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Nigeria’s populace, economy safe with ongoing nuclear programme, says Elegba

By on March 21, 2011

THE earthquake and tsunami that recently rocked Japan’s economy, almost to its foundation, have brought to the fore, once again, public fears over the safety of nuclear power plants, to human population.

Specifically, the trepidations were hiked when the six nuclear power reactors in Daiichi, on the Eastern coast of the Far Asian country, were shaken by a massive earthquake and the tsunami that followed. The concommitant breach of the nuclear reactors cooling system spewed radiation crisis that prompted evacuation of over 185,000 people living within 20 miles of the plants.

In Nigeria, the Federal Government has been pursuing a nuclear power programme, to bolster the nation’s energy generation agenda, with the Nigerian Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NNRA) given the mandate, under the nuclear safety and radiation protection Act of 1995, to regulate the use and control of radioactive source materials in the nuclear industry.

But with the nuclear radiation crisis currently assailing the human population in Japan, EMEKA ANUFORO of our Abuja Bureau, raised some posers on the Nigerian nuclear energy programme in this interview with the Director-General of NNRA, Prof. Shamsideen Elegba. Excerpts.

LOOKING at the current situation in Japan, how safe are the nuclear power projects being embarked upon by the Federal Government?

First of all, I want to express our sympathy and commiseration with the people and government of Japan. We are sending the same message to our friends at the Japanese Nuclear Safety Commission and to the Japanese Atomic Energy Commission for the loss of lives and property occasioned by two major events: the earthquake and the tsunami. Earthquakes have the high probability of ocurring in a place like Japan, located in the so called ring of fire, around the pacific, western side of the United States and the Eastern side of Asia that happens and Tsunami is however, an event of very, very low probability.

We have a case where the two of them happened in quick succession. It is something that one can say is highly, improbable, one chance in billions. I want us to situate that rather than looking at it as an issue of engineering safety, an issue of professional incompetence, an issue of weak regulatory oversight. I happen to know some of the people at the Japanese Nuclear Safety Commission. I was in Japan last October as a guest speaker at the Asian Nuclear Safety Network and we know the steps they have been lacking. In fact, in the world, we regard reactor design from Japan to be over designed in terms of safety. Of course, many of us are witnesses to the fact that skyscrapers never collapsed during the saga over there. They just rolled from one side to the other.

Having said this, we need to look at it from the context of safety, engineering safety, regulatory procedure and oversight, and therefore, we can address the issue, as you must have been following, one after the other. The fact that two of them happened at the same time was highly improbable. Talking about the industry as a whole, worldwide of course, everybody talks about, systems as they have been designed, the way they have been built, the way they have been regulated over the years,  are excellent. But the fact that these two events could happen in quick succession after each other is something that is highly improbable, yet it happened.

Of course, you can do the calculation like the probability of a unicellular organism becoming man. You will find, maybe, it should never happen. Within the realm of science and statistics, it is low probability for an amoeba to evolve to become man, yet it happened. So, this is the case in Japan.

Now, coming back home, the Nigerian Nuclear Regulatory Authority, as you may have known over the 10 years, has established itself as a credible organisation for regulatory oversight on all uses of ionizing radiation, nuclear materials and radioactive sources in the control. Not only that we say so. International audit came here in 2006, to assess our procedure and processes and confirmed same. Therefore, regionally, we have that name to protect, internationally- even outside Africa- we have the same reputation. Therefore, for anybody, any body to use ionising radiation in this country, NNRA will not authorise it unless it can be proven to be safe: whether it is in medicine, in the petroleum industry, in the manufacturing industry, or in the operation of research reactor, as we have in Zaria, not to talk about in the operation of a nuclear power plant.

Therefore, we have the infrastructure in place. We have developed this and it has worked very well. I am sure most of you are familiar with the Halliburton cases. We dealt with Halliburton, we moved them to the highest level, we have compelled them, and even other regulatory bodies use the fact that we have suspended Halliburton to move in. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) was able to get for the first time, documentary evidence from Halliburton that they were involved in the so called welfare fund. Up till then, the issue of welfare fund of Halliburton was speculative because there were no documentary evidence. But when NNRA suspended Halliburton over the loss of control of radioactive sources, EFCC requested us not to lift the ban until and unless they give an undertaking that they will not contest the claim of the Federal Government over that money in the court, and that was done. That was how EFCC was able to confirm that Halliburton actually had that account.

We did it with Shell, when it was done. Shell was convicted. We closed down even a Federal Government institution- the facility in Lagos University Teaching Hospital. So, we have established this track record that unless it is safe, NNRA will not license it, regardless of who the owner is, regardless of the organisation and regardless of the use to which it is to be put.

What does the situation in Japan teach us in the sitting of our nuclear plants and distance from where people are located?

Than k you very much! As you may have been away, I am sure you are aware, that over the past sixteen months, NNRA painstaking carried out three public events on the issue of sitting. First, we invited a group of international experts through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to look at the conditions for sitting, whether it is meteorological, whether it is seismic, whether it is geophysical. And on the basis of that, we developed a draft regulation, what should be in place for us to have a nuclear power plant in this country. After we did that, we conducted another one just to get other experts to look through the draft we had developed. The third one was to develop a safety case assessment of any of the sits in this country on the basis of one, the seismological data available, the metrological data –the British started keeping it many decades ago. So, we have all these to use before any license can be given. Besides, there are models to which you can fit these all these measurements into to be able decide where it can be located and where it can be operated safely.

The good thing today is that we have this regulation, which we have submitted to the President for approval before we can gazette it. Once that is done, then we can have the firm step. If anybody now submits an application for a site to be licensed, then we apply all these criteria. So, the lesson therefore, for us in Nigeria, is that we do not just stand by the notion that Nigeria is not in an earthquake-prone zone. We need to ensure compliance to the highest level of safety standards. Besides, we have to study critically historical antecedents to know how the earth’s physical formation came about. These things would be looked into and we allow them to guide us while issuing licences to operators. These are typically things that you would do. So, unless and until we have an application, the regulation will be gazetted. Once there is an application for a licence, all these criteria would be rigorously applied to those sites before you can say you have a licence to operator.

Secondly, because Nigeria is party to the convention on nuclear safety, which requires us not only to say we have done everything, our neighbours have a right under the convention on nuclear safety to be able to say we are not sure of the regulatory body, we are not sure of the expertise of those who are to operate it, we want to know more. These are things that happened after 1986. Before 1986, it was like a national secret. But after 1986, the nuclear accident that happened at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine affected people in the UK and even in Sweden. The convention, therefore, tries to reduce or ameliorate this. Yes, you have the right to have it, but you have the responsibility to operate it safely not only for your own safety, but for the people around you. And as you are seeing in the case of Japan, for the whole world, because it is affecting the entire industry now and that is why, I believe, you are here today.

From the benefit of insight in regulating the sector, you no doubt, have acquired some capacities related to metereology and environment. Is this magnitude of earthquake possible in Nigeria?

We have it on record that there was a tremor occurence once along Ijebu Ode north-eastern axis. But the fact that there was a tremor, if anybody wants to license a site on this axis, part of the requirements for NNRA would be to carry out a seismological survey of the area and convince the NNRA team that it is safe and to be able to establish the level of safety; what are the things can happen and cannot happen. So, your question is very pertinent.

So we are going ahead with our nuclear power project?

It is not for us to answer that. It is just like you asking me if we are going to continue to use ionising radiation to treat cancer. It is not for NNRA to decide. It is for private individuals, like Eko Hospital might decide to buy two linear accelerators. All we need to do is to check if the building is okay, whether it has satisfied all the safety requirements and the equipment before we give the licence. If we are satisfied, we give the licence required.

Even the Federal Government bought five linear accelerators to treat cancer. We have refused to give any of them operating license. We gave them till end of June. So, it is not for NNRA to say, yes, go ahead with the nuclear power plants. That is a government policy. That is a political decision, which only the Federal Government can decide. Private entrepreneurs can decide to go into it, like they have done in Turkey, like they have done in Egypt, even in Vietnam. There is already a private investment in it. The most important thing is that the regulatory authority must be strong to ensure a safe operation, ensure safe siting not only for the general public of that locality, but for the entire industry, the entire world to ensure that yes, this technology has been proven and is working well.

What do you make of the insinuations in some quarters that there have been indiscriminate importations of radio active materials into Nigeria?

I can tell you that that is false. Today, it is not possible to bring radioactive materials into this country. It is not possible. Nobody will sell it to you, even if you are the President of the country. We have an example. Even if you are the President of the country, you must subject yourself to the authority of the regulatory body that country. Even if they have approval, it would not leave the country without seeing the licence of NNRA. It happened to our President through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They tried to import scanners, which had radioactive sources. The Canadians refused to export it until they got the licence from NNRA.

Today, we have gone beyond that. We have gone beyond the article of October 6, 2002 when they said a dirty bomb is a phone call away from Nigeria. No! Today, nobody can bring a radioactive source without licence from NNRA. It will not happen, whether from Europe, North America or South Africa, or from Asia.  We have been able to establish to the credit of experts in NNRA.

What advice would you give the authorities in Japan?

Japan is one of the leaders not only in that industry, but in terms of regulatory oversight. They have a very rigorous system of licensing, very rigorous. In fact, people can say, if you say a 1000MW reactor is $1 billion from France, Japan will sell it at $1.2 billion because of layers and layers of safety measures.

I am sure you have seen on television the various layers. If this one fails, the other one will take over, and so on .If you say, what is the probability of one failing, you say one out of four, 25 per cent. What is the probability of two failing at the same time that becomes 1/16. What is the probability of three failing at the same time, 1/64.So, you look at it. Then it happened, all of them failed! So, you have seen the length they have gone to make sure that they have built measures in terms of safety, still, it happened! That is why we have to make a distinction between a natural event, or series in their own case, series of natural events and engineering infrastructure, regulatory infrastructure, and therefore, safety oversight.

So, what you are assuring Nigerians is that the country has a capable and responsible regulatory body to be relied upon?

I can say that. On my honour, I say that. More importantly, the process of licensing a power plant or any facility is no longer a secret thing. Nigerians must be involved for us to take ownership. The people in that area must be involved. Safety and development are not the business of government alone. It is your business, my business.

The provision of nuclear power plant is not a government thing alone. It should be something that belongs to all of us. So the licensing process requires the involvement of Nigerians. We are proud to say this. When we closed down the facility at Lagos University Teaching Hospital, we engaged the Federal Government until they promised to do a nationwide audit. There is no week you don’t see one or two articles on cancer. The report we generated from what we did in 2003 was that cancer treatment using radiation in Nigeria was unsafe and was not efficacious. Therefore, all the people who had money, who can pay decided to go abroad.  We take pride in the sense that we mainstream cancer or radiotherapy into the health agenda of the Federal Government.

What are the gains of nuclear technology deployment?

Nuclear technology, employing the use of radioactive sources, has benefitted the world in many ways, from research to consumer goods. The imprints are everywhere. Arguably, one of the most important uses of nuclear technology is in electricity generation. At least, 70 per cent of electricity generated in France is from nuclear technology. Nigeria is currently turning to this technology to solve her power problems. In medicine, radioactive sources are used for diagnoses and treatment of diseases; in agriculture, for development of high-yielding and disease-resistant crops and also in food preservation; in mining, for locating mineral deposits; in industry, as gauges and in consumer goods as smoke detectors and so on.

However, like every other technology and industry, the nuclear industry has in it inherent hazards and associated risks.

How prepared is Nigeria for nuclear emergencies?

In an emergency situation, the NNRA, in line with its mandate under the Act, will activate its emergency response system, facilitating national and international support. The system includes rapid deployment of skilled and trained field personnel; fast communications network, available 24 hours a day with national and global contacts points; on-call technical officers and teams of experts prepared for prompt response; direct liaison with the IAEA, provision of radiological assessment activities; and public and media information staff.

The IAEA through the Emergency Response Network (ERNET), provides rapid response to situations anywhere in the world. International expert teams can be rapidly dispatched to requesting states and the IAEA coordinates all the responses. The IAEA has also developed an early notification and assistance technical operations manual which provides technical requirements for providing information to the IAEA on an accident.

We have also developed a national nuclear and radiological emergency plan which will be integrated into the National disaster response plan of the National Emergency management Agency.

Source : Guardian