Shortly after the 9th Meeting on the Conversion of Nigeria’s Miniature Neutron Source Reactors (MNSR) from the use of fuel containing highly enriched uranium (HEU) to fuel that employs low-enriched uranium (LEU), in Abuja held between December 10 and 12, Director of the Centre for Energy Research and Training (CERT), Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, Professor Yusuf A. Ahmed, explains that the nuclear reactors are used for studies in neutron physics, agricultural sciences, mineral exploration and similar other things.
Your reactors are used for research purposes. Why were they converted from HEU to LEU?
The reactors were converted from the use of fuel containing highly enriched uranium (HEU) to fuel that employs low-enriched uranium (LEU) due to the increase in terrorist activities and mainly to minimize the civilian uses of HEU.
In civilian research facilities, we need to have materials that are not of weapons-grade and incidentally, in the nuclear industry, if you enrich uranium to a certain percentage or more than 20% it becomes a weapon-grade material and in Nigeria our research reactor is powered by fuel containing HEU (90.2%) above the 20% approved limit. Internationally, weapon-grade material should best be in military facilities and not civilian related.
So, to conform to global threat reduction initiatives, Nigeria, had signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and all other conventions related to that and in view of that, Nigeria became a partner to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
This project started in 2005 when the IAEA constituted a research project to find alternative fuels for reactors of this nature that have HEU fuel as their core so as to get LEU for the core to serve all other parameters on what the reactor will do with the HEU. So, if you can get a replacement for that core and make your reactor work efficiently, then you have made it unattractive to non-state actors.
As part of government’s decision in 2017, when Mr. President attended the Nuclear Security Summit in the US, he made a clear commitment that Nigeria would partner the international community to reduce the use of HEU in civilian facilities and with that mandate all other government agencies in the country headed by the Nigeria Atomic Energy Commission (NAEC) swung into action. Center for Energy Research and Training (CERT) is under the NAEC and is being funded by it.
Through the commission, contacts were made with the IAEA and other agencies for the purpose of conversion and in 2016 a letter was sent to IAEA expressing Nigeria’s willingness and seeking for support. And on December 11, 2018, we celebrated the successful conversion of our reactors which in the international parlance, Nigeria is regarded as HEU free or Nigeria has no weapon-grade material in its civilian facilities.
What exactly do you mean by civilian facilities?
I am referring to the research reactors that you can use to generate electricity, carry out soil fertility mapping, geophysical survey and radiation mapping. They are also used in solid mineral exploration including detecting and analyzing the quantity of mineral as well as analyzing the type of soils and the crops they can support.
The reactor can tell you the mineral content of soil including nitrogen content. This would enable farmers to know the quantity of fertilizer to apply to soil samples.
It is technically possible to convert reactors but are there challenges associated to the conversion processes?
There are challenges in searching for the required fuel that can give you the required power. It took the international community more than 10 years in the selection of the required fuel, until we arrived at the fuel that can deliver the required power. For instance, our reactor used to be 30kW with HEU and now it is 34kW with LEU, so we have upgraded the power.
While you are trying to downgrade and blend the fuel content, you are also upgrading the power. This means that the capacity to do the work was more than what the reactor was before. So, while non-technical personnel would say the reactor was reduced in terms of fuel usage, technical personnel would tell you the reactor was upgraded.
Do you require any certification to operate the reactors?
The international community has certified Nigeria as HEU free as I said earlier and this means that Nigeria has joined other countries in material management and minimization. As you are aware, there are so many issues with countries that haven’t been certified or countries seen to be promoting weapon-grade material. Nigeria has shown that it is a friendly nation.
Many countries are involved in the conversion of Nigeria’s reactors. What role does each country play?
Some counties came to support Nigeria financially, some technically while others came as international regulators. For example, the USA realised that Nigeria hasn’t got enough resources to fabricate new core which was in millions of dollars, and it stepped in and provided the funding not in cash but paid for those materials to be fabricated by the Chinese. The Chinese played the technical role of doing the fabrication for the fuel that would certify the requirement of our reactor.
The IAEA came as a regulator to ensure that the import of the material from China to Nigeria was done in accordance with the requirement of international trade, so that Nigeria would not be accused of importing nuclear weapons illegally. The agency gave Nigeria the required license, transport criteria and safety requirements to transport the material through the air routes.
People from Czech Republic provided the tools required in the manipulation of and installation of the new core while the Russians provided the platform for movement of the material across the world. They transported the material from Nigeria to China and from China to Nigeria because they have the certificate to move any nuclear material across the globe.
They assisted in handling the material to ensure its safety and that radiation protection measures are taken care of.