PRESIDENT JONATHAN SET TO RAISE A STORM OF CONTROVERSY OVER HIS MOVE TO USE THE DANGEROUS ATOMIC ENERGY SOURCE TO BOOST ELECTRICITY SUPPLY IN NIGERIA
The Russian technical team paid a business visit to the Presidency on Thursday, July 28, 2011, to sell the idea of using nuclear technology to boost electricity supply in Nigeria. At the end of the discussion, the team requested the Federal Government to develop a regulatory framework to facilitate and regulate the use of atomic energy for electricity generation in Nigeria.
During the inauguration of the new board of Atomic Energy Commission of Nigeria on September 15, 2011, President Jonathan expectedly charged the Commission to quickly evolve implementable plans and timelines for the delivery of electricity from nuclear technology. The President’s message at the inauguration of the new board does not only suggest a mission accomplished by the Russian team to import nuclear plants to Nigeria; it also clearly indicates the resolve of this administration to surreptitiously embrace nuclear reactors for power generation at this time some developed countries are closing down their nuclear power stations.
The Environmental Impact of Electricity Generation
The various sources of energy used for generating electrical power create significant impact on the environment and humans. This power is normally generated, using power plants that convert some other kinds of energy sources (water, wind, tide, geothermal, solar, biomass/biofuels, fossil fuels and nuclear fuels) into electrical power. Each of these energy sources has advantages and disadvantages, but some of them pose serious environmental concerns.
a) Water (Hydroelectric Power)
This involves impoundment of flowing water in a reservoir or dam, thereby creating a water fall that drives a water turbine. The water turbine in turn drives the electrical generator that produces the electricity. The major advantage of hydroelectricity is that water is a renewable resource and non-polluting.
Development of large-scale hydroelectric dams results in the impoundment of water in a reservoir. This condition results in the change in water flow and interruption of the natural flow of silt down the river, affecting downstream ecosystems. Dams can also block the passage of fish. Decaying of trees entrapped in reservoirs will release methane gas, a greenhouse gas that causes global warming. The filling of large reservoirs can induce earth tremors. These associated environmental negative impacts can be prevented and/or mitigated within a well implemented environmental impact assessment (EIA) system for the project.
b) Wind Power
Wind power stations generally consist of wind farms. Wind farms are fields of wind turbines in locations with relatively high winds (constant flow of air). The wind power harnesses mechanical energy from the air in motion to drive a wind turbine that generates electricity. Wind farms are most effective in areas with consistent strong winds.
Wind is considered a renewable energy resource and operation of wind turbines does not produce air pollutants and greenhouse gases, which is the main problem of fossil fuels (coal, oil & gas) and biomass/biofuels. Various estimates have shown that the cost of wind energy is between 3 and 12 cents per kilowatt-hour (depending on favourable location for the wind farm);while the cost of environmental polluting coal-generated electricity is 4 – 8 cents per kilowatt-hour.
Potential environmental problems associated with large- scale implementation of wind energy include noise pollution, landscape & heritage risks, and impact on migrating bird population and important wildlife habitat. These challenges can be prevented and/or mitigated by using modern large wind turbines and appropriate siting of wind farms.
c) Tidal Power
Tidal power involves the use of ocean currents to drive turbines that produce electricity. It is a renewable source of energy, in the sense that tidal swings will continue to be generated as long as the Moon orbits the Earth.
However, tidal power has environmental problems similar to those of hydroelectric power. A tidal power plant usually requires a large dam, which can endanger aquatic ecosystems around the plant. The impact can be minimized to a tolerable level if the project is implemented within an EIA system.
d) Geothermal Power
Geothermal energy is the heat contained in hot- water deposits within the earth’s crust. Geothermal reservoirs may contain hot-water at temperatures of more than 3500C .This heat energy can be tapped into to produce electricity in geothermal power plants. Geothermal energy is a renewable resource. This is because the earth’s heat is continuously radiated from within, and rainfall supplies new water to geothermal reservoirs on an annual basis.
While a geothermal power plant does not burn any fuel, emissions such as hydrogen sulphide, H2S (which can be toxic at high concentrations ) and carbon dioxide, CO2 (a greenhouse gas) come up from the geothermal wells. The H2S can be efficiently removed with scrubbing equipment. The CO2 emission is not problematic, as the level of this greenhouse gas from geothermal plants ranges from 0 – 4 % of the amount released by an equivalent power plant fueled by fossil fuels (coal or petroleum).
Removal of hot- water from the ground and the consequent accelerated cooling of rock formations can cause induced seismicity (earth tremors). However, risks associated with “hydrofracturing induced seismicity, according to Geoscience Australia, are low compared to that of natural earthquakes, and can be reduced by careful management and monitoring” and “should not be regarded as an impediment to further development of the hot rock geothermal energy resource”.
The estimated resource base of geothermal energy is larger than the resource bases of coal, petroleum, natural gas and uranium (for nuclear energy) combined. This makes geothermal energy a viable renewable and non-polluting alternative energy source.
e) Solar Power
Solar photovoltaic power works by using photovoltaic (solar) cells to convert the sun’s radiation into direct current (DC) power. This DC can then be converted into the more common alternating current (AC) power and fed to the power grid. Solar power plants are most commonly located in a desert environment due to the need for sunlight and large amounts of land.
Solar photovoltaic power is a viable alternative to fossils fuels (coal, oil and natural gas), as it is a renewable source and non-polluting at operational phase and throughout its entire life span. However, the current production cost of solar energy is outside the competitive range of the less costly but environmental polluting fossil fuels.
In the 21st century, solar energy is expected to become increasingly
attractive for its nonpolluting character; in stark contrast to fossil fuels that produce carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) that contributes to global warming. Global warming is responsible for flooding in low-lying settlements and destruction of ecosystems in all parts of the world.
Biomass (plant materials and animal wastes) can be burned to produce steam from water. The steam drives a steam turbine that, in turn, drives the electrical generator that produces electricity. Biofuels such as bioethanol (produced by fermenting plant materials), biodiesel (made from plant oils combined with alcohol to form ester) and biogas (produced by allowing organic matter to decay) can also be burned to generate electricity. Biomass is a renewable resource, as it can be replaced over time through natural processes. Biofuels are equally renewable resources, in the sense that they are produced from biomass. The fuels are also readily transported, making it possible for the power plants to be located where the cost of electricity transmission can be minimised.
The major disadvantage is that burning biomass produces many of the same emissions (mainly carbon dioxide) as burning the problematic fossil fuels. However, the process of growing biomass captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so that the net contribution of biomass to global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels is lower compared with the same mass of fossil fuel.
g) Fossil Fuels (Coal, Petroleum and Natural gas)
About 90% of global energy today is generated by burning the nonrenewable and environmental polluting fossil fuels to produce steam. The generated steam drives a steam turbine which, in turn, drives a generator to produce electricity. This energy system also allows electricity to be generated where it is needed, since fossil fuels can readily be transported. The world’s supply of fossil fuels is exhaustible, hence the quest for renewable and nonpolluting alternative sources.
There are serious concerns about the emissions that result from burning fossil fuels. Fossil fuels constitute a significant repository of carbon in the earth’s crust, and burning these fuels releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This results in an increase in the earth’s levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which enhances the greenhouse effect and contributes to global warming.
Depending on the particular fossil fuel and the conditions of burning, other emissions such as ozone, sulfur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen (NOx), carbon monoxide, and particulate matter as well toxic metals may also be produced. Sulfur and nitrogen oxides contribute to smog and acid rain.
Coal contains dilute radioactive material, and burning them in very large quantities releases this material into the environment, leading to low levels of local and global radioactive contamination. Ironically, the levels of radioactivity released from a coal- fired electric power plant are higher than in a nuclear power station. This is because the routinely released radioactive contaminants in the nuclear power stations are controlled during normal operations. Coal also contains traces of toxic heavy elements such as mercury, arsenic and others, which are released into the environment during coal burning.
g) Nuclear Power
Nuclear power plants produce electrical power by harnessing heat energy from atomic fission of fissile atoms (such as uranium-235) in nuclear fuel. Fission is the process in which a heavy atomic nucleus splits into two smaller fragments (daughter nuclei). The daughter nuclei are in very excited states and emit neutrons and other forms of radiation. The neutrons can then cause new fissions, which in turn yield more neutrons, and so forth. This continuous self-sustaining series of fissions constitutes a fission chain reaction, but it is controlled in a nuclear reactor, so that it would not explode like an atomic bomb. A large amount of heat energy, along with different forms of radiation, is released in this process. The generated heat energy produces steam for driving the steam turbine that, in turn, drives the electrical generator that produces electricity.
The nuclear power must be designed, built, and operated to internationally acceptable standards by knowledgeable, well-trained professionals; and a regulatory mechanism capable of enforcing these standards must be in place. This serves as a measure to monitor and control emission of radioactivity and other effluents from a nuclear plant. However, abnormal operation (due to human factor or natural disaster) may result in release of radioactive material on scales ranging from minor to severe. The deleterious effects of exposure to high levels of ionizing radiation would include increased rates of cancer and genetic defects, an increased number of deformities and developmental abnormalities in children exposed in the womb, and even death within a period of several days to months when irradiation is extreme.
Commercial nuclear power plants emit gaseous and liquid radiological effluents into the environment as a byproduct of the chemical volume control system, and should be monitored by the appropriate regulatory authorities. The total amount of radioactivity released through this method depends on the power plant, the regulatory requirements, and the plant’s performance. A commercial nuclear power reactor also produces about 20–30 tons of spent fuel per month. Spent fuel is radioactive i.e. capable of releasing ionising radiation to the environment if not contained. It comprises low level waste (LLW) of high-activity, short half-life radioactive wastes; and high-level waste (HLW) that contains radioactive isotopes with much longer half-lives.
The problem of managing nuclear waste remains one of the major disadvantages of a nuclear power reactor. Nuclear waste retains its very intense level of radioactivity for several hundred years. The high-level waste would have to be stored for at least 1,000 years in dry cask storage facilities to contain the radiation arising from the waste. At present, interim storage is used by operators of nuclear power reactors. The final disposal method currently being planned by all countries with nuclear power plants is emplacement of conditioned nuclear wastes (probably by remotely controlled or robotic devices) in mined cavities deep underground. The deep geological repository would be backfilled and sealed when the entire operation is completed, perhaps after about 30 years.
The site selection for the yet to be implemented geological disposal would be a highly controversial issue, politically and technically. Aside from handling political sensitivity associated with siting of the geologic repository; confirming acceptable hydrologic and geologic conditions with a high degree of validity is also a large and expensive technical undertaking.
Nuclear and radiation accidents can release large quantities of radioactivity that have harmful impacts on humans and the environment. Such accidents may be caused by human failings (operators’ errors), natural disasters like earthquake, sabotage, terrorist/militant attacks, or combinations of the aforementioned causes.
Post – accident investigations largely blamed the 1979 Three Mile Island and 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accidents in USA and Ukraine (Russia) respectively on operator error, poor management both at the plant and within the government bureaucracy. The magnitude 9 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which struck Japan on 11 March 2011 triggered the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima m
ulti- reactor nuclear power site owned and run by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). An interim report on the Fukushima nuclear accident was issued on 26 December, 2011. The investigative panel headed by Yotaro Hatamura concluded that poor internal communication by the Japanese government and faulty knowledge and actions by TEPCO employees contributed to the disaster.
The Chernobyl catastrophe of 1986 was the world’s worst nuclear power plant accident. Various estimates of its death toll are controversial and range from 4,056 to 985,000. The accident necessitated the evacuation of 300,000 people, some communities were abandoned permanently, and thousands of people who drank milk contaminated with radioactive iodine arising from the fallout developed thyroid cancer. Large amounts of radioactive substances were also spread across Europe, contaminating many agricultural products, livestock and soil in Britain, Norway and Germany. As at today, slaughter restrictions remain in Britain and Norway for sheep raised on pasture contaminated with the radioactive fallout. While, according to Rosslyn Beeby (Canberra Times, 27 Apr, 2011), Germany has “banned wild game meat because of contamination linked to radioactive mushrooms”.
Following the Fukushima nuclear accident on 11 March 2011, concerns about the possibility of a large scale radiation leak resulted in 20 km exclusion zone being set up around the power plant and people within the 20–30 km zone being advised to stay indoors. The fallout from the stricken Fukushima nuclear reactors, the worst nuclear accident in 25 years, has displaced 50,000 households after radiation leaked into the air, soil and sea.
Despite protests from the South Korean government, Russian scientists, and Japanese fishermen, the urgent need to make room to store the more highly radioactive water forced the Japanese government to authorise the release of 11,500 tonnes (12,700 tons) of less radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean. A French study by the Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety revealed that the Fukushima nuclear disaster caused the biggest discharge of dangerous radioactive substances into the ocean in history. Another study in the Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Journal also put the estimate of atmospheric release from Fukushima disaster at about 42 percent of that released into the atmosphere in the 1986 Chernobyl explosion.
The Fukushima nuclear disaster will have significant negative impacts on humans and the environment. The Japanese government, Thursday, November 17, banned shipments of rice from a farm near the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant. 630 becquerels of cesium per kilogram was found in the rice, over the legal limit of 500 becquerels of cesium per kilogram allowed for human consumption. Inside the 19- kilometer evacuation zone around the plant, all farming has been abandoned. More areas of land will be rendered unusable to humans for an indeterminate period.
As at July 2011, radiation checks confirmed contamination of a range of agricultural produce, including spinach, tea leaves, milk, fish and beef, up to 316 kilometers (200 miles) from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant. Seriously exposed workers and persons may be at increased risk of cancers and other radiation related illnesses for the rest of their lives. Environmental clean-up of the fallout will drag into decades.
While giving an overview of nuclear accidents, The Economist says that nuclear power “looks dangerous, unpopular, expensive and risky”, and that “it is replaceable with relative ease and could be forgone with no huge structural shifts in the way the world works”. Meanwhile, the Japanese government, on Thursday, December 15, 2011, announced a long-range timetable for the decommissioning process of the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors. The full duration of the process is 40 years, with the decommissioning work to be completed by 2052.
Toward Sustainable Electricity Generation in Nigeria
There is a global need for conservation and the use of renewable and non- polluting energy resources. Renewable energy alternatives such as water power, wind power and solar energy are efficient, cost- effective and substantial in Nigeria. However, they are currently underutiliesd because of the ready availability of inexpensive, but exhaustible dirty fossil fuels.
Judging by recent estimates that oil production will peak within the first to twenty years of 21st century, most energy experts believe that an energy system that relies on fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) cannot be sustained for another century. Even if additional reserves are discovered, the increasing cost of production and growing environmental concerns (including global warming) will make fossil fuels unattractive for electricity generation. And coal is particularly notorious for releasing dangerous radioactive substances and toxic metals when burned.
Nigeria’s electrical energy system should make a transition toward renewable, carbon-free alternatives. The renewable, carbon- free technologies do not burn nonrenewable carbon deposit (fossil fuels), renewable carbon (biomass/biofuels), or nuclear fuel to produce electricity.
Nigerians Stand For Electricity Generation Without A Nuclear Reactor
Globally, nuclear energy is becoming a less viable energy source due to excessive production costs, safety concerns, and problems associated with final disposal of dangerous radioactive waste.
The government may put in place the best policies, but the human element is an important factor in safe operation of a nuclear reactor. The Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and earthquake- triggered Fukushima nuclear accidents that occurred in USA, Russia and Japan respectively were blamed on the human element pertaining to the nuclear power station’s operating staff and management , and regulatory agencies.
At present, safe management of municipal waste is a big issue in Nigeria. And our weak enforcement regime has also continued to exacerbate indiscriminate and dangerous disposal of locally generated and foreign harmful wastes (including low level radioactive waste) into the Nigerian environment. Though the policies and regulations to control the ugly incidents are in place, the relevant institutions lack the political will and capabilities to discharge their statutory duties. How would Nigeria, for instance, cope with the high level radioactive waste arising from a nuclear reactor, which requires about 1000 years of proper storage in mined cavities deep underground to contain the harmful ionising radiation?
The successful entry of the dreaded nuclear reactor into Nigeria would definitely hinge upon getting a site for the project, and further convincing the host community and all Nigerians that the facility would not serve as prime target for terrorist or militant attacks. A nuclear reactor is risky not only because it evokes public fears, but also for its potential harmful effects on human health and the environment. Further, in the event of an accident, Nigeria does not have emergency preparedness capabilities and resources to address the associated spread of radioactive substances; which might result in evacuation & relocation of thousands of affected households in the risk zone, contamination of agricultural land & produce (crops, animals and fish), and human health risks. The human health risks and damaged env
ironment resulting from nuclear energy accident are often widespread and irreversible.
The Nigerian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) should: (i) create and promote awareness among communities and individuals about deleterious effects of using atomic energy source for electricity generation in Nigeria; (ii) help in conducting outreach and education of the communities and citizens on ways and manners of seeking political and legal avenues to prevent siting of nuclear reactors or other associated facilities in their communities; (iii) encourage communities and individuals to constitute themselves into anti- nuclear pressure groups.
In conclusion, we should not only mount a sustained campaign against President Jonathan to put a halt to his dangerous move to harness the dangerous atomic energy source for electricity production; but also urge his government to commence and fast- track a transition to an energy system that relies solely on renewable, carbon-free resources.