FG to return radioactive materials from Ajaokuta Steel to Russia

Twenty four long years after the Federal Government signed an agreement to construct the Ajaokuta Steel Plant in 1979, the plant has not been fully completed. UDEME AKPAN and CHIDI UGWU who examine the implications of the development report that some imported materials earlier for the use of the plant are to be shipped to Russia because of their radioactive nature.

When the Federal Government sealed a global contract for the execution of Ajaokuta Steel plant with Messrs Tyajzhpromexport, TPE of the defunct USSR on July 13, 1979, it was desirous to construct and operate an integrated steel project to produce cast steel using the blast furnace technology. This, to a great extent looked possible as some raw materials, including iron ore, coking coal, limestone, scraps, bauxite, dolomite, refractory clay and manganese were confirmed to be available in Nigeria and Russia.

These materials were to be processed in the three rolling mills within the plant designed for the production of saleable billets, beams, channels, angles, broad flanges, rounds, hexagonal, strips, wire rods and reinforcement rods. The ASCL was to produce by-products such as dehydrated tar, ammonium sulphate, fertilizer, benzene, toluene, xyelene, naphtha, etc.

More than that, the plant has a captive Thermal Power Plant, TPP which has the capacity produce 100 megawatts, mw of electricity. It also has an engineering complex, made up of eight shops, namely, Foundry and Pattern Making, Forge and Fabrication, Machine and Tools, Power Equipment Repairs, Rubberizing, Lubricant Reclamation, Electroplating, and an Express Laboratory.

Despite the countless pronouncements and numerous visits of past and present leaders of the nation, the ASCL which was originally scheduled for completion in 1986 remained uncompleted, barely 24 years after the contract was signed with the major contractor. Investigations showed that some factors, including lack of funds, lack of commitment and corruption of public officers accounted for the inability of the nation to complete the plant on schedule.

This has affected the nation in many ways. For instance some raw materials components imported and locally assembled in preparation for planned commissioning and operation of the plant were wasted. This compelled the government to enter into various agreements, including joint venture, concession and even outright privatisation. But none of the options seemed to have assisted to rescue ASCL from stagnation.

Consequently, the nation continues to depend on other nations for its steel. In other words, the nation which finds it difficult to produce its steel creates jobs opportunities and sustain domestic demand for steel and related products have over the years assisted to sustain steel plants around the world through massive importation of steel. It has also created numerous job and business opportunities as well as stimulated industrial revolution in such nations.

This and other negative consequences have attracted the comments of some stakeholders. For instance, the Chairman, ASCL of Iron and Steel Senior Staff Association of Nigeria, ISSSAN, Comrade Abdulkareem Jimoh at a recent conference in Lagos called on the government to engage the original contractor to carry out a technical audit of the plant and complete it.

The Federal Government was also tasked to put in place, infrastructural facilities such as railway lines, dredging of the River Niger, etc. in order to make ASCL function effectively, efficiently and profitably. The Federal Government was also tasked to operate ASCL when completed for at least 24 months before considering public-private- partnership (PPP) for the sustainable operation of the plant.

Incidentally, the government seemed to have started implementing some of the recommendations. For instance, the technical audit has been completed. The dredging of the River Niger is ongoing. More than that, the Federal government has inaugurated a 10 man inter-agency committee on the disposal of radio-active source substances at the ASCL.

The radioactive elements were imported from former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, USSR many years ago for use in various specialised facilities in ASCL plant, but some which were left unused, are now posing environmental hazards, and necessitating repatriation back to the country of origin. The minister of Mines and Steel Development, Arch Mohammed Musa Sada, said the inauguration followed the approval by President Goodluck Jonathan in April 2013, to set up committee which would commence the process of repatriation of the radioactive substances to their countries of origin.

Members of the committee include, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Mines and Steel Development, Mr. Linus Awute, as the chairman, Sole Administrator, Ajaokuta Steel Company Limited, Engr. Isa Joseph, Acting Director General, Nigeria Nuclear Regulatory Authority, Dr. M.O. Ogbaradukun, Director General, Centre for Energy Research and Training, ABU Zaria, Dr. Muhammed Dewu and Director, Legal Drafting, Federal Ministry of Justice, Mr. Hamza Tahir.

Sada, who inaugurated the committee, stated that the terms of reference are to establish the country of origin of the radio-active sources, establish necessary liaison with relevant country or countries to facilitate repatriation and determine the methodology for handling the safe evacuation of the substances.

Other terms include establishment of the probable cost implication for the repatriation exercise and submit a report of the excise to the Federal Government of Nigeria. According to the Director, Steel and Non-Ferrous Metal Department in ministry of Mines and Steel Development, Engr. Abdullahi Also, who is a member of the committee several inconclusive efforts have been made to the past, to safely, dispose the radio-active sources.

Giving a background to the origin of the radioactive elements, Engr. Also, said that ASCL awarded a contract for the construction of steel plant to Tyazpromexport, TPE of the defunct Soviet Union. He recalled that between 1983 and 1988, TPE imported into the country some radioactive sources (including mostly an element called caesium or CS135) which is radioactive and were used for ascertaining the quality and soundness of some special welding work. He noted that some of the radioactive sources were left unused when the contract slowed down and was eventually determined in 1995, but efforts by ASCL to safe keep these radioactive sources through one of the Civil Lot contractors Messrs Dumez Nigeria Limited were inconclusive.

After, this effort failed, the management of ASCL in 2004, notified the Nigerian Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NNRA) of the existence of the radioactive sources within the Ajaokuta Steel Complex stressing that presence of the sources pose safety and security risks as some them could be used to make radiological dispersive Devices, RDD and contaminate the environment. According to Also, the importation and deployment of these sources were not subject to any authorization because there was no such legal requirement in the country at the time they were brought into Nigeria.

However, the NNRA had insisted that the extant policy for management of spent or disused radioactive sources is to repatriate them to their original manufacturers or suppliers, but the collapse of the former Soviet union has occasioned many political and administrative changes leading to the Russian Federation not accepting to take back the materials arguing that it was not part of the agreement of purchase.

Also, in 2008, the NNRA in collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, United States Department of Energy, USDOE and the National Nuclear Security Committee, NNSC carried out an inventory and characterised all the sources which confirmed a total of 243 legacy sources at ASCL. These are said to be significant, thus justifying government concerns.

From all indications, the insistence of Nigeria to ship the radioactive materials to Russia and the refusal of the former Soviet Union to willingly take delivery of the controversial consignment may likely set the two nations on a collision course. The world is however waiting to watch how events will play out in the coming months.

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