ATOM FOR PEACE: Ghana on uranium

ATOM FOR PEACE: Ghana on uranium

I think it’s best we begin by making a list of the things we intend to cover in this piece. So, when you find me wondering about in history, getting stuck there as I tend to do, you know what to do—pull me back up to face the matters as stipulated. But we are not wrong in doing so, you know—taking these trips back in history. Because history, it is a revenant. It is a foreshadowing of the present. ‘History repeats itself’ has been repeated so much so that it borders on cliché. But it is one of the truest statements ever uttered.

There we go again, deviating back into history, when history isn’t the topic for the day. And there we go again, mentioning the word ‘history’ so much when history isn’t the matter at hand today. In today’s article we are discussing among others, Ghana’s present nuclear standing, governmental strides being made towards advancing the nation’s nuclear journey, the role public/private partnerships and university/industry partnerships can play in quickening this journey, how the industrial journey is helped by this sector, and how the AfCFTA is to work for Ghana and the rest of Africa with the help of nuclear energy. We will also discuss how equipped our human resource capital are, and how practical our educational system is, to meet the high expertise demanded by the nuclear sector. Now to the issues…


Ghana’s Journey

Having discussed the world’s nuclear journey in articles prior, we ask: where is Ghana in her nuclear journey? The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) came up with what they term the IAEA Milestone Approach, a roadmap “that enables a sound development process for a nuclear power programme.” Categorised into Three Phases and Three Milestones, the plan serves as a guideline for countries in the nuclear power development process from the ideation stage right to the final stage—the realisation stage.


So again, where is Ghana in her nuclear journey? “Phase 2.” Dr. Seth Kofi Debrah, our resource person for these nuclear pieces responds. “Ghana is coming right from Phase 1, the ‘pre-project’ stage, the ‘pre-feasibility studies’ stage, the stage in which a nation carefully contemplates the development of a nuclear power plant. Such a stage of indecisions and semi-decisions requires of any prudent nation to utilise its already existing resources (infrastructural and human), rather than wantonly jumping head-on into the building of new infrastructure and institutions. So then, the Ghana Nuclear Power Programme Organisation (GNPPO) was put together as a coordinating body, not an established body, to make needed decisions to drive forward the nation’s nuclear agenda. The GNPPO, in order to effectively undertake this mandate, formed the Nuclear Power Institute (NPI) to serve as its technical arm.

For Phase 2 of the development process, we have the Nuclear Power Ghana (NPG) set up to serve as the main driver of the nuclear power programme. At this crucial stage and the stage thereafter, Stage 3 (operation stage) both the GNPPO and the NPI are to provide technical and advisory support to the NPG.” 

The Seed: To be or not to be

Has it been a long time coming? The Ghana Atomic Energy Commission (GAEC), for one, was established in 1963. And the word ‘atomic’ has been in the Ghanaian consciousness for a very long time now—with one of our towns famously named after it. Has the nuclear journey been a long time coming? Yes. But it’s better late than never, no? And when it comes to nuclear energy, as we have shown in past articles, there is no middle-way. One is either for it or against it. And should a nation decide that it be for it, such a nation cannot afford to remain pegged, stranded midway. A nation that says ‘yes’ to nuclear, must, in its plans towards building for itself a nuclear power plant, show a high level of dedication—a dedication befitting the science of nuclear power itself.


So then, how along is Ghana on the vision to “assure long-term energy security through a safe and sustainable peaceful nuclear energy programme” as the NPI’s vision statement reads, and how realistically can we get there?


“I, personally, feel strongly that Ghana should have begun operating a nuclear power plant as far back as the early 60s. A nuclear power plant development journey takes an average of seven to fifteen years to complete. So, if Ghana wanted in full operation a nuclear power plant now, in this year 2022, we should have begun development somewhere as far back as 2007. And that’s how long it took a rich country like UAE to complete its nuclear power plant—fifteen years. This is not to say it’s too late for Ghana, a low-income earning nation.”


That is not too long a time in the nuclear realm because according to the IAEA, “experience suggests that the time from the initial consideration of the nuclear power option by a country to the operation of its first nuclear power plant is about 10 – 15 years.”


“Ghana has presently completed Phase 1—the pre-feasibility studies stage. We are in Phase 2 now, and have projected about 4 years for this phase. In Phase 2, a nation takes care of the ‘hard staff’—not ‘hard’ in terms of difficulty. By ‘hard’, I mean the tangible staff—field work: data gathering, human resource capital preparation, institutional preparation, etc., By 2024, this phase should be completed and the sod cut for the construction of a nuclear power plant.”


The Plant

So then, we have arrived at the matter of the reactor itself. There are options out there—three different types grouped according to sizes. We have the large (conventional) reactors which have power capacity ranging from 700MW even up to1400MW per unit, and takes a minimum of seven years to complete. There are small modular reactors (SMR) which have power capacity of between 60MW up to 300MW, and take a minimum of four years to build. There are also ‘microreactors’ which have capacity of up to just 10MW.


“At this very crucial point, the government has a very crucial decision to make regarding the type of reactor the nation is to build. The country can opt for a small modular reactor, because Ghana’s energy policy does not allow for one plant to contribute more than 10% of the total national grid capacity—a necessary thumb rule in power generation and grid management. And this exactly would be the situation ensuing should we build a large nuclear reactor, with a capacity of say, 1000MW for our national grid standing at a little over 5000MW—that would be 10%. Exactly what we want to avoid.


Hence, a small modular reactor makes perfect sense in the Ghanaian context. For one, it is cheaper and easier to build—being of a nature that they can be pre-assembled and transported to selected sites for installation. And for another, it takes a comparatively shorter time to build—an average of four years. So then, if timelines are followed, and resources needed attained, by 2029 we should be operating a nuclear power plant.” Dr. Debrah notes.


All this mention of ‘government’, and the Ghana’s government being like all governments worldwide, traditionally dismissed as never doing enough, we couldn’t help but ask Dr. Debrah if governmental attention, be it financial, creation of prerequisite legal and regulatory framework, provision of the needed infrastructural and human resources, etc., have been optimal. The response to this will shock you:


Governments over the years have been very supportive of the nuclear power programme. I remember a certain journalist once asking me, ‘Is government money coming in?’ to which I responded, ‘Are your kids school fees being paid?’” Dr. Debrah responds.


This, of course, is not intended a slight against said journalist’s parenting skills, but more so, his (Dr Debrah’s) reflection on the healthy relationship government(s), past and present, have built with this sector and its institutions. As a person not of that sector, I must say it was an interesting discovery to make. This would be more so if you reading, being yourself of that sector, in fact agrees with this sentiment expressed by Dr. Debrah.


“Ghana is resource-rich, but not cash-rich. So many a time, governments prioritises the traditional, the so-called more pressing issues, ones that are perceived to win quick and easy votes—an attitude reflective of our tendencies towards short-term thinking. Governments across political divides have offered consistent support to the nuclear journey—especially right from 2008 till now, albeit always treating the sector to national leftovers. We are hoping support keeps on coming—but also, we pray for prioritisation, especially now that we are nearing the advanced stages of our nuclear power plant development.”



Now, regarding synergy…it takes a village to raise a child, we hear them say. Yet, ‘it takes a city to raise a nation’ has been the story of this era of ours—this highly globalised, industrialised, and digital age. But really, for a nation’s development one ingredient isn’t just enough—it takes synergy to raise a nation. Longstanding, unimpeded synergies between its existing forces—human and natural resources, institutions spread far and wide across differing sectors, its populace spread across differing age demographic—its youth brimming with new energy ready to take on the baton of nation building, its older populace, having past experiences to bring on board; synergies such as public/private partnerships, university/industry collaborations, AfCFTA (being itself a synergy between African countries, united in trade, united in growth), and in this particular case, synergies between the varied energy sources in the energy mix—hydropower, solar, wind, nuclear; synergies between the differing institutions (governmental and private) tasked with ensuring these segments’ successes, are the necessary ingredients for sustained  growth.


It is in this need for synergy—this national imperative of forming meaningful collaborations, that we inquire if such collaborations exist, and after so inquiring, recommend that clear and long-lasting links be created; links that allow for growth created and sustained in this country, in all sectors, and in this series of articles’ particular case, in the nuclear sector—among others, in fulfilment of SDG 17 (partnership for the goals).


The nuclear sector, being a very capital-intensive endeavour, can always use all the help it can get, not only from the government; but private hands, when invited, can offer very important assistance. Public/private partnerships is ever-increasingly forming the crusts of nations’ nuclear journeys. And in seeking these private hands, and finding local hands insufficient, what better foreign hand to seek than that of our kinsfolk in the Diaspora? FDIs, in this era of national consciousness of nationhood, of Black solidarity, are best when they take the form of Diasporan investment.


Being infamously late to this fast-paced global industrialisation journey, a nation like Ghana cannot afford to have its energy mix war against themselves. So, regarding synergies between the various sectors within the energy mix, Dr. Debrah has this to say, “That is one of the reasons why I like the Energy Policy, 2019. It does not pitch one source against the other. It talks about diversification of the energy portfolio—one that serves the country well. We need a strong base load, especially when other countries depend on us to export power to them. Our hydro sector has served Ghana well for many years, but it is about time we got this source some help—a second, third, fourth baseload of help, ones that can match and complement hydro’s capacity and availability.”

Neither can a country have its institutions in disharmony, so regarding synergies between institutions in the sector, Dr. Debrah comments, “Collaborative efforts have been wonderful. We at the NPI famously began our journey with the Volta River Authority (VRA). The NPI would have been greatly disadvantaged had it not been for the immense support derived from the VRA. Bui power, yet another partnering institution, has been a financial and human resource safety net. There is an ongoing transfer of manpower between our institutions—the NPI, VRA, Bui Power, NPG, etc. And these activities are flourishing under the guidance of the mother institution of the nation’s atomic programme, the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission (GAEC).”

Brilliant Black Brains, Doomed by Black Slates and Black Boards

The nuclear sector being a very high-expertise-intensive sector—one subject to fast and crucial changes on the global front, could use all the brains and brainy human resource capital it can get. And universities, as we have discussed before, being a nation’s principal hub of higher learning, have a very indispensable role to play, not only in the churning out of world-class human resource capital, but the institutions themselves can form various-termed partnerships (from long, medium, to short-term partnerships that will culminate in, among others, consequential knowledge transfer (from universities to industries) and skill transfer (from industries to universities). [We have discussed this matter extensively in articles like ‘Higher Learning; Low Expectations’]

How equipped are our human resource capital to take on this challenge? Our educational system being endemically theoretical—bizarrely theoretically-dense, how are these human resource capital churned by these universities, ready to take on this very practical-intensive challenge of nuclear power generation? In response to this question, Dr. Debrah cites the example of a Ghanaian gentlemen pursuing his PhD abroad, who employed the assistance of a first year Master’s student, native to the land to which our Ghanaian gentleman was a foreigner, as personal teacher, teaching him the very application of the many theoretical things he had been taught back home in school. This Ghanaian gentleman was Dr. Seth Kofi Debrah himself. “Our educational system employs the system of ‘chew and pour’—theoretical learning, with little to no practical knowledge imparted.”


You see how there are many Ghanaian students learning ICT without computers—some having their individual black slates simulating computer keyboards? Well, picture for yourself, brilliant Ghanaian university minds (Master’s and PhD students inclusive), brains expected to take on the challenge of spearheading the nation’s nuclear journey, seated in their lecture halls with black slates before them, this time around not on their individual desks, as seen in our basic schools, but way ahead of them—a large black or white board, with a lecturer before it, drawing diagrams of things that ought to be physically placed before these students—theoretically teaching what ought to be practically-learnt. This is the matter at hand in this country. I must say, education is very difficult in our part of the world. ‘Chewing baba’ is hard! And it’s not only hard for the student, but for the lecturers too—being themselves victims of this same flawed system.

Dr. Debrah puts it in these terms, “Lecturers are being overburdened. Lacking the prerequisite infrastructure, equipment, etc., they have no avenues to take their students through applications of these theoretical texts. So, when the time for accountability is due—when setting examination questions, they have no option but to set those same old, what I like to call, ‘cramming questions’—questions demanding the same chew and poor attitude, with little to no application questions—those having real consequence in nuclear applications. There are lecturers who have gone through this same ‘baba’ system and are regurgitating the same things they were taught, in the same styles they were taught to student…

I have had to, on several occasions, sit through interviews, interviewing Ghanaian students with First Class honours who do not know the first thing about the applications of the very theoretical things they have learnt.”


The Starved Host

According to the World Bank’s ‘Africa in the New Trade Environment’ report, 2022, Ghana will not be a top beneficiary of AfCFTA. The country, having within it proudly sitting, the Secretariat of AfCFTA, it seems, will be a hungry host, having within it the fertile soil for growth, but itself not reaping from this soil, the enormous benefits promised. This comes as no surprise, because for one, our industries are starved. Ghanaian industries spring up, and as though sown on a thorny ground, are quickly poked and strangled out of life. With a burden of a comparatively small market size (and this we are hoping AfCFTA will remedy), a taxing tax regime—having to constantly satisfy governments’ rampant over-dependency on tax revenue for nation building (and there is more to come, we hear; an electronically charged one, we hear…), high electricity costs, etc., the Ghanaian industry is easily strangulated right here in its own home.


This free trade area, it seems, might just be playing out like so: Ghana opening up its market for trade by powerful African countries—ones who have adequately poised themselves to meet the challenge of meeting demand with supply. And by that we mean countries like South Africa, Nigeria, being for years, the continent’s top richest economies, and Kenya, Angola, Senegal, etc.

Cheap and reliable energy sources will be one of the crucial lifeblood of African countries in this bid at continental-integration-cum-continental-race, just as they have been for other parts of the world. Cheap and reliable power is something Ghana is struggling to give its citizens—its industries. South Africa, for one, has a nuclear power plant—the only African country with a fully operating power plant in fact—producing about 900MW of power and having done so since the 1980s. Having a much developed transportation system, strong manufacturing industries, needed infrastructure and amenities, robust energy sector, it’s safe to say that countries like South Africa will be playing chess in AfCFTA, Ghana will be playing piloolo.

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