Of nuclear power plants in ghana ; cost sharing, safety and related issues

BY: Nii Sackey

In 2008, Ghana considered  opting  for nuclear power as part of its energy production mix. Ghana has since then become a part of the market for nuclear power plants in Africa. It is known that several African countries have also considered this alternative to complement hydro and other energy production programmes. Nuclear power plants are highly capital-intensive and very technical in construction and management. Further, it is a major undertaking that requires a strong and continuing commitment from the government and funding sources for its completion.

Ghana will, invariably, need to depend on international experts’ advice to make the final decision on location and other technicalities. These include seismological tests to see if the area is prone to earthquakes, rock and soil formation; and its proximity to population centres, among other things. Nuclear plants work with and produce radiation; therefore, they must be located far from communities.

In addition, we need to decide on the most appropriate facility that would be beneficial to the nation. For example, will a light water reactor would be the best for the nation? The whole idea should be open for detailed public debate.

Interestingly, Ghana (and ECOWAS) has not even explored up to 20  per cent of its hydro-based energy potential, which is readily available for development. Ghana could make solar farms and their energy production a substantial part of renewable energy exploitation and use. In fact, that must be made a national policy.

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Bill on energy
The country's espousal and utilisation of nuclear energy will begin when the Bill is passed and assented by the President. A bill on nuclear energy was first introduced in Parliament in 2008, but it did not see the light of day after the Mills’s administration came into power in 2009. The urgent need for the country to go for nuclear energy stems from the acute shortage of power, which has culminated in the present load-shedding exercise embarked on by the Electricity Company of Ghana (ECG).

Ghana will initially import uranium to produce its nuclear energy, though the country has a quantity of unexploited uranium. It is known that the waste from nuclear power plants is toxic and cannot be easily stored or readily disposed of. Further, the nation will need to put in place the legal framework to manage its nuclear waste and related materials in the country effectively. It will also ensure that they do not fall into the wrong hands for weapons production or any other clandestine intentions.

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For a country that cannot even keep the elevators in its hospitals in working condition; has not been able to keep traffic/signal lights and streets lights in working order; and given the country’s undisciplined culture of maintenance, waste disposal and supervision, the question of what to do with the nuclear waste comes into focus vis-à-vis the management and enforcement of the relevant laws.

Safety of nuclear energy
It can be argued that nuclear energy might not be safe in Ghana at this time, given our poor maintenance background, and history of failure to keep our communities, rivers, and lakes free from common household waste and sewage, among others.
It also brings to the fore a lot of discomfort; concern about the nature of materials used in the generation of nuclear energy; and the long-term effects of accidents that could occur in the plant or its reactors.

Despite the fears and alarm raised by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, several power plants  are currently under construction across the globe. The many advantages of nuclear energy, especially its cost-effectiveness and efficiency, make the construction of power plants a convincing choice for many countries. According to experts, a kilogramme of uranium, the raw material for the production of nuclear energy, generates 50,000 kilowatts hour (kWh) of electricity, compared to crude oil and coal which produce 4kWh and 3kWh respectively. This also brings into question the size and kind of plant that Ghana would build, if it should at all.

The committee to explore nuclear energy and its use in Ghana must come clear in terms of economic assessment and financing; regulatory; legal; and the human resource development for continuing management of such a facility, safety guidelines, location, and education of the citizens on this form of energy as opposed to other renewable forms; disposal and storage of nuclear waste; and the risk associated with managing the waste. Alternatively, could the nation rather accelerate a massive hydro and solar energy generation programme instead of nuclear? Germany is taking this latter route. Ghana (and ECOWAS) can do same.

Ecowas cooperation
Nigeria has decided to adopt nuclear power to supplement its current unstable supply of electricity while other African countries are considering the nuclear power option. The then newly appointed head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visited Nigeria a few years ago.

There were discussions on nuclear safety, international guidelines and their enforcement, among other things. Why don’t all ECOWAS (or African countries) join forces and resources, and build solar farms and hydro plants on all the major rivers across West Africa, for example, and share in the power generated?

The cost of constructing nuclear plants is huge and remains a challenge. It will be prudent for Ghana and Nigeria, among others, to make such a project an ECOWAS one, in that, the plant could be built to supply energy to several countries. For example, Ghana, Togo, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Niger, and Benin could join and have a Nuclear Energy Production and Distribution Commission that will work on this large project. The costs as well as the energy supplied would be shared among member-countries.

It is not far-fetched to say that there is a high probability that a nuclear power plant in Ghana or any other small ECOWAS nation might supply much more energy than the nation needs, hence, it might not be cost-effective for one small country to undertake such an expensive venture.

Further, plants could be designed to produce energy that is enough to meet the needs of the population in a group of neighbouring countries. Conceivably, it could be more economical and environmentally friendlier to share in such a project than to build small plants in different neighbouring countries.

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