Sunday, 13 June 2010

Nuclear Plant in Owerri: Matters arising (1)

Joachim Ezeji
I have always insisted on the need for Nigeria to build resilience into its energy sector as this is one guaranteed way to safeguard its development process which has been hampered by inconsistent power supply. Meeting Nigeria’s energy needs will require a broad mix of energy sources and this naturally should also include renewable energy and nuclear energy as a complement to the hydro and hydrocarbon sources currently in use in the country.
Uranium based nuclear energy comes into context at this time based on current attempts by the government in the south eastern city of Owerri Nigeria to try it out. Though a highly controversial technology, it nonetheless already powers roughly one sixth of the world’s electricity production including one fifth of USA Electricity production and around 80 percent of France’s electricity.
Japan has 51 commercial nuclear power reactors that provide one-third of the country's electricity. With few natural resources of its own, Japan imports nearly all its fuel oil. Since the oil crisis of 1973, successive governments have made concerted efforts to become self-sufficient. By the year 2010, Japan wants to produce 42% of its energy in nuclear plants. The long term potential is vast, alongside other energy sources.
Nuclear power offers another potential, though one that is exceedingly, perhaps unsolvably, complicated by its intertwined links with nuclear weapons. As is well known, there are two potential forms of long-lasting nuclear energy, fission based (utilizing the energy released by splitting uranium and other radioactive materials) and fusion based (utilizing the energy released by the fusion of two hydrogen atoms into a helium atom, as happens in the sun). Only fission exists in commercial form. Fussion power is likely decades away from commercial exploitation but could be a vast source of energy in the twenty second century and beyond.
Drawing from these scenarios I see the wisdom in Imo Governor Mr. Ikedi Ohakim talking about generating electricity from nuclear plants in Imo state. As was reported recently in national newspapers Governor Ikedi Ohakim, had while on a recent visit to Washington D.C. USA, signed Memorandum of Understandings, MOUs, with three American companies. The companies are Barnett Holding Company, Foxcor Incorporates and Patten Boggs Inc.
The MOUs are for the installation of nuclear modular reactors for generating electricity, provision of mass housing and conversion of palm trees into plywood, respectively. Mr. John Barnett of Barnett Holding Company signed on behalf of his company, Mr. John Fox, for Foxcor Incorporates, while Roy Lessy and Robert Horn, signed on behalf of Patten Boggs Inc.
Speaking on the occasion, Ohakim said his government had taken a bold step at solving the perennial energy problem facing Imo State. “You know our people are very industrious and they are technologically minded, but the lack of energy and power has almost brought the economy of our country to its knees,” Ohakim said.
“The good thing about this technology of nuclear modular reactor is that it is a short time measure that you don’t require fuel until after seven years of its use and it can be deployed primarily to energy spots. They will be deployed to Owerri Township, the new city development in Ogwu town, where we are citing most of our industrial ventures and other industrial and civic centers, which would require between five to 20 megawatts respectively,” Ohakim added.
In discussing the generation of electricity from nuclear plants or reactors it is germane to stress that several issues particularly those of raw materials, cost and waste remain critical concerns and should of course be taken into consideration at this time.
Across the world, public acceptance is still skewed against nuclear energy plants out of deep fears of leakages of radiation, as in Chernobyl catastrophe; the difficulties of disposing of nuclear waste products; and the ability to convert and divert nuclear plant materials (both inputs and waste products) into weapons-grade nuclear materials.
The expanded use of nuclear power is all but inevitable, notably in China, India, Japan and several other countries. The biggest fear is that the expansion of nuclear power in some countries, especially the crisis-ridden Middle East, can be a pretext for the development of a nuclear weapon industry as well.
A flashback to Chernobyl will suffice; Reactor Four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant began to fail in the early hours of 26 April, 1986. Seven seconds after the operators activated the 20-second shut down system, there was a power surge. The chemical explosions that followed were so powerful that they blew the 1,000 ton cover off the top of the reactor. Design flaws in the power plant's cooling system probably caused the uncontrollable power surge that led to Chernobyl's destruction.
Serious mistakes had also been made by the plant operators, who had disengaged several safety and cooling systems and taken other unauthorized actions during tests of electrical equipment. With procedures intended to ensure safe operation of the plant operating less than effectively, the Chernobyl unit was even more vulnerable to unforeseen power discharges.
The Chernobyl plant did not have an effective containment structure, and without that protection, radioactive material escaped into the wider environment. The crippled reactor is still encased in a hurriedly constructed concrete sarcophagus, which is growing weaker over time. The accident that destroyed the reactor in Unit Four killed 31 people almost immediately.
Soviet scientists estimate that about 4% of the 190 tons of uranium dioxide products escaped and began to spread unevenly across the surrounding countryside, affected by the vagaries of the weather. Both Soviet and Western scientists agree that most of the contaminating material affected Belarus, but that 40% spread to other nearby areas, including Ukraine.
Immediately after the accident, the main health concern involved levels of radio-iodine radiation. Although the 600,000 workers involved in the recovery and clean-up after the accident were exposed to high doses of radiation, the exact amount cannot be accurately measured. The workers, many of them volunteers, were not equipped with measuring instruments to monitor the dosages they were receiving, but estimates of about 165 millisieverts have been made.

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