Kaduna — Dr Bello Muhammad Dewu is the Director of the Centre for Energy Research and Training (CERT) of the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria. In this interview with Sunday Trust, Dr Dewu explained how nuclear technology can be used in solving the country's power and economic problems, among other issues. Excerpts:
Recently, your centre has presented a book to the public on history and activities of CERT, what do you intend to achieve with the book launch?
Ahmadu Bello University is 50 years and has every reason to celebrate given the enormous achievements recorded over the years. I will quickly add that our Centre is also 26 years this year, marking 36 years of Nuclear Research in the university. We recently presented the book detailing some of the achievements, programmes and activities of the Centre since its establishment.
As ABU celebrates its 50th anniversary, what can you say are the contributions of CERT to the development of the university and the country?
The, Centre for Energy Research and Training, CERT, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, as you know came into being some 26 years ago after the pioneering works of establishing it. The Centre since its establishment has recorded modest achievements and has contributed to national development. As a Centre of excellence and within the university, its contributions to ABU to meet its mandates as a university are many. It has enriched the university's research works amongst other contributions. Broadly, the Centre has contributed in manpower development in the country and has provided services in the area of nuclear science and technology to diverse organizations, both governmental and non-governmental within the country and abroad.
A Centre like CERT is expected to make contributions to national development, what do you have to say?
The Centre was established as a Centre of Excellence in Nuclear Science and Technology in 1986 under statute 29 of the ABU Laws. The Centre, just like our university, has a staff composition in which all the sections of the country are represented. This has been a high point of our strength in the running of the affairs of the Centre.
For example, the Centre has been the first to install and operate a Nuclear Research Reactor in the country. This project has passed through many stages from its conception to application for support and subsequent approval by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), getting a vendor for procuring the reactor to installation and commissioning, has afforded the Centre a lot of experience in handling installation of a Nuclear reactor.
The Nuclear reactor was commissioned in 2004. This is now the 8th year of our experience in the operation of a nuclear reactor, and without any incidence. This we believe is an achievement that the country can be proud of, and also build on in the acquisition of Nuclear Power Reactors for electricity generation.
Similar, feat will soon be achieved by the time we get another major facility, the Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer (IR-MS) commissioned. This facility was acquired through a joint project between the Centre and the Federal Ministry of Water Resources with the support of the IAEA. The facility is expected to serve the whole of the West African sub-region because its kind is only obtained in South Africa and Egypt in the whole of Africa.
Presently, all analysis regarding this facility has to be carried out abroad. The facility is a very useful tool for the study and management of ground water resources which is very important for the country.
The Centre has over the years successfully used peaceful applications of Nuclear Science and Technology to diverse sectors of the Nigerian economy. These include agriculture, water resource management, oil and gas industry and other industries, and the solid mineral sectors, etc. The reactor has been used in the training of scientists, providing analytical services and support in the country's match to deployment of Nuclear Power Reactors for electricity generation.
In addition to analytical services provided to the academia, the industry and other research establishments, the Centre has been providing dosimetry service to radiation users in the country saving the country substantial amount of foreign exchange. Hitherto such services were only provided outside the country. Also, the Centre is the only place in the country that provides services for conditioning and temporal storage of radioactive materials and sources. Recently, the United States Department of Energy (USDOE) assisted the Centre in the upgrade of the facility for expansion of provision of such services.
CERT is said to be facing different challenges, can you share with us some of the problems facing the Centre?
Yes, the Centre is facing challenges. As a research establishment, especially research in the physical sciences, we require a lot of funds; funds to acquire facilities for the research; funds to maintain and utilize the facilities; funds for training and re-training of the staff, etc. These funds are unfortunately in short supply. In the case of our Centre, yes we have acquired substantial research facilities over the years, we however need the funds to maintain, operate and utilize them. As I earlier said, some of the facilities in the Centre are strategic that to safely operate and utilize them to standard require a lot of funds.
The Centre has thus been grappling with shortage of funds to carry out some of the activities enumerated above. These difficulties have been most excruciating especially in the last two to three years. For example, since 2010 not a single kobo was released to the Centre for capital expenditure. Incidentally, most of the requirements for use of the facilities as enumerated above fall within capital regime of our budgetary system - equipments' parts replacements, staff training and re-training, etc.
Also, payment of staff promotion arrears who got their promotions since 2008 have been pending. In addition, quite a number of our staff salaries have not been paid for close to a year now and allowances that were paid to staff in consideration of the peculiar nature of the environment under which we carry out our work have also not been paid for the whole of this year. So, with these kinds of challenges, staff morale can be greatly compromised; making it extremely very difficult to get the maximum from the staff.
Have you reported these challenges you are facing to the relevant authorities?
Yes, we have been communicating these shortages, difficulties and peculiarities to the coordinating body, NAEC, however, with little progress at resolving them. These issues are also well known by our Board of Governors and have been discussed intensely at Board meetings. NAEC was under the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology, but at the moment we have difficulty really understanding who the supervising ministry of NAEC is. We were made to understand that it was under the Presidency and supervised by the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, but recent correspondences with the office seem to suggest otherwise. May be when Mr President concludes action on the Oronsaya Panel report, the picture may be clearer.
How best do you think these challenges can be addressed?
To answer your question on how best these issues can be addressed, I quite honestly believe that one single agency can handle the functions exercised by NAEC and ECN. Sections can be created under such an agency to handle Nuclear/Atomic issues and Renewable Energy issues as is obtained in other countries. With a well established and properly streamlined agency, some of the difficulties Centres such as ours are facing can be greatly minimized. The fact of the matter is that we believe the funds released by government to the sector are adequate to cater for the activities of the Centres. The problem is mostly to do with the way and manner the Commission relates to the Centres, and also proliferation/duplication of similar organizations doing same things.
The two Centres already established and which have been carrying out activities for over thirty years and which have been recording some success in these activities have not yet been adequately handled in terms of funding and provision of required working tools to warrant opening new ones. The achievements already recorded at these Centres need to be properly consolidated and built upon for the progress of our dear nation. The two Centres still have the capacity and indeed affinity to accommodate more staff and programs rather than indulging in what I may call lateral expansion of the number of such Centres.
What are the other options of energy potentials Nigeria can utilize for development?
The country has a nuclear power program to generate electricity from Nuclear Powered Plants. I believe this is quite desirable for the country and a welcome development for a number of reasons.
First, nuclear generated electricity is safe, reliable and economical in the long term. Given our energy requirement in the country, I believe Nigerian stands to benefit from such a venture.