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Inside Nigeria’s Only Nuclear Research CentreInside Nigeria’s Only Nuclear Research Centre

The nuclear reactor was installed at the Centre for Energy Research and Training, Zaria in 1997, making the country the 6th African nation, after South…

The nuclear reactor was installed at the Centre for Energy Research and Training, Zaria in 1997, making the country the 6th African nation, after South Africa, Ghana, Egypt, Morocco, Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), to acquire a “classified nuclear facility”, licensed by the world’s nuclear development ombudsman, the IAEA.

The history of Nigeria’s nuclear development technology started immediately after its independence with the setting up of the Federal Radiation Panel. That significant move also underscored the country’s awareness of the application and dangers of nuclear radiation.

Subsequently, Nigeria reinforced that initiative by establishing the Federal Radiation Protection Service in 1964 at the same time joining the IAEA, thereby opening apertures for technical assistance in nuclear application for national development.

The country’s determination in pursuing nuclear technology became apparent with the enactment of the Nigeria Atomic Energy Commission Act in 1976 and the launching of National Nuclear Programme. The subsequent designation of Obafemi Awolowo University and Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria as centres of excellence in nuclear research in 1977 by the Federal Government marked the beginning of a systematic development of manpower and physical infrastructure for the peaceful application of nuclear science and technology in the country.

As a result of that decision, there are over 27 specialized research institutes in the areas of agriculture, health, water resources, petroleum and environment and several number of specialist and teaching hospitals where some form of ionizing radiation are used; with thousands of diagnostic x-ray units and five radiotherapy centres in operation all over the country.

The Centre for Energy Research and Training, Zaria, which is the country’s only IAEA’s approved classified nuclear facility occupies a 32 hectares of land with five departments: Nuclear Science and Technology, Materials Science and Development, Engineering and Instrumentation Design, Health Physics and radio bi-physics and Reactor Engineering.

The centre started as a nuclear programme of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in 1977. It was later on set up as a unit of the university in 1986. It was established basically to carry out basic and applied research in nuclear science and technology and also to train Nigerians on energy matters and nuclear science and technology.

The nuclear facility presently has 150 staff: 30 nuclear research staff, 30 technical staff and the remaining number as supporting staff that constituted mostly security personnel, which is part of the IAEA international security safeguard.

The centre has trained and sent several Nigerians to various parts of the world over the years. It has also acquired several research equipment and facilities in nuclear science and technology. Some of these facilities include the only research reactor in the country and a neutron generator. It also has the only licensed radioactive waste management facility in the country and various analytical and radiation management facilities for various applications.

Presently, several countries across the world and particularly Africa have also decided to exploit nuclear energy technology to boost their power supply, health management among other peaceful usage. South Africa, for instance, has been dominating the nuclear industry of the continent, by being the only country in Africa that has two nuclear power plants that are currently generating about 15-20 percent of the nation’s electricity.

Nigeria is nowhere close to South Africa in terms of nuclear energy development. Nigeria, however, in harnessing the technology, faces myriad of challenges on how to reduce radiation risk and manage the waste; financial capacity, as well as leadership commitment in pursuing rigorously an independent nuclear energy technology.

The Southern African country also has research reactors for which they control Mo-99 or Tc-99 market which is essentially used for diagnosis in nuclear medicine. The country is among the major suppliers of that substance in the world. This is apart from using the technology for silicon duping, which the southern African country is seriously into.

In an interview with Sunday Trust, the Director of the Centre for Energy Research and Training, Zaria, Professor Idris Isa Funtua, said the centre can play a key role in the development of the country. “Nuclear technology has various applications for development. These areas include agriculture, health, mining, petroleum industry and of course the energy sector”, he said.

The progress made so far in the last 40 years, according to Funtua, is quite modest as nuclear science and technology is now widely used in research, development and practical application for national development. He added that IAEA has been involved and also played significant role in our quest for nuclear technology.

He said that the centre presently helps in carrying out soil fertility mapping with its facilities which is a very valuable information required for planning in agriculture. Saying that, “before now, it was not being done. You have indiscriminate application of fertilizer by our farmers. It would have been more efficient and certainly more effective, if soils are evaluated to know their nutrient requirements.”

The centre is equally involved in water resources management. “We can carry out water evaluation with our equipment to determine the age, to know the recharge and discharge rate and to also know how best to manage the water body.”

The centre is one of the very few facilities that render radiation services for all radiation workers that include people in the hospitals using x-ray machines and also those in the oil industry using radiation sources. “In health, radiation sources are used for both diagnosis and therapy. We also have people that are trained in evaluating radiation doses for the treatment of patients and also for monitoring of workers”, the director said.

The radiation source at the nuclear energy research and training centre, if adequately utilised, can drastically reduce the recurring problems leading to the shutting down of the country’s refineries. Professor Funtua said that “we also have portable equipment that can be used to troubleshoot at refineries. If you have for instance, a malfunctioning column in the refinery, we can use radiation sources, of which we have the facility to scan through the facility, find the problem tray and go directly to where you have the problem, repair it and go back to operations with a shorter shut down period.”

This technology is a readily available option to what obtains today where refineries are usually shut down for a very long time to fix problems. The nuclear expert declared that “but short of this technology, you have to shut down the whole plant and then check tray- by- tray and detect where the problem is, address it and then go back to production for which you must have wasted very valuable time.”

The centre presently renders several services to various university teaching hospitals and research institutes that utilise radioactive substances. “With an array of our equipment, we can also analyse various mineral resources. We have several miners and explorers coming here for us to render such services to them”, the director added.       

In the energy aspect, Professor Funtua said “with our research reactor, we provide the minimum requirement of training would –be nuclear power reactors, particularly with the decision of the government to go into nuclear energy generation. This is because you don’t need to build a nuclear power plant to train people on it. You use research reactors facilities like ours to train people that will go into power generation. The centre essentially carries out energy analysis, evaluation, utilisation and efficiency studies using various models. But we are not into energy production.”      

On whether Nigeria can generates power in no distant future, the nuclear specialists declared that “power generation through nuclear is something that really takes time. The government needs to put more effort towards that direction. To put on a nuclear power plant, the ideal model takes 10-15 years of planning with the available infrastructure before you reach to that. That programme is now being championed by the Nigerian Atomic Energy Commission. It is one of the most reliable sources of power generation. Your gas turbines can be additives into that.

“Some of the prerequisites for nuclear power plant are available, while some are not, particularly, we needed some infrastructure. The most important aspect is the suitable site of which studies have been carried out. You must negotiate with the people that has the technology to build up the power plants and of course the national commitment through finances to sustain the project. And also the needed grid to carry the power you generate into the user of the power.

He however stressed that generating electricity through nuclear power can’t solve the persistent power problem in the country because of the distribution network of the power grid in the country. “As far back as 1977, the Nigerian government wanted to commission the building of a nuclear power plant. But when the consultants assessed the distribution network they found out that it could not carry an additional 200 mega watts of electricity. There is the need to expand the grid.”     

While Nigeria is still grappling with less than 4000 mega watts of power, other African countries have since utilised nuclear energy to generate power. They included Egypt, Morocco, Ghana and Zaire. “Whereas South Africa has two nuclear power plants and very big 20 mega watts research reactors upgradable up to 40 mega watts; which are even over 600 times at 20 mega watts, bigger than ours; because ours is 30 kilo watts”, Professor Funtua said.

With adequate financing and focused and determined government policy, Nigeria can go into various applications of nuclear technology that covers health through the production of radio isotope for nuclear medicine and industrial uses, said the nuclear centre director.

Like any other public research centre, funding has been the recurring problem of the nuclear centre, which is managed by Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and funded by the Federal Government through the Nigerian Atomic Energy Commission.

On how independent the nuclear facility has been operating in its decades-long existence, Professor Funtua said that “we certainly don’t get near what we should get. In fact, that is why the centre resorted to seeking technical cooperation projects through the IAEA. Virtually all the major equipments that you find in the centre are supplied by the IAEA. Of course, Nigeria is a financial member. But that has in so many ways restricted our work because, they IAEA give you what they think you need not what you think you need or require”, the director said.

The successful commissioning of Nigerian Nuclear Research Reactor (NIRR-1) in 1994, Sunday Trust gathered also necessitated the development and implementation of a system of regular inspections to ensure the continuous safe operation of the facility and safeguard of the materials at the facility.

“The issue of safeguard is a national duty to which Nigeria is committed to by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The implementation of the system of regular inspections has ensured the identification and elimination of any potential radiological incident or accident. This also ensures the safe operation and security of the facility as well as the safeguard of the fissile material at the location”, the director said.

Sunday Trust findings revealed that many countries have resorted and utilized nuclear energy for substantial deliverance of reliable electric supply.As of July 2008, there were more than 430 operating nuclear power plants and, together, they provided about 15 percent of the world’s electricity in 2007. Of these 31 countries, some depend more on nuclear power than others.

 For instance, in France about 77 percent of the country’s electricity comes from nuclear power. Lithuania comes in second, with an impressive 65 percent. In the United States, 104 nuclear power plants supply 20 percent of the electricity overall, with some states benefiting more than others.

Energy experts have expressed fears about the current moves by President Umaru Musa Yar’adua administration to generate power through nuclear technology. These fears bother on the government ability to render first class management and maintenance of these facilities. The recent multi-million dollar Nigerian satellite (NigComSat-1) built and launched by the Chinese in May 2007, was shut down to prevent it from spinning out of control and damaging others in the orbit. The satellite project, analysts averred, ended up as a waste of time and resources.

With constant supervision by IAEA, Nigeria’s nuclear endeavour will not suffer the fate of the NigComSat-1, assured Professor Funtua. But to achieve a feasible nuclear energy breakthrough, analysts insist that a clear cut nuclear policy needs to be fashioned out by the government to facilitate the attainment of the goals set for nuclear energy in the country. This is pertinent because the country doesn’t have an articulated national policy on nuclear energy yet.

This can only be achieved also, according to experts through the establishment of an information resource capable of meetings the needs of the nuclear scientists and engineers, who at times hardly get their salaries not to talk of other renumerations.

With countries all over the world generating nuclear power and most of these countries are expanding their installed nuclear capacity, while others are introducing new nuclear power plants; it is a clear indication that Nigeria could also deploy nuclear technology to solve not just its electricity problem, but also boost agriculture, water resources and health.