent with IAEA safety standards. Experts from Brazil, Germany, South Africa and Spain as well as IAEA staff noted progress and identified strengths in some areas, including safeguards. Another mission, on the assessment of Nigeria’s nuclear and radiation regulatory framework and the review of the safety and preparedness of the country with regards to certain issues and emergencies, was undertaken by IAEA in July 2017. Its conclusions were optimistic. We are aware of these developments not only because both Nigeria and Russia are members of IAEA, but also due to exchange of information that was made possible thanks to the framework agreement signed in 2012 which indicated initial responsibilities of the parties to implement the project. Thus, we are aware that the sites in Itu and Geregu were in fact chosen by Nigerian government using IAEA graded approach. 

I was made to understand that NPP feed from constant electricity grid other than it generates. With Nigeria’s poor electricity generation and supply, don’t you foresee danger if Nigeria goes ahead with this project? 

One of the IAEA guidelines for newcomer countries envisages assistance to adapt national energy grids for special requirements of reliability and safety, taking into consideration the share of nuclear energy in the energy mix. If a country that wants to develop nuclear programme does not have adequate grid infrastructure, it should follow the IAEA guidelines in order to rectify this. Rosatom is also able to consult on the development of an appropriate national grid infrastructure. The development of energy grid has importance not only in the context of NPP construction, but also for the entire national energy system, because the reliable grid will prevent the loss of electricity and effective distribution of electricity. 

Still on Nuclear waste, criticisms against Rosatom on the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear incident in Ukraine and that of Fukushima Japan in 2011 never seem to cease. Haven’t you overcome such challenges? 

The nuclear renaissance of the early 2000’s was hampered by the Fukushima NPP incident, which negatively affected public acceptance of nuclear energy across the globe. This said, the general situation has been gradually improving due to constant development of safety technologies, nuclear education and growing confidence globally towards nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is again showing signs of strong growth, as a vital component to reducing global greenhouse gasses. According to the IAEA, 56 nuclear power plants are currently being constructed in the world today against 449 in operation. According to projections from the World Nuclear Association (WNA), the target for nuclear energy is to provide 25% of the globe’s electricity by 2050, requiring roughly 1000 GWe of new nuclear capacity to be constructed. Meanwhile, after a period of research and modernization works, the first in the world Gen III + VVER (PWR) unit was connected to the grid in Russia. This new type of reactor was designed to reduce costs without changing the basic configuration of the nuclear steam supply system, while at the same time increasing safety. This reactor design takes account of Design Extension Conditions, in accordance with the current IAEA safety standards. Thus, all new VVER plants under construction already have design features that take fully into account the main “Fukushima lessons learned”. 

The Nigeria agreement is supposed to open door for more in Africa. Is that happening? 

Africa is an extremely important region for Rosatom and we place great emphasis on our operations on the continent. Africa really is the final frontier, it is the last booming economy, and it is currently the fastest growing economy, with a regional growth of 5.7% per annum, the future of the world depends on Africa. But like any growing economy, Africa is not without its problems and is currently facing a number of challenges. Arguably the largest of these challenges being electricity, the latest World Bank statistics have revealed that 25 of the 54 nations on the continent are currently in the midst of an energy crisis. Africa is a resource rich continent and a number of African leaders have realised that in order to grow their economies they need to beneficiate their resources themselves, rather than export them as raw materials, this cannot be done without sufficient base load electricity. A number of African nations are also very rich in uranium resources and this could be used to more than adequately run the country on nuclear power and even opens up the opportunity to export power to neighboring countries. Rosatom has actively interacted with a number of African countries, which have shown great interest in nuclear technologies. In the 21stcentury Egypt, Ghana, Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, and Zambia established cooperation with Rosatom in the field of use of nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes. In February 2017 Russia and Zambia signed an intergovernmental agreement to build a Center of Nuclear Science and Technologies in Zambia. Russia will assist Zambia to train qualified personnel to work in the center, and ensure that the project brings economic benefits to the country. The Zambian Nuclear research center will make it possible for the country to become one of the industry leaders in Central and Southern Africa. 

The interview appeared in The Guardian (Nigeria) on 25 April 2018. The author of the article is Prince Osuagwu.