Nuclear power plant

Nigeria is at a very critical juncture in her development. Decisions made in the power sector today will undoubtedly play massive roles in Nigeria’s ability to hit the lofty economic heights her resources suggest she should. Indisputably, the decisions are many and indeed complex. As they say, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So perhaps it is time to take that first step by asking: Should Nuclear Power be one of the Pillars of Nigeria’s Future Power Generation Mix?

The declaration of the Presidential Task Force on Power that Nigeria’s peak electricity demand is THREE times higher than her peak supply means there is at least an 8GW deficit at peak times. In layman’s terms, that is 8 BILLION (8,000,000,000) Watts. You do not need to be an electrical engineer to know that is a lot of shortfall!!! However, what is perhaps most worrying is that many experts say the demand estimates are desperately conservative.

And so the inquest begins with the simple question, “why the huge shortfall?” The simple answer is that Nigeria does not have anything near the required generating capacity. Alright then, so what have the various governments been doing as the demand-supply gap has widened desperately over the last two decades?

For the sake of brevity, the simple answer is Not enough!!! Historically, various governments have, at different times, focussed on various generation technologies. Given Nigeria’s abundant supply of natural gas, there has been a substantial push towards natural gas generation plants principally through the 5GW capacity National Integrated Power Project launched in 2005. Some efforts have also been made to further increase generation capacity from hydropower plants, primarily via the 3GW Mambilla hydropower project. Equally, efforts have been put towards encouraging power generation through coal. All these prompt the rather interesting question, “Where has the Nuclear Power (the elephant in the room) been?”

Although Nigeria’s first nuclear plants are expected to come online in 2025, the answer is Nuclear Power has been and is planned to remain firmly in the shadows. 4GW of Nuclear Power by 2030 is an incredibly minute commitment, considering that Nigeria’s demand then would range between 120GW and 250GW i.e. Nuclear Power will account for between 1.6% to 3% of the total mix.

In Nuclear Power, we are talking about a technology that, despite its limited use (only 31 countries have Nuclear Power projects), generates more than 11% of the world’s total electricity. Not only is this is a highly proven and safe technology, it is also a low-carbon one. This latter point is especially significant considering the CO2 emissions reductions needed to mitigate global warming.

If Nigeria is to maximise its resources and achieve its aim of being part of the largest 20 economies in the world, it will have to have its energy security guaranteed. With the country reportedly possessing abundant deposits of uranium, the case for making Nuclear Power a mainstay in the generation mix becomes more compelling.

As my PhD supervisor often reminds me “Rule #1 in life: Money Rules!!!” It is therefore no surprise that Money is one of the two most prevalent considerations in the design of any power system. Contrary to what many opponents of Nuclear Power claim, it is actually very economically competitive. These opponents virtually only focus on the overnight/construction costs which are admittedly much higher than those of other technologies. According to the US EIA, the lifetime levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) from nuclear plants is approximately N18000/MWh. The LCOE of coal, conventional CCGT (natural gas) and hydropower plants are approximately N17900, N12500 and N15900 per MWh respectively.

What these numbers do not reflect is the impact of Green House Gases mainly CO2, which is the second prevalent consideration in power generation system planning. Power generation has been identified as one of the primary avenues for achieving the CO2 reductions needed as part of the global climate change mitigation process. Hydropower and Nuclear Power are the only mainstream conventional technologies with negligible emissions. With the arrival of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) systems, it is also possible to operate coal and natural gas plants without the emission of carbon dioxide into the air. Unsurprisingly however, the incorporation of these devices affects the LOCE of these technologies. The LCOE of coal with CCS, CCGT with CCS are approximately N27700 and N17200 per MWh respectively.

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Another wide misconception about Nuclear Power is safety. Following the 2011 Fukushima incident, there have been uproars about how “unsafe” Nuclear Power is. It is rather fallacious to brand an industry that has operated over 550 power plants and had only two major incidents (Chernobyl 1986 and Fukushima 2011) unsafe. As at the end of 2012, all the power plants that have operated in the world had a cumulative operating experience of 15,080 years. Two major accidents in over 15,000 years of operation is definitely not a bad record to have.

Admittedly, the size of devastation from both incidents was huge but it is worth highlighting that in both incidents, the local operators made critical errors. An attempt to blame a technology for errors made by human operators who were not compliant with all the regulations would also be incorrect. Next Generation Reactors like the AP1000 are designed to have radioactivity leakage probabilities (i.e. the probability that radioactive material will be released during an accident) of one in over 32 million reactor years!!!

If Nigeria is to maximise its resources and achieve its aim of being part of the largest 20 economies in the world, it will have to have its energy security guaranteed. With the country reportedly possessing abundant deposits of uranium, the case for making Nuclear Power a mainstay in the generation mix becomes more compelling. A country currently attempting to implement this nuclear-dependent mix as part of its efforts to guarantee energy security is South Korea. South Korean policy makers realise that the country is not blessed with abundant natural resources but still needs to guarantee energy security by minimising its dependence on energy imports.

If costs, emissions and energy security – the key aspects of energy sustainability – are taken as the controlling yardsticks, it will appear at first sight that Natural Gas serves as a more than capable substitute to Nuclear Power. The comparison of these two alternatives will be incomplete however without the consideration of their relative Opportunity Costs.

Luckily for Nigeria, our civil nuclear programme might be unaffected by this radioactive waste disposal quagmire. This is because under the current proposals agreed between the Nigerian government and Rosatom (the Russian state-owned nuclear corporation), the corporation agreed to take the radioactive waste produced from the Nigerian plants back to Russia.

Simply put, Opportunity Cost is “the loss of other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.” In the common market, natural gas has significantly market potential and lots more uses. From an economic viewpoint, the Natural gas reserves could be worth more if they are sold in the international market than if they are used for localised power generation. The inclusion of opportunity cost as a controlling measure appears to swing the pendulum in the favour of Nuclear Power.

Even proponents of Nuclear Power like myself cannot be oblivious to some of the key issues that are against Nuclear Power. No prize for guessing that one of the biggest challenges is money. Despite the facts presented earlier, the problem is that Nuclear Power is a heavily front-loaded investment. Unlike natural gas and coal plants, the lion’s share of the lifetime costs of nuclear plants is the construction/overnight costs; the lifetime fuel, operational and maintenance costs are relatively negligible. This makes is a very risky investment because once you put your money in, there is no easy exist strategy, which makes it unattractive to investors. For a country like Nigeria, persuading investors to make the required capital outlay at this point will be even more arduous considering the infancy of the deregulated electricity market.

The other major obstacle facing the renaissance/advent of Nuclear Power is Nuclear Waste. Unlike the early days of Nuclear Power when little attention was paid to the management of the resultant waste, governments are unwilling to approve further nuclear projects because of the lack of disposal facilities for the most dangerous radioactive wastes. Getting the average man to believe the technologies that have been developed for radioactive waste disposal are fit for purpose and safe has been a herculean task and promises to be for a while longer.

Luckily for Nigeria, our civil nuclear programme might be unaffected by this radioactive waste disposal quagmire. This is because under the current proposals agreed between the Nigerian government and Rosatom (the Russian state-owned nuclear corporation), the corporation agreed to take the radioactive waste produced from the Nigerian plants back to Russia.

Nigeria is at a very critical juncture in her development. Decisions made in the power sector today will undoubtedly play massive roles in Nigeria’s ability to hit the lofty economic heights her resources suggest she should. Indisputably, the decisions are many and indeed complex. As they say, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So perhaps it is time to take that first step by asking: Should Nuclear Power be one of the Pillars of Nigeria’s Future Power Generation Mix?

NOTE: LCOE can be seen as the cost (covers all cost components from construction to decommissioning) per unit of electricity generated.

LCOE = Discounted total generation costs (construction to decommissioning)/ Discounted total electricity generated.

Yusuf O. Ali, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge, completed an MPhil in Nuclear Energy from Cambridge in 2013. He can be reached on e-mail at: yoa20@cam.ac.uk, and Twitter: @YalyAliYusuf