Nigeria today, is regarded as the biggest economy in Africa. However, its power sector is performing far below the level of an economy of this magnitude. Over half of the population has no access to grid-connected electricity and those who are connected to the grid suffer extensive power outages.
Nigeria's current installed capacity is estimated at around 13,000 MW, only half of this is operational, and only about 5,000 MW reaches the grid. Restricted output has been blamed on gas supply problems, water shortages, grid constraints and breakdowns. According to expert estimations, Nigeria is currently spending roughly $14 billion yearly on off-grid diesel generation.
In view of such major energy deficit, the country shops for all available alternatives including renewable energy options like wind and solar.
Lately, the country also signed agreement with Russia's State Atomic Energy Corporation, ROSATOM to build a nuclear energy plant, after exploring a framework agreement in 2012 which indicated initial responsibilities of the parties to implement the project agreement.
At the moment, ROSATOM is working with Nigeria on two planned projects: the Center for Nuclear Research and Technology for which an agreement on cooperation in construction was signed in 2016, and the Nuclear Power Plant project for which project development agreements on construction and operation were signed in October 2017.
However, since the signing of both agreements, criticisms bordering on cost of the project, transparency of the agreement details and danger of nuclear waste, among others, have trailed the effort.
Advocacy group that champions environmental human rights issues in Nigeria, Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN) has on several occasions raised concerns that the project would cause Nigeria more harm than good.
Deputy Director of the group, Mr Akinbode Oluwafemi's major concern is; "First thing that comes to mind when nuclear energy is mentioned is radioactive waste; our concern is, judging by the experience in fossil fuels, we might be heading towards an environmental disaster. We don't have confidence in using nuclear energy to solve our energy needs; there are safer alternatives like solar and wind."
Another area of concern for ERA/FoEN is where the funds to build the $20 billion nuclear plant will come from, considering that the country is still struggling to balance after having just experienced economic recession.
However, Regional Vice-President, Central and Southern Africa of ROSATOM, Mr. Viktor Polikarpov, said that as genuine as those concerns could be, they are all defeated myths and only lack of knowledge and information would make people to continue to raise them.
He stated that Nigeria's power situation deserved the action the country has taken and assured that by the time the nuclear plant would be operational, Nigeria would save the $14bn spent yearly on off-grid diesel generation.
According to him, "It is true that there is still much skepticism about nuclear technologies, however, the positive perception of nuclear technologies and its beneficial impact are constantly growing and nuclear technologies are constantly developing.
Nuclear enery myths
"Criticism in general stems from the perceived lack of free information about the technology. It is also based on non-factual myths about disasters and radiation. The fear of so-called nuclear waste has been debated for 50 years and it is a fact that the nuclear industry is subject to incredibly stringent international and national standards and regulations.
"Moreover, nuclear power is the only energy industry which takes full responsibility for all its wastes and builds this cost directly into the product. International co-operation and systems are also in place to effectively control and track the movement of many materials, including radioactive materials."
Polikarpov who spoke to Hi-Tech, exclusively, also said there was nothing wrong with a country like Nigeria having energy mix but should consider economics, security of supply and environmental impact; the three important factors, known as the trilemma, necessary when designing the optimum energy mix.
"Not many sources alone can bring together these three factors and therefore a mix is crucial. Hydrocarbons such as coal for instance, are economically viable and offer stable power but are unfortunately very bad for the environment. Renewables such as wind and solar are great for the environment but are intermittent by nature and only produce electricity when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining; there is unfortunately no economically viable methods of storing power at this point.
"Nuclear is the only power source that is capable of ticking all three boxes and is therefore crucial to help balance any energy mix. As Nigeria wants to embark on the path of dynamic development, it needs more energy to ensure sustainable growth," he added.
Cutting electricity cost
The Nigerian government aims to electrify at least 80 per cent of its population by the year 2035. According to Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Nigeria Atomic Energy Commission, NAEC, Dr. Franklin Osaisai, the main reason Nigeria is investing in the nuclear power plant is to bring down the cost of electricity by development of sustainable base load source of energy to boost social and economic development.
Polikarpov noted that inclusion of nuclear energy will provide much needed diversity and stability to the country's energy mix. He said nuclear energy and renewables are not mutually exclusive even though they are both clean and eco-friendly, because each has its advantages and models of use.
He said that countries that go nuclear are assured security of supply, reduced greenhouse emissions and are able to develop a highly skilled workforce, adding that a diverse energy mix with the inclusion of renewables and nuclear power will contribute immensely to the national economy and will make local businesses more competitive and attractive on the global market.
He also dispelled the rumour that details of the alleged $20b cost of the project are shrouded in secrecy. "First, it is important to understand that agreements signed between Russia and Nigeria do not settle the project cost, but rather, envisage the key terms of cooperation and highlight the next project steps.
The most important one is the feasibility study that should provide us with the answers to the technical, economical, financial and project implementation issues that would enable us to shape the optimal configuration of the facility required for project budget estimation. In other words, at the moment, it's too early to speculate even about the number of units, let alone the project cost.
"Second, the cost of an NPP project can be affected by a number of specific factors, including operating conditions at the construction site. Countries and even different regions within a country vary by climate, seismological and other characteristics.
These factors, together with other key project parameters, should be explored during the feasibility study for the NPP. At this point, it would be irresponsible to speculate an exact cost of the project. Various financial models will also be explored to best suit the country's needs.
"Third, the number of nuclear reactors on the site is another important price factor due to so-called repetition effect. If the NPP project includes several units, then, after the first unit is completed, the construction of each subsequent unit should be less expensive than the previous one because of accumulated construction experience and created infrastructure. For ROSATOM, our ability to replicate same designs distinguishes us from other nuclear providers. Serial construction allows us to reduce costs, thanks to economies of scale, and offer more favourable prices for electricity."
He noted that Russia has already started this path 11 years ago, having launched a large-scale NPP construction program in the country and abroad that have finalised 13 units.