President Goodluck Jonathan on Thursday asked the country’s Atomic Energy Commission to move forward with plans to become Africa’s second nuclear nation. The announcement, which came on the same day South Africa said it plans to build more nuclear plants, is fueling concern the country is taking on too big and too dangerous of a project in an effort to end its constant power shortages.
South Africa, Africa’s top economy, holds the only set of nuclear stacks on the continent. That’s why South Africa’s decision renders Nigeria’s – to build just one.
These announcements have come at an odd moment: Six months ago, an earthquake-caused tidal wave slammed into a Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant, crashing cooling systems that then failed to prevent simmering radiation from seeping into the sea.
Abubakar Sambo, director-general of Nigeria’s Energy Commission, said he recognizes the risks that Nigeria’s nuclear program could end in catastrophe. But in the face of a different, more daily type of disaster – Nigeria’s brutal, day-long power cuts – he said Nigeria has no choice but to go nuclear.
“The case of Nigeria is a very pathetic one. Here we have a country that has about 150 million people. But the electricity available to the people is just hovering around 3,500 megawatts,” said Sambo. “That is why the Nigerian government, any route, any source through which energy can be added to the Nigerian people, it will go for it.”
Strides in more environmentally friendly electric stations – particularly solar plants – have drawn international interest to Africa, a continent flush with sun, breeze, and rivers up for damming.
China, already building three hydro-dams on the continent, will start six solar plants in Africa this year, and plans to build at least one in 40 African countries. Private consumption of Chinese-built solar panels has also increased in Africa – Nigeria included.
However, nuclear physicist Igor Khripunov said Nigeria’s leaders really ought to take a pause and consider the magnitude of what they’re proposing. He said nuclear power is dangerous, incredibly complex, expensive up front, and not particularly suited to Nigeria’s energy needs. It would be reckless, he said, for Nigeria to rush into a prestige project just to prove its own know-how.
“After Fukushima, building a nuclear power infrastructure is becoming an international responsibility for any country. It’s not just a national prerogative,” he said.
The responsible path for Africa’s aspiring nuclear nations to take, Khripunov said, would be to allow experienced nuclear contractors to build an internationally-operated nuclear station as part of a multi-national power pool. Even then, he said, it is something that could take more than a decade to complete.
“Given all the possible repercussions and effects. The country should really be part of an international community, and transparent, and cooperating in the full sense, not only technically, but also politically and logistically,” he said.