As Nigeria looks towards the use of nuclear technology, including generation of electricity from nuclear power plants, there is need to ensure nuclear safety and radiological protection regulations that comply with international obligations.
The Acting Director General of the Nigerian Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NNRA), Dr Martin Ogharandukun, recently stressed on the need to have a robust regulatory framework that guides the use of the vast deposit of nuclear resources to enhance exploration in the petroleum sector and generate electricity.
With the growing emphasis on radioactive exploration, it is indeed imperative to beam a searchlight on the safety of these materials which are mostly used in high-risk oil and gas exploration. Dr Ogharandukun, an expert in physics and nuclear matters had pointed out that government is encouraging the harnessing of nuclear materials for safe and efficient use.
While maintaining that the NNRA only regulates the use of the nuclear energy technology and ensures that it is safe and secure, he highlighted an occasion for such advances: Former President Olusegun Obasanjo had in 2005 challenged the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to partner with Nigeria in generating electricity from nuclear power plants. The revitalisation effort was then coined, ‘Operation Big Jump’ envisioned by the January 2005 Abuja Declaration on Nuclear Power.
The initiative of access to nuclear electricity has since been promoted by advanced countries like Russia which, “intends to double its nuclear generating capacity by 2020; China, which plans a nearly six-fold expansion in capacity by the same date, and India which anticipates a 10-fold increase by 2022.” Nigeria on her part has been sluggish in advancing the quest with just a recent restructuring of the NNRA governing board to play a regulatory role in building a nuclear power plant.
Besides nuclear power generation, the petroleum industry is another importer and user of radioactive sources in the country – sources mainly used for nuclear well-logging, industrial radiography, nuclear gauging, radio tracing, among others. These are specific areas that improved safety is urgently needed if we must curtail the rate of radiological incidents and accidents. Safety is better guaranteed where relationships exist between the nuclear evacuation companies and the service companies using radioactive sources.
The service companies are licensed to import and use radioactive sources on the premises and facilities of the oil producing companies. In this transaction, several undeclared persons are involved including the transporters to a facility of the oil producing company. This represents the weakest link in the chain of import-transport-use-transport-export of radioactive sources in the country, and has led to several radiological incidents and accidents in the petroleum industry.
The NNRA as the agency responsible for radiation safety and regulation said its role is to ensure nuclear safety and radiological protection regulations and ensuring that Nigeria complies with international obligations needed for the deployment of nuclear power plant.
Ogharandukun in a recent interview said the agency had learnt from the various incidents of nuclear abuse the world over, translating in the dramatic improvement being witnessed today in securing radioactive sources in industrial radiography and nuclear well-logging. Nevertheless, there is a lot of room for improvement especially on strengthening its regulatory stand and expanding its surveillance scope.
NNRA said it has strategically engaged both the petroleum producing companies and the nuclear well-logging and industrial radiography companies through the organization of annual training courses and workshops over the past five years. These efforts have yielded positive results in the number of licences granted for the importation and use of radioactive sources.
The agency said it had to carry out enforcement actions against erring facilities and practices. In the medical sector for instance, there was the closure of the unsafe radiotherapy facility at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), leading to the installation of a new Linear Accelerator (LINAC) for cancer treatment. Eko Hospital Radiotherapy Centre was suspended from practice until it replaced its ineffective Cobalt-60 source with a new one.
Enforcement actions in the industrial sector have seen the suspension of Halliburton Energy Services Nigeria Limited (HESNL) following its loss of control of some high-risk radioactive sources, an action which was only lifted following the safe recovery of the sources. SGS Inspection Services (SGS) and Greenwich Maritime Nigeria Limited were both prosecuted and convicted in a case of mis-declaration and illegal exportation of spent radioactive sources.
Also, Western Atlas International Nigeria Limited (WAINL) has been suspended for loss of control of radioactive sources just as WAINL and Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) were further prosecuted in court and convictions secured against them.
Currently, an industrial radiography company based in Port Harcourt is under sanction for loss of control of its radioactive source.
Worthy of note, too, in the annals of Nigeria’s commitment to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy is traced to 1968 when it became the second country to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and voted for its indefinite extension in 1995. This is one among many other relevant international obligations that the country is a signatory to.
In 2007, Nigeria took further steps to strengthen her commitment to international treaties on Safety, Security and Safeguards by ratifying various acts and agreements on nuclear evacuation and utilisation.
However there may be still lapses in detection of radiation sources which have been attributed to inadequate radiation detection capability at the ports and inadequate training of the officials at the ports and airports. Such challenges could be addressed through a collaborative effort with the Nuclear Security Office of the IAEA.
The import/export regulatory mechanism for radiation sources is nevertheless very effective, but can still be improved upon.
To stem this issue as it relates to manpower and technical knowhow on safe handling, the NNRA specifically said it is still building capacity to License the successful operation of a nuclear power plant and advance supervisory roles. Dr. Ogharandukun said,“we are doing so with the support of the IAEA and countries with experience such as Hungary, Pakistan, and US in licensing the operation of a nuclear power plant.”
He also said it has partnered earlier with IAEA through the Technical Cooperation projects (TC) on its successful installation and operation of the first nuclear research centre. The Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection Act including the agency’s establishment are all products of international collaboration. Currently, a Nuclear Power Projects (NPP) roadmap has been developed and approved by government for implementation and has since partnered with the (NAEC) to promote the NPP development.
Safety and security of sources can be guaranteed through an effective regulatory control programme. While NAEC has been described as the promoter of Nuclear Power Plant projects in the country, the NNRA must have a standpoint on proper licensing of all nuclear activities including its evacuation from deposit locations like the Ajaokuta Steel Company, its handling as well as utilisation. The NNRA regulatory framework must necessarily include the ports of entry, hence the close working relationship between the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), the Nigeria Custom Service.
In furtherance of a robust nuclear safety regulatory environment in the country, there is the need for more collaborative efforts from other law enforcement agencies such as the Nigeria Police, the Nigeria Immigration Service, State Security Service, other security and defence apparatus and all medical stakeholders to ensure that best practices in nuclear electricity generation and petroleum exploration are optimally attained.