The Director General (DG) of the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission (GAEC), Prof. Benjamin J. B. Nyarko, has revealed that it cost the country more than $20 million to convert the Ghana Research Reactor-1 (GHARR-1) from highly enriched uranium (HEU) to low enriched uranium (LEU) before repatriating the spent fuel to China.
But instead of Ghana bearing that cost, Prof. Nyarko said the United States of America (USA) took up the cost, under the American government’s Global Threats Reduction Initiative with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in an effort to remove the use of weapon grade uranium from civilian use.
The conversion involved reducing the uranium content in the GHARR-1 from 90 per cent uranium 235, which is a weapon grade, to 13 per cent
Given that the conversion and repatriation process was a big relief to the country, the DG of the GAEC told the Graphic Business in Sochi in Russia that it was "untrue" that some sections of the general public intimated that the country had by passed other countries “to cheaply sell its highly enriched uranium to China”.
“It is the US government and the IAEA that paid for the cost of the repatriation. The whole process, including bringing in the low-enriched uranium to be loaded into the reactor and everything, was a little above $20 million,” he said at Sochi, where he is attending the 2018 ATOMEXPO.
He explained that the repatriation was done last year, bringing to an end a process that started in 2005 to help convert Ghana’s research reactor which was operated for more than 20 years with enriched uranium 235 to below 20 per cent.
Following the conversion, the GHARR-1 is now used for research and education purposes.
In September last year, President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo announced at the General Assembly of the United Nations that Ghana, through its commitment to international peace, had returned its highly enriched uranium reactor to China.
“Africa and indeed, Ghana, remain committed to remaining a nuclear weapons-free continent. Three weeks ago, highly enriched uranium was flown out of Ghana back to China, signalling the end of the removal of all such material from the country,” he said at the time.
The announcement, however, generated discussion among a section of the public, with the Minority in Parliament demanding that the President explain why he took such a decision.
While describing such concerns as misplaced, Prof. Nyarko, who is also a Professor of Applied Nuclear Physics at the School of Nuclear and Allied Science (SNAS) at the University of Ghana, Legon, said those comments were unfortunate and a worry to the state.
“Sometimes when some of us hear these kinds of things, we start to worry because it is untrue and it made people ridicule us.
“If I have somebody who will take the core (the spent fuel) for fuel, I will thank my God because it is radioactive and dangerous. So if it was easy to do, we could have just gone somewhere, dig a hole and bury the spent fuel and take the $20 million that the Americans and the IAEA spent into something else,” he said.
“We have to pay for it; even with the storage in China, Americans have to pay for it. So if somebody is saying that you are selling spent fuel, then it is unfortunate because who will buy your waste?” he asked.
He said the country did well by including a spent fuel return clause in the contract with China in 1992, allowing the repatriation of the spent fuel to China.
“Otherwise, every spent fuel should be managed by the host country, which would have been Ghana, and storage of spent fuel is very expensive.
“If somebody says that we have sold the core, that is not true; it is not fresh uranium that you can sell,” he stressed.
The National Nuclear Research Institute (NNRI), a division of the GAEC received the GHARR-1 from China in 1994 to be used for research purposes.
However, with 90 per cent enriched uranium, it was feared that the device could be diverted into non-peaceful activities.
As a result, the IAEA partnered the GAEC to form a collaborative research project and later a working group to help convert the uranium content.
Prof. Nyarko said the conclusion of the process in 2017 made Ghana the first country outside China to successfully convert Miniature Neutron Source Reactor (MNSR) to LEU.
“It is one of the successes because we have taken the lead,” he said.
He added that the conversion was done in such a way that it would not affect the reactor safety and operation.