Nov 23, 2020

Ep 285: Theo Nii Okai - Fmr Executive Director, Nuclear Power Ghana

Former Executive Director
Nuclear Power Ghana
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Show notes

Ghana’s Energy Diversification (0:00-11:39)
Theo Nii Okai recaps his career with the Volta River Authority and describes how Ghana began its path energy diversification

Q: How did you first get into nuclear and did you always have a positive view of nuclear?
A: Theo Nii Okai served as the Director of Environment and Sustainable Development for the Volta River Authority, a utility in Ghana, for five years. During this assignment, he was asked to head a new organization set up to drive the new nuclear agenda for Ghana. Theo moved to Nuclear Power Ghana and started working with a team of engineers and scientists. He hadn’t planned on working in the nuclear sector and had some suspicions about nuclear. However, very quickly he began to appreciate the fact that nuclear power is the way to combat climate change and provide a reliable base load. When the government decided they needed to look at nuclear as a part of the energy mix, the energy ministry asked the two major utilities - Volta River Authority and Bui Power Authority - to work with the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission and form a new organization to drive the nuclear agenda for Ghana. This organization became Nuclear Power Ghana. When the Volta River Authority was formed in 1961, the task was to develop the hydroelectric power in the Volta Lake. In doing the dam, it created the largest manmade lake in the world. Ghana had a lot of surplus energy at the time, even after serving its prime customer Valco, an aluminum smelting company. Ghana didn’t have the challenge that other African countries have with a very shaky energy system; instead, they were able to build their electrical infrastructure from scratch on the backbone of the hydroelectric dam. Over time, more hydro facilities were added. As demand grew, Ghana decided to diversify due to experience with drought on the average of 7-10 years. Diversification has included liquid fuel like crude oil and gas, but also solar power, with wind power in development. Ghana has fallen behind in terms of investments in the power sector due to economic growth. The pace of investment did not match the growth. This has helped lead the country to nuclear, which can provide a strong baseload. Theo has been involved with the Volta River Authority since the late 1980’s, responsible at different times for protection, control, and SCADA. The SCADA system allowed for remote control and monitoring of the electrical utility, minimizing outages across the country. This culture helped build a resilient system for Ghana. Around the mid to late 1990’s, Theo shifted to information technology and ran the IT department for the company for 10 years. He later moved on to the environmental side of the business, responsible for ensuring the business does not have a negative impact on the environment. Theo retired this past June after concluding his career in energy focused on the nuclear sector.

Role of Nuclear Power Ghana (11:39-26:24)
How nuclear power will serve Ghana’s commitment to climate change and support regional economic development

Q: What are the main drivers pushing Ghana’s energy policy decisions?
A: The key driver pushing Ghana’s energy policy decisions is the pursuit of a diversified energy mix to provide security in energy supply for the country. After Ghana signed on to a number of conventions, including climate change, it also became apparent that a lot more progress could be made towards climate change commitments by pushing the nuclear agenda. The industrial base of the country keeps growing, so there may not be the luxury of depending on smaller energy systems. Nuclear provides the answer to big baseload required by this development. Theo Nii Okai had a team of very dedicated engineers and scientists that he considers the most important factor in successfully completing Phase 1 of the 3-phase milestone approach from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Theo was able to learn about nuclear quickly because he had a competent team assembled for the project. Nuclear Power Ghana had a lot of support from the IAEA and they were able to go through the various elements of the infrastructure issues, allowing the process to go smoothly. Early on, Theo’s first reservations about nuclear power were safety and security. People outside the nuclear community look at incidents like Fukushima and Chernobyl, which drives a lot of thinking about nuclear technology. If a technology is potentially hazardous, but has very good attributes and gains in terms of human development, the question is how to engage with the technology. Theo realized the perceptions he had were fueled by events, so he started questioning how to let people know what is going on in the nuclear industry to get them away from the negative perceptions. Theo now considers himself an evangelist of nuclear power. Nuclear Power Ghana wanted to engage with stakeholders, including the public, to avoid perceptions based on ignorance or limited information and look toward the benefits of the technology. If you don’t create the environment where people can’t get their questions answered, people will seek answers from others that don’t have them. The key is openness and allowing people to engage. A lot of people didn’t even know that Ghana had a research reactor at Ghana Atomic Energy Commission for years. There is a growing group of people that see the technology has very good uses for the country. In some research areas, nuclear radiation is helping with agriculture and radiation has also been at the forefront of chemo health. As the engagement continues, people see that nuclear is something the country can take advantage of, especially because the country has seen times of rationing power. Nuclear is a very reliable power supply.

Current State of Ghana’s Nuclear Development (26:24-36:51)
Ghana’s progress through the IAEA milestones and what it means for the Sub-Saharan region of West Africa

Q: What are the three milestones for Nuclear Power Ghana and what are the next steps in terms of development?
A: As an organization, Nuclear Power Ghana worked through the template as provided by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The development is in three phases, each of which culminates in a milestone. The Pre-Feasibility culminates in a Program Comprehensive Report, which goes to the government and details what needs to be done going forward. This report looks at every aspect including safety, security, engagement of stakeholders, the technology to be deployed, and so on. The government can now be informed to make a knowledgeable decision and move to the next phase. When Theo Nii Okai retired in June, the Program Comprehensive Report was done and was in the hands of the government. The Ghana Nuclear Power Programme is led by the Deputy Minister of Energy. The Nuclear Regulatory Authority is also now functional in Ghana, established in 2016. The last organization established is Nuclear Power Ghana. The second phase would involve looking at the various countries’ supply of nuclear technology to determine which is suitable for Ghana and result in the selection of a vendor. Phase Three includes the beginning and conclusion of construction. Currently, studies and measurements are being taken at different sites to determine a location. Hopefully, construction of Ghana’s first nuclear power plant will be complete in the next decade. Ghana’s technology studies have looked at all the nuclear technologies, from large pressurized water reactors down to small modular reactors (SMR). No decision has been made yet, but potential sizes of the plant and potential technologies have been matched with potential sites. The potential for Ghana to become a nuclear energy hub is very good. West Africa is already building the West African Power Pool (WAPP) which will cover the entire West Africa Sub-Saharan region. If Ghana builds this infrastructure, it will benefit the entire Sub-Saharan region because power can flow from Ghana to the other West African countries. Ghana can become the role model and provide a template for other African countries to succeed in nuclear power.

Global Impact of Climate Change (36:51-44:36)
How Africa is combating climate change for the good of the planet

Q: What are the key agendas that Ghana needs to focus on to walk through the nuclear timeline and be successful at the end?
A: Theo Nii Okai wants to spend time engaging people on nuclear’s impact on climate change. It is the only technology that is zero carbon. A lot of people promote activities to eliminate climate change, but they don’t know nuclear has a key role to play in that. Once people appreciate the role of nuclear against climate change, people begin to take a second look at their negative perception. Climate change affects Africa as well. Climates don’t know borders and affects everybody. Everyone needs to work together as a human race to do things that are good for the environment. Even though the COVID-19 has been a very negative thing, it has allowed the Earth to heal because humans are no longer flying across the oceans. The ozone layer is rebuilding. Change should not become a barrier to human development, but we must work together. Boundaries drawn and borders are artificial. A problem in a neighboring country is a shared problem, so humans need to work together. Theo is excited about small modular reactors (SMR) and interested to see where the technology will go. Africa’s grid sizes are not large enough to run these very large 1,400 MW nuclear power plants. If one large reactor were to go down, the entire grid would go down. If a 300-600 MW SMR went down, the entire grid could stay online via other SMR’s. At the end of the process, Theo hopes to see the technology that works for Africa.

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