While the GCC programme (the first and only attempted wholesome regional civil nuclear programme) did not quite take off as expected, the prospective success of such a programme for ECOWAS states cannot be completely ruled out. The existence of WAPP in itself (more importantly the commitment and willingness of ECOWAS states to develop a harmonised regional power system) should greatly simplify the associated bureaucratic hassles.
A recent study by the Infrastructure Consortium for Africa showed that the electrification rate across the continent stood at a meagre 46 percent. In West Africa, even the approximately 50 percent that are electrified suffer severe power shortages with an estimated 46 percent of their demand not being met. Sadly, this is at a time when the importance of electricity to daily lives has reached levels that have led it to be compared with water’s importance in some quarters. Unquestionably, this electricity shortage has hindered economic development in ECOWAS states and has consequentially been a huge contributor to the low living standards of majority of the populace.
One of the primary objectives of ECOWAS is to boost the economic development of its member states. In recognition of the dire condition of the power sectors in member states and the concomitant impacts on ECOWAS’s ability to fulfil its primary mandate, the West African Power Pool (WAPP) was created in December 1999 and was officially launched in January 2006. WAPP is essentially an attempt to harmonise the power sectors of the ECOWAS member states. Its vision is to “integrate the operations of national power systems into a unified regional electricity market, which will, over the medium and long term, assure citizens of ECOWAS member states a stable and reliable electricity supply at competitive cost.”
The advent of WAPP essentially calls for the viewing of ECOWAS states as “ONE BIG STATE” in terms of power generation and transmission infrastructure planning. Still, WAPP must not lose sight of each country’s responsibilities with respect to environmental sustainability, especially as climate change mitigation is increasingly becoming an important consideration in power system planning. WAPP must therefore be able to harmonise the independent national power supply mixes on a regional level to ensure that cumulatively, ECOWAS states keep up their end of the bargain.
This environmental sustainability “check” really puts nuclear power in the forefront of the list of viable options for ECOWAS states going forward. Currently, no ECOWAS member state has an operational civil nuclear power programme. Nigeria and Ghana are the countries at the most advanced levels of developing civil nuclear programmes. The World Nuclear Organisation regards both countries as members of the “Developing Plans” group of countries.
These are countries that have relatively firm commitments to nuclear power in the future, developed basic levels of regulator/supervisory agencies and are developing local knowledge about nuclear power using locally installed research reactors. Senegal is the only other ECOWAS country included in this group although her nuclear sector is not at levels comparable with those of Nigeria and Ghana.
With WAPP needing to harmonise the power systems of member states if it is to successfully fulfil its mandate, theoretically at least, it might be a good idea to develop a regional nuclear programme rather than allowing the countries to independently develop their civil nuclear programmes. This collaboration could include but is not limited to: power plant siting, multi-state financing and expertise sharing, uranium supply arrangement and waste management.
The idea of a regional nuclear alliance is not as radical as one might initially think. In December 2006, the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) Countries: Kuwait, Bahrain, UAE, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia jointly commissioned a study on the peaceful use of nuclear energy. This was seen as the first step towards the development of a regional civil nuclear programme.
A regionally planned civil nuclear programme will ensure that power plant siting can be optimised against the conflicting demands for resource availability, security and availability of cooling water amongst others. Considering the enormous capital and expertise requirement of civil nuclear projects and the precarious financial standing of most ECOWAS countries, a regional nuclear programme might provide the best platform for these countries to gather the required financial and human capital.
Arguably, the most important benefits of a regional nuclear programme will come in the area of radioactive waste management. This will ensure that disposal sites for High Level Wastes (the most dangerous wastes that need to be safely kept away for thousands of years) can be optimised against the conflicting demands for geological stability, safe, convenient and optimal waste transportation from generation facilities and the presence of security.
With countries like Niger Republic and Namibia having extremely low population densities, there could be ample opportunities to find barren uninhabited lands where these disposal facilities can be built. Finland, the only country in the world that has made significant progress in developing its disposal site for High Level Wastes gained public acceptance by selecting the uninhabited land siting approach.
For all the potential benefits listed above, there are some lingering issues that might frustrate a regionalised nuclear power programme. While none of these problems is expected to be terminal, they could persist and delay the process unnecessarily. Financial contribution to the project, how to share the output of the plant, measuring the equivalent financial contribution of land and human assets are just some of the issues that could stir up bureaucratic tensions which will ultimately frustrate the development of the regional nuclear alliance.
The idea of a regional nuclear alliance is not as radical as one might initially think. In December 2006, the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) Countries: Kuwait, Bahrain, UAE, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia jointly commissioned a study on the peaceful use of nuclear energy. This was seen as the first step towards the development of a regional civil nuclear programme. By February 2007, a Saudi Arabia-led collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigating the feasibility of a regional nuclear programme was launched.
Before considering the feasibility of a regionalised civil nuclear programme, WAPP and its member states must first analyse their specific local energy resources in order to determine if indeed nuclear power has a part to play in WAPP’s optimal power supply mix.
These countries were especially keen on nuclear power as they sought to reduce their dependence on domestic fossil fuels (Oil and Natural gas). There could be a lesson in this for Nigeria with government policy leaning towards the encouragement of gas-powered generation because of Nigeria’s vast proven reserves. With countries with substantially higher reserves reducing their dependence on this source primarily for economic reasons, it might be wise for the Nigerian government to reconsider its decision.
Conversely, the recent discovery of abundant shale gas reserves around the world could mean that natural gas would lose its value in the international market, therefore making the Nigerian government’s policy of encouraging gas-powered generation the economically prudent one.
In spite of the early optimism, the case of an all-out regional civil nuclear programme gradually lost momentum. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia started pursuing independent civil nuclear programmes, which are expected to come from 2017 onward. The reasons why these countries have gone solo with their civil nuclear programmes are not clear. However, there are still concrete plans, especially on the UAE side to supply neighbouring Gulf countries through the regional GCC grid, which is being expanded.
Before considering the feasibility of a regionalised civil nuclear programme, WAPP and its member states must first analyse their specific local energy resources in order to determine if indeed nuclear power has a part to play in WAPP’s optimal power supply mix. If indeed nuclear power does have a part to play, I for one would suggest that we should not become overly pessimistic about the prospects of a regionalised civil nuclear programme for ECOWAS states.
While the GCC programme (the first and only attempted wholesome regional civil nuclear programme) did not quite take off as expected, the prospective success of such a programme for ECOWAS states cannot be completely ruled out. The existence of WAPP in itself (more importantly the commitment and willingness of ECOWAS states to develop a harmonised regional power system) should greatly simplify the associated bureaucratic hassles. These hassles most likely led to the non-fruition of the seeds of enthusiasm exhibited by the various GCC countries in the early days of their proposed regionalised civil nuclear programme.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org, and Twitter: @YalyAli