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Opinions of Thursday, 28 August 2014

Columnist: Nuru, Jude

Demystifying fears of nuclear energy generation in Ghana

If there is any issue in the world that has a major problem with its image, then it must be nuclear energy. Regardless of its enviable track record in terms of safety among all sources of energy, nuclear energy often remains at the bottom in all public opinion ratings primarily due to sheer misconceptions about its nature orchestrated by nuclear antagonists.

At the mere mention of nuclear energy, what runs through the minds of people is nothing but the negative aspect of it. For most individuals, nuclear energy connotes extreme disaster or terrorism and as such, no time is wasted at all in protesting against any attempt to construct a nuclear plant even if such a plant is intended for a good course, for example, electricity generation.
Unknown to such anti-nuclear advocates is that nuclear weapons, the reason for their unwavering opposition to nuclear energy generation, are derived from purpose-built reactors or centrifuges and not nuclear power plants. Put differently, nuclear weapons are never obtained from power plants and therefore do not account for the proliferation of nuclear weapons in some parts of the world. Truth be told that such proliferations are usually carried out by some social deviants whose mantra is to cause havoc on countries or communities perceived to be acting against their in-group agenda. This distinction ought to be made clear anytime nuclear energy becomes a subject of discussion so as to demystify the fear and promote public education and acceptance.

Indeed, if the proliferation of nuclear weapons had been driven by the presence of nuclear power plants in a country, then France, where 58 nuclear power plants contribute about 80% to her electricity generation, would have been flooded with nuclear weapons and the attendant consequences of terrorist attacks. On the contrary, the likes of France and Canada, where nuclear energy generation has propelled and continue to propel economic developments, no doubt can be found at the top list of peaceful countries to live in the world.

Just as there is always a downside to every human activity and so long as the concept of dualism is tenable, nuclear energy generation is no exception in this regard. However, if costs and benefits analysis were diligently done on nuclear power generation, it would reveal that its upside weighs far asymmetrically heavier than its downside.

Among the few downsides of nuclear energy often raised is the disposal of the waste (plutonium) generated afterwards. Although nuclear waste is considered dangerous to human health, just like any other hazardous waste, its minute size makes its management less cumbersome if it is properly handled in relation to other large industrial wastes. Moreover, the waste from uranium-235, the fuel for nuclear energy, can be reprocessed for further use. In the end, what ultimately constitutes the actual waste which is so tiny could be carefully disposed of permanently in underground rocks with no intention of revisiting the site.
Another concern often raised by anti-nuclear adherents is the occurrence of nuclear accidents heightened by the recent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Admittedly, one cannot rule out the potential occurrence of disasters in any enterprise that involves human effort. Quite realistically, several major disasters have occurred in various fields in the history of mankind some of which had been very fatal.

In the Oil & Gas industry, for example, mention can be made of the infamous Piper Alpha disaster which occurred on July 6, 1988 off the coast of Aberdeen, UK where 167 oil workers lost their lives and the recent April 20, 2010 BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster off the Gulf of Mexico where 11 people perished with enormous damage caused to the environment, as well as the countless oil & gas tanker explosions around the world with significant loss of lives.
In the aviation industry, an unquantifiable number of deadly disasters have occurred, a recent one being the Malaysian Flight MH370 which disappeared on March 8, 2014 with all the 277 passengers and 12 crew totaling 239 unaccounted for and only few weeks ago a Brazilian plane got crashed in which all people onboard including a presidential hopeful of that country perished.

In the sports arena, one of the ugliest sporting tragedies occurred in Ghana on May 9, 2001, as 127 football fans perished during a local league between two arch rivals: Accra Hearts of Oak and Asante Kotoko.

The transport sector, particularly in Ghana, continues to deny families of their loved ones as the carnage on the roads persists daily. Clearly, the list of major accidents that have claimed precious lives in various fields of human endeavor is inexhaustive.

By analogy, however, in the history of nuclear energy generation for peaceful applications, only three major disasters have occurred namely: Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, USA on March 28, 1979; Chernobyl, Ukraine on April 26, 1986; and Fukushima, Japan on March 11, 2011. At Three Mile Island, even though concerns were expressed about the short to long term effect of the radiation emanating from the meltdown, no one actually died at the site. In the case of Chernobyl, described as the deadliest among the three major nuclear accidents, two workers died on the night of the accident and another 28 deaths were recorded later allegedly due to exposure to radiation, while the Fukushima disaster had no confirmed casualties from exposure to radiation.

In effect, if the incidence of accidents and deaths would be key considerations in every human activity, then one would fairly submit that the impact of nuclear energy generation for peaceful applications, in terms of direct deaths arising from the occurrence of disasters, is less frightening than other sectors. This is because nuclear accidents rarely occur, but its benefits are enormous and would require a separate article. Indeed, some of the benefits are life-saving, especially the direct health benefit of cancer treatment.

It is worth mentioning that the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission has over the years successfully operated a nuclear plant on a small scale which has been of significant benefit to Ghanaians health wise. Now is the time to rally support for the Commission as it prepares to build Ghana’s first nuclear power plant which has immense potential not only to halt the recurrent power outages, but also bring additional revenue to mother Ghana through the exportation of excess power to neighboring countries.

It is in the light of the above analysis and many more reasons that this writer urges Ghanaians not to entertain fears about the introduction of nuclear energy generation for peaceful applications in Ghana so as to guarantee our country 24/7 power supply to homes, as well as usher in rapid industrialization, the surest way of stabilizing the economy for good.
Nevertheless, a caution should be made that the relevant authorities must ensure that all the safety questions are adequately addressed before the embarkation on nuclear energy generation in Ghana. Thus, the writer urges Professor Benjamin Jabez B. Nyarko, the Director, and his team of nuclear experts at the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission to maintain high safety standards in the construction, maintenance, and operation of Ghana’s first nuclear power plant to accelerate the country’s quest for rapid industrialization, the surest way of stabilizing the ever falling cedi. It is hoped that the astute Professor and his competent staff would not compromise on current industry standards so as to avert any potential catastrophe. A critical issue though is to intensify public education on the numerous benefits of nuclear power ranging from health to energy. In this respect, media players should take seriously the call by Professor Nyarko to see themselves as key partners and play an important role in public education. To further facilitate the work of the media, the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission should, as it has already started, constantly engage the media and key stakeholders so as to help everyone understand what nuclear energy is all about, thereby demystifying all the fears about nuclear power generation for peaceful applications in Ghana.

By Jude Nuru.

The Writer is an Energy Professional and can be contacted via +233502179321