The safety of nuclear power is paramount

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By Isaac Newton Acquah(Dr)

The previous discussions delved into the immediate causes that triggered the three major nuclear power accidents: Three Mile Island (TMI), Chernobyl and Fukushima. It was made quite clear that the unprecedented tsunami, which inundated the Fukushima Nuclear Plant and destroyed its cooling systems, was the immediate cause of that nuclear accident. In the case of TMI and Chernobyl, human error lay at the root of those accidents.

Although we discussed three major nuclear accidents, there were fatalities in only the Chernobyl accident, where RBMK reactors were used. Furthermore, if the Chernobyl reactor had had a containment building, the consequences could have been significantly limited. The fact that there were no fatalities in the TMI and Fukushima accidents underscore the safety of Light Water Reactors (LWRs) which can be further deduced from Table 1.

Table 1: Severe accidents with at least 5 fatalities (1970 – 2005)

Table 1, which sets out Severe Accidents within the period 1970 to 2005, was presented at the Serious Accidents Conference at Davos in Switzerland in 2008 by the Paul Scherer Institute in Switzerland. If we were to update the table to include accidents to date, there would be no change to be made in the total numbers for nuclear power, but fatalities in natural gas, LPG and others would have increased dramatically. The safety of nuclear power is paramount. We should be aware that  servicing or/and cleaning roof-top PV panels are froth with real fatal dangers. In the period of 10 years, from 2011 to 2020, there were 78 fatal accidents associated with power (see www.caithnesswindfarms.co.uk).

The Renaissance of Nuclear Power

Just over a decade or so after the Chernobyl nuclear accident (1986), there was a very subtle renaissance of nuclear power, where many countries across the world expressed their wish to move away from polluting and costly fossil fuels to clean and affordable nuclear energy. We have previously discussed how nuclear is clean. Nuclear is also affordable, when one regards its production cost and capacity. Yes, it is true that the initial capital cost of a nuclear reactor is huge but once constructed, it provides a clean and affordable energy option (see Figure 1).

A handful of such countries started to pursue nuclear, including a few in Sub-Saharan Africa such as Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and Senegal.

I had the pleasure of meeting all three Energy Ministers under the Kufuor  Administration:  Mr. Albert-Kan Dapaah, Dr. Paa Kwesi Nduom and Mr. Joseph Kofi Kowe Adda.

In the year 2002, a one-day Nuclear Energy seminar was organized by the Ministry of Energy at the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission (GAEC) in Kwabenya, Accra. The seminar, which was under the chairmanship of  Albert-Kan Dapaah, was for all the energy stakeholders in Ghana: GAEC, Energy Commission, VRA, ECG, EPA, the Energy Committee of the Parliament and the news media. With the help of tables and figures, I explained that nuclear energy is clean, safe, and produces reliable and affordable electricity more abundantly than any other option. Hon. Dapaah, in his closing remarks, said among other things that: “Nuclear energy has been demystified.”

Soon after the presentation, the Ministry of Energy took two quick actions:

(1) A letter to the GAEC, requesting that a four-man team to interact with the staff at the Energy Commission on nuclear energy. The letter to the GAEC was copied to me, and so I joined the GAEC team.

(2) Creating a desk for Nuclear Energy within the Ministry of Energy. The first person to occupy the headship was from the GAEC.

The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, GNEP

GNEP was initiated in 2006 by the then US President George W. Bush. GNEP highlighted, among many things, that nuclear power was capable of meeting the increasing world demand for energy and helping developing countries to grow their economies to improve their quality of life. For that purpose, the GNEP agreed to provide nuclear fuel to poor countries, and collect it once used. This action goes a long way to reduce the risk of proliferation of nuclear fuel.

I introduced the GNEP to Professor Addai of the Energy Commission during one of his visits to Vienna, Austria in 2007. He carried the message to Ghana and a couple of months later, a delegation from Ghana, led by Mr Adda, the then Minister of Energy, came to Vienna to sign the GNEP Agreement. In the delegation were Professor Addai and others from the Energy Ministry and the Energy Commission. It was a tremendous effort as Ghana was the only African signatory in the initial 16-member countries of the GNEP.

Later, many other countries, including Nigeria, Senegal and Egypt joined the GNEP. It is noteworthy to add that the GNEP had its third steering meeting in Accra in June 2010. At this meeting, the name GNEP was changed to the “International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation” or “IFNEC”. Figure 2 shows the member countries with Ghana listed as a “Participant Country”.

The term GNEP is still used often within the IFNEC, which is still active with 2 working groups. The first group, which is focused on the reliable nuclear fuel services is led by France and Japan, while the other group focus on designing, infrastructures, financing and others is led by the UK and the US. The IFNEC has quite an active programme schedule for this year 2021. For instance, the IFNEC and the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) hosted a webinar on 24th of February to discuss an important report on nuclear fuel. As a matter of interest, Figure 2 shows the flags of countries including Ghana, Senegal, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Egypt, Uganda who are members of the GNEP/IFNEC.

Ghanas Intent to go Nuclear

Some people may recall the acute power crisis we experienced in Ghana in 2007. During that time, President Kufuor formed an Energy Committee under the leadership of Professor Daniel Adzei-Bekoe with the mandate to find a lasting solution for the chronic power crisis. The committee prepared a report and endorsed nuclear power as the lasting solution for our power crisis.

The report made clear Ghana’s intent to use nuclear power as the cornerstone of its energy mix for power production. This report, in addition to our membership status with GNEP/IFNEC, positioned Ghana as one of a number of countries that had opted to use nuclear power for the generation of electricity and in so doing, developing our nation.

However, the momentum came to an abrupt end in 2011 due to the devastation at the Fukushima nuclear accident. All our expectations as nuclear experts in Ghana and across the world came tumbling down in tandem.  The destruction at Fukushima broke people’s hope in nuclear energy and swept away much of the good work that had been steadily built up prior to 2011. Countries that had pursued nuclear in earnest starting looking for other options including solar and wind as spearheaded by Germany. Subsequently, the years 2011 to 2014 were very silent years on the nuclear front.

Re-renaissance of Nuclear Power

Surely, just a couple of years after the Fukushima accident in 2011, we had subtle hints of another renaissance of nuclear power in many countries, including several countries in Africa. The commitment to go nuclear was rekindled in many countries which had initially cancelled their nuclear programmes in wake of the Fukushima accident. In the last decade, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has had 4 nuclear power plants constructed by South Korea, while Belarus, Turkey and Bangladesh are currently constructing their first power reactors. Egypt and Poland have executed contracts to start construction.

Certainly, it is so inspiring to read from the World Nuclear Association’s publication, updated in March, 2021 on Emerging Nuclear Energy Countries that about 30 countries which have opted to go nuclear, are given in five stages, namely (1) Committed Plans, (2) Well Developed Plans, (3) Developing Plans, (4) Discussion as a Policy, and (5) Officially not a Policy Option. African countries in the third group (“Developing Plans”) are Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya Morocco, Algeria, Rwanda and Ethiopia.

There is surely a freshly renewed determination in Ghana to go nuclear. This is demonstrated by the fact that we already have in place the Nuclear Regulatory Authority, which licenses and regulates civilian use of nuclear energy. GAEC is very focused on all the necessary steps in the procedure, working closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). They have worked hard to ensure that all the necessary actions have been taken with a clear deliverables and milestones to add nuclear into our energy mix.

I am hopeful that the project will remain on track. I hope I have convinced you that nuclear energy is safe, clean and affordable, and that it will ultimately bear fruit to the advantage of our beloved Ghana.

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