While growing up I loved athletics but not all the events because I thought with the exception of high jump, the field events were boring. With the track events, the sprints were always exciting and flamboyant to watch as they were quick, engaging and energising unlike the long distance events (3000, 5000 and 10,000 metres).
The 400 metres was good, 200 metres was better and 100-metre dash was my best. If you were an athlete in these events, you were more popular and “acceptable” to all. I did not take the time to understand even the long-distance events and to appreciate the efforts and extreme energy-sapping exercise others have to go through to participate in long distance events. Of course it is not the entire long distance that seemed boring! The 100 metre-finish of long distances are equally exciting.
As a student in College, I would engage in an activity that takes my attention off the long distance events until the 100 metre ends. It was exciting as you will hear screams, shouts, and nicknames of those competing for the first place. Athletes who came last received little encouragement for their efforts as people laugh and mock them while they struggle to finish ‘hard’.
My love for and perception of long-distance and on field events have however, changed over the years as I have come to better understand and appreciate the energy expended by athletes who run the long distances. My disdain has changed to admiration and appreciation for their efforts. I believe my athletics situation is analogous to my evolving understanding of energy/electricity sources because the major sources of electricity like hydro, fossil fuel and nuclear end up with the turning of a turbine, a turbine coupled to a generator and the generator producing the power. Indeed all races end in 100 meters!!!
In fact nuclear energy/electricity production is similar to the way fossil fuel power plants generate electricity. In most energy generating plants, whether coal, oil, natural gas or uranium, the fuel provide a source of heat for generating steam, which is in turn used to turn a turbine. The turbine is coupled to electromagnet called the generator and the generator produces electricity. The key difference between nuclear energy and other sources of energy lies in the fuel used to generate heat for the creation of steam. Going back to athletics, all racing end in 100 metres.
It means power plants that run on fossil burn coal, oil or natural gas generate the heat used to create steam for driving the turbines. In a nuclear energy facility, however, a continuous but controlled reaction (chain reaction) involving the splitting of atoms (fission), takes place and this leads to the release of heat. The heat from the continuous splitting is used to create steam for the turning of turbine. Sounds amazing?
Indeed it is amazing that the smallest particles (you can’t see atoms) will produce such enormous amount of energy. What type of material/atom is split continuously to give the heat? The answer is an Isotope of Uranium called uranium-235. I will attempt to start from a point of complexity to a simple language. An isotope of uranium called Uranium-235 (the other major isotope is Uranium-238) is enriched and used as fuel because it has splitting properties that release large amount of heat. Let’s try to appreciate it this way: imagine identical twins, triplets, quadruplets, quintuplets etc. Once they are identical, it is very difficult to tell the differences between them; especially when apart from their semblance they also have the same height.
However, if they have a constant difference in mass/weight which is obvious enough to ensure identification of each of them that would be your sure way of identifying them. Similarly, the basic building blocks (atoms) of the same material (element) may also exist in identical forms in many ways except slight differences in mass (weight). Such building blocks or atoms are called isotopes. The ability of an isotope to split continuously to release energy is dependent on its mass, although it doesn’t follow that the heavier or lighter isotopes split faster or better.
The differences in mass are as a result of difference in the number of a particle called neutrons, which are located in the middle of the atom.
Uranium atoms exhibit same isotope phenomenon where two major isotopes occur in the earth (in different percentages) but the lighter one splits more easily to give large amount of energy. This lighter one is called Uranium-235 (U-235) and the heavier one is Uranium-238 (U-238). This “twin” also occurs naturally in different quantities; in an ore form, naturally occurring uranium contains only 0.71 percent of the-capable-of-splitting uranium-235; the remainder is the “non-splitting” isotope, uranium-238. It is clear that production of electricity from nuclear power plants is primarily dependent of the heat released from this special splitting called fission.
I thought the process of generating electricity through nuclear was some strange and inexplicable process until I chanced on a speech delivered by Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah on November 25, 1964 at the laying of the foundation stone for Ghana’s atomic reactor at Kwabenya. This is what caught my attention and set me on reading assignment: “We have therefore been compelled to enter the field of atomic energy, because this already promises to yield the greatest economic source of power since the beginning of man. Our success in this field will enable us to solve the many-sided problems which face us in all the spheres of our development in Ghana and in Africa”. I hope this quote has the same effect on you.
Like the sprints and long-distance events, other sources of energy may look appealing because of the shorter time required to build and the fact that they are less intensive in terms of capital. Nuclear power plant, however, has a lot of competitive advantage that we must consider if we want a long-term solution to our energy problems. Apart from providing reliable and long-term base load electricity, nuclear energy would enable stable tariff regime because of stable fuel price.
Direct and indirect job opportunities provided by nuclear power in other jurisdictions are unmatched by other energy sources. The construction stage of a 1000 MWe (thousand megawatts electric) of installed capacity Nuclear Power Plant requires 3,500 jobs; a gas plant requires about 1,000 jobs; wind requires 1,000 jobs and coal 1,500 jobs. To give a little perspectives, a single 1000MWe NPP requires about 400,000 cubic yards of concrete (similar volume as thirty million, five hundred thousand of the 1litre Coca Cola bottle); 66,000 tons of steel (this is equivalent in weight to One million, three hundred and twenty thousand bags of cement); 44 miles of piping (distance from Cape Coast to Takoradi); 300 miles of electric wiring (distance from Ho to Tamale), and 130,000 electrical components.
The construction stage of a 1000 MWe Nuclear Power Plant will, therefore, provide huge market for suppliers of cement, steel and other materials in very large quantities.
A comparison of the number of jobs at the plant operation stages also shows how competitive nuclear is. At the operation stage, gas often requires only about 60 jobs per 1,000 MWe of installed capacity; wind requires 90 jobs, coal 220 jobs, 150 for hydro and nuclear 500 jobs.
The latent economic benefits that should not be overlooked come from the stimulation of the community economy by employees as they buy goods and services. This spending supports many small businesses in the area. The tax by a Nuclear Power Plant extends beyond the tax revenue generated directly by the plant. Aside from the direct tax, licensing fees, and taxes paid on income there are secondary effects of plant purchases on other products and services, leading to additional income and value creation, as well as additional tax revenues. Direct corporate social investment, which is significant practice and strong tradition of nuclear power plant operating companies, creates a lot of secondary jobs for communities close to the NPP.
The question one would like to ask is whether God put Uranium, the fuel for NPP, in Africa? And the answer is yes, as always!
According to the IAEA, as at January 2015, Africa supplied some 20% of the world’s demand for uranium. Already, Niger and Namibia occupied fourth and sixth positions in the ranks of global producing countries as at then and Niger has nearly 50 years of continuous experience in successful uranium mining. South Africa, the only country in Africa that has nuclear power plant and nuclear energy in its energy mix, also produces uranium. Mali, Zambia and other African countries have mines, new mines are being developed but our famous “dark continent” continuous to be the darkest at night, maybe the reason God gave us a lot of sun so we can compete during the day-play and watch football between 3pm and 5pm. That is no cultural issue, it is a power problem!!!
By: Elikem Kwaku Ahialey