INVESTIGATION: The appalling, risky state of Nigeria’s multi-billion Naira Nuclear Technology Centre (1)

Welcome to SHETSCO

It was two days to Christmas in 1988 when a group of experts assembled at a huge expanse of land at Kilometre 32, Lokoja-Abuja Road, Abuja.

Overhead, the sun’s unforgiving rays beamed down hard on technocrats, researchers, politicians, and scientists who were about to witness the foundation laying ceremony for the Sheda Science and Technology Complex, SHETSCO, Nigeria’s first ever national science and technology complex and the first ever nuclear technology centre in Africa.

To be modelled after the likes of Tsukuba Science City in Japan, Taedok Science Town in South Korea, and Serpong facility in Indonesia; the nuclear technology centre was the brainchild of a 17-member panel of professors, doctors and technocrats who brainstormed for eight months before presenting to the federal government the need to establish the centre.

It was Ibrahim Babangida, then military leader, who set the event rolling.

“I am glad to be here this morning for an epoch making event; to perform the turning of the sod for the construction, establishment and take off of a National Science and Technology Complex,” Mr Babangida addressed the gathering.

“At this juncture, it is necessary to remind ourselves that all the facilities in this complex are being provided at great expense to the Nigerian public. The expectation of the public will not be unnaturally aroused by our action because expectations result in either criticisms if success or improvement is not achieved or adulation if otherwise.”

Months after the foundation was laid, the Nuclear Technology Centre, NTC, complex, the first ever in Africa, was birthed; and was followed, five years later, by the Biotechnology, Chemistry, and Physics laboratories.

But nothing much has happened afterwards. And 29 years later, the expanse of land hosting the NTC complex has become strewn with uncompleted – as well as abandoned – projects.

ABANDONED PROJECTS

The first significant step at establishing the NTC materialised in 1987 when the Ministry of Science and Technology received a proposal for establishment of the centre.

To consider this proposal, the then minister, Emmanuel Emovon, constituted a 17-member panel, which after an eight months deliberations, recommended to the government that the centre be established and fashioned along the kinds in countries visited such as Germany and Indonesia.

The recommendation of the panel led by Awele Maduemezia, a professor and then Vice Chancellor of Bendel State University (now Edo State University), Ekpoma, resulted in the constitution of a project team by the ministry.

Apart from the uses in agriculture, pharmacy, power generation, etc., the NTC was conceived to create opportunities for world-class research and development, obviating the frustration plaguing first-rate scientists and technologists due to lack of facilities.

By design, 14 different facilities were planned for the NTC. But only two, the mechanical and electrical workshop and the Gamma Irradiation Plant have been completed; none of which is working in full capacity.

While majority of the other facilities planned for the centre have not been established by the government, PREMIUM TIMES investigation revealed that about four projects which have been budgeted for, cash-backed and awarded to contractors are now abandoned within the centre.

ZERO SECURITY

When PREMIUM TIMES reporter first visited the NTC in September, there was little or nothing that distinguished the centre from a regular property in terms of security.

In fact, there was no security guard on sight; as this reporter, who expected a security check to his undercover mission, entered the facility freely without being stopped or questioned.

Security at the NTC on one hand depicts the laissez faire scenario of free entry and exit; and on the other hand, a gun powder waiting to explode at the slightest breach.

“It is very shameful that a nuclear centre in which the government invested heavily does not have reliable security, just imagine the way you entered freely,” one of the staff members (names withheld to avoid victimisation) told PREMIUM TIMES. “In Ghana, it will take you more than a week of processing and several security checks before you gain access to their nuclear facilities and they don’t grant access to just anybody.”

Perhaps, security at the centre would have been better if the N290 million electric access control security project handled by Beulah Technical Company Limited, BETCO, was completed and functional.

In April 2008, the project was awarded to BETCO in a subcontract by Rosuli Tech Logistics and Support Services Nigeria Limited who dealt directly with the clients; Ministry of Science and Technology and SHETSCO.

Three months later, in July 2008, BETCO received an initial payment of N140 million on a contract term that the balance of N150 million would be paid after the completion of the project.

The project which BETCO executed in partnership with a South African firm includes installation of surveillance camera, its tracking devises and other technological apparatus to control access and general security at NTC.

But the surveillance cameras never worked though they have been installed at the centre.

Business started getting sour by mid-2009 when BETCO fell out with the contractor, Rosuli Tech, and dragged the company to court in 2010.

The contention lies in sharing of the proceeds from the contract.

BETCO argued that it executed the project without assistance from Rosuli. Therefore, demands such as retention fee, consultancy fee, deductions for Value Added Tax, VAT, and others which the contractor (Rosuli Tech) requested shouldn’t be mentioned. Bola Akinola, the then manager of BETCO who appeared before the court as first witness, said that the company is entitled to N150 million balance according to agreement.

Rosuli on the other hand argued that the contract was never awarded to BETCO. It said the security project is part of an existing contract between SHETSCO and one German company, AREVA NP GMBH. Rosuli said due to AREVA’s inability to deliver, the project was re-awarded to it and subcontracted to BETCO. On this basis, Rosuli expected BETCO to work according to its terms.

The company stated its terms in a conditional letter of acceptance dated July 1, 2008 to include; N6 million consultancy fee, a five per cent tax deduction to amount to N14.5 million, a 5 per cent VAT deduction of N14.5 million and retention fee for one year calculated at N29 million.

With this arrangement, Rolf Schneider, the Managing Director of Rosuli maintained that the balance after completion of contract was N86 million and not N150 million as claimed by BETCO.

Further, the company argued that the project was not executed appropriately in manner and time. It, therefore, maintained that a certificate of completion would not be issued to BETCO.

The court proceedings dragged on for about six years. In a final judgement delivered in May 2015, Justice Donatus Okorowo of the Federal High Court Abuja ruled that BETCO be paid the balance of N150 million.

“By the tenor of exhibit B, the defendants (Rosuli Tech) accepted payment of the sum of N290, 000, 000, the total sum of the contract. Having earlier found that the plaintiff have performed the contract, they are entitled to payment of the balance of the contract sum which is N150, 000, 000,” Mr. Okorowo said while delivering the judgement.

The court ordered Rosuli Tech and its CEO to pay the balance due and an interest of 21 per cent per annum from November 2009 until the judgement debt is liquidated.

THE N150 million BALANCE

The N150 million balance for the project, however, remains unresolved.

By the tone of the court judgement, the full amount for the contract was deposited with Rosuli Tech. But the company has failed to balance the project executor neither did it remit the balance into the coffers of the federal government.

The Chief Executive Officer, CEO, of BETCO, Olumide Braithwaite, in an interview told PREMIUM TIMES that his company has not received any fund other than the initial payment.

“No, we haven’t been paid,” he said. “Despite completion of the contract and successful hand over to the parastatal and the Ministry of Science and Technology. Nothing has been paid.”

On inquiry about why the cameras were not working, Mr. Olumide said that his company handed over the facility in good condition.

“We successfully handed over the project. If they (the cameras) were not tested, they would not have been successfully handed over.”

He added that his company did not have a contract for maintenance and operation, thus, they can’t be held responsible for the non-functioning of the cameras.

But the Director General of SHETSCO, Sunday Thomas, disagreed. He stated that the project was never handed over to SHETSCO.

“It was never handed over to SHETSCO as a completed project,” he replied to enquiry by this reporter. “There was a misunderstanding between Rosuli and BETCO. The case dragged on for years before a judgement was given but it was never really handed over to us as a complete project.”

Mr. Olumide of BETCO also said every attempt by his company to track down Rosuli has not been successful.

“Rosuli disappeared. Rosuli was being ran by a German national. All attempts to reach them now has not been successful. They just vanished. I understand that the German man has returned to Germany. So we are faced with the problem of executing the court judgement.”

PREMIUM TIMES efforts to reach the management of Rosuli were unsuccessful.

When this reporter visited the No. 28, Amazon Street, Maitama, Abuja address of the firm as mentioned on the website of the Corporate Affairs Commission, CAC, there was no trace of the company. The building was being occupied by new residents.

The security man at the building simply identified himself as Abubakar. He claimed to have worked for Rosuli, but said the company folded up more than six years ago.

“They left this place in 2010,” Mr. Abubakar said. “They paid off all their staff. Even the German Oga is no longer in Nigeria. You can’t see anyone of them. I’m surprised that you are still asking about Rosuli.”

However, lying between the claims and counter claims is a perennial issue of insecurity at a nuclear technology centre in an insurgency-ravaged country. The whereabouts of a company in custody of public funds for an “uncompleted” project also remains unresolved.

UNUSABLE MULTI-BILLION NAIRA GAMMA IRRADIATION FACILITY

In October 2017, Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture, Audu Ogbe, threw the nation into a plethora of argument when he announced that the United States of America, USA, rejected yam exports from Nigeria because of their poor quality.

“Some consignment of yams were exported from Nigeria to the United States and according to reports we have today, they were found to be of poor quality” he said. “We will be investigating both the company that exported it and our quarantine department to check and find out why such a consignment left here.”

Ironically, a multi-billion naira Gamma Irradiation Facility, housing a 340 kilocure cobalt-60 irradiation source, which would have been efficient in preserving the yam tubers is rotting away at the Nuclear Technology Centre.

Inaugurated by former President Olusegun Obasanjo shortly before leaving office, the over N50 billion Gamma facility built for research and commercial purpose never worked as expected as it has remained under poor maintenance, and almost redundant, since 2006.

The facility was built for the peaceful application of nuclear technology in areas of agriculture, industry, health care, polymerisation, electricity generation, sterilisation, disinfection and autoradiography.

Potential applications of the facility in agriculture include increased food production through the use of fast neutrons to induce mutations in seeds, sprout inhibition of onions, potatoes etc., insect disinfestations of grains, reduction in microbial load of spices, genetic engineering and breeding disease resistant plant varieties.

With a controlled amount of gamma radiation from cobalt-60 source, the shelf-life of perishable agricultural produce such as yam, cassava, tomatoes, beans, oranges etc. are prolonged thereby, reducing the enormous amount of harvest loss of food.

Despite the huge economic prospect of the facility, none of the beneficiaries – researchers, farmers, exporters, medical practitioners – have access to it as it remains non-functional arising from poor maintenance.

Workers at the NTC who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES said the high rate of fund mismanagement by the administrators of the centre accounts for the poor state of the facility.

Beyond this, the dichotomy of management between, SHETSCO and the Nigeria Atomic Energy Commission, NAEC, was also mentioned as being responsible for the poor state of the facility.

“Before, this centre used to be under the management of SHETSCO and things still work well,” one of the workers who does not want his name mentioned to prevent being victimised said. “But when they transferred the management to NAEC, everything got destabilised.”

When it was inaugurated in 2006, the Gamma facility was managed by SHETSCO who was in control of the whole complex.

Three years later, in 2009, the management was transferred to NAEC and thus, the facility and others at the NTC, including the staff became the responsibility of NAEC.

“The centre is under NAEC and NAEC receives the budget for the centre,” Deputy Director, Budget, Ministry of Science and Technology, Ken Biko, told PREMIUM TIMES during a follow-up to an FOI request for the budget of the centre.

“SHETSCO is under the ministry and their budget is quoted in the ministry’s budget. But the budget of the Nuclear Technology Centre goes directly to NAEC which is under the presidency. So we don’t have their budget here.”

Investigations, however, revealed that NAEC is culpable in the poor management of the Gamma facility.

According to the arrangement, when NAEC was to take over, nuclear activities at the centre including the maintenance of the Gamma facility fell under the control of NAEC while the non-nuclear ones remained the responsibility of SHETSCO.

Further, the bulk of fund budgeted to run the centre end up with NAEC.

“Since 2009, the budget goes into NAEC,” SHETSCO DG, Sunday Thomas, said.

A check into the budgetary provision for NAEC revealed that about N13 billion has been appropriated for personnel, recurrent and capital expenditure for the commission in the past five years.

Quoted as budget of ‘NAEC and its centres,’ the commission had the following budgetary provision between 2013 and 2017: N2,776,896,318 in 2013; N2,315,119,915 in 2014; N1,409,066,797 in 2015; N1,369,738,204 in 2016 and N5,007,892,714 in 2017.

For the five years, a total of N12,878,713,948 was budgeted for the commission to run its headquarter and centres, including NTC. However, there was no specific breakdown on what each centre received.

But the Chairman of NAEC, Simon Mallam, defended the commission; saying it was hampered by inadequate funding.

While admitting that the facility is not in proper care, Mr. Mallam noted that the dearth of fund has incapacitated his commission to carry out its work.

“There is nothing like NTC budget fundamentally,” he stated during an interview with PREMIUM TIMES. “What we do, government funds projects and they allocate funds the project. On the recurrent, even under SHETSCO, NTC never had a separate budget, it was SHETSCO budget. Somehow, we have one line budget without specifying which centre has what.

“For instance, our overhead cost (received) in the last two, three years is less than N12 million monthly, for all the headquarters and all these centres, you have to manage it. Last year we had an overhead of only 8 months, this year we have had only six months. So there is no magic we can do.”

AN ‘EXTREMELY DANGEROUS’ SITUATION

Beyond the economic loss at the Gamma Irradiation Facility, the about 50 workers of the centre and residents of the Federal Capital Territory have a great deal to worry about.

The facility exists as a gun powder waiting to be ignited if not properly taken care of, especially in areas of power and water supply.

Until October 2017 when two more (150KVA and 100KVA) were added, the centre’s power supply station had one 1500KVA, one 750KVA, one 275KVA, one 100KVA and 50KVA generators.

Of the older generators, only the 100KVA and 50KVA are in working condition and they are usually powered by SHETSCO. The conditions of the bigger generators could not be ascertained as they have not been used over a long time due to the non-availability of fund to fuel the engines, PREMIUM TIMES reporter learnt during a visit.

However, the danger of shortage of power at the centre goes beyond the explanation of a layman.

“The government has it in mind that this place is owned by NAEC so all the maintenance should be done by NAEC,” a staff of the commission said. “The allocation goes to NAEC. It’s just recently they bought these two generators, SHETSCO has been the one supplying power to this place. So, the meagre budget of SHETSCO, they are just pumping it to buy fuel. It got to a point when the money is not enough so we have to abandon some of these responsibilities.

“Supply of power to the Gamma facility is supposed to be 24 hours but we only power it during the day. We have left it for almost one month before and this is extremely dangerous. You cannot leave it not powered for a long time because the Gamma facility has a source and the source cannot be outside, once it’s outside, there is danger. That is why every building here is padded with aluminium.

“Because of the potential danger, they put this source inside water and once it is inside water, it will be disintegrating the water to oxygen and hydrogen. Now, hydrogen is a very dangerous gas. If you have a little accumulation of hydrogen, a little spark can ignite anything. So, the purpose of powering that place is that every time, there should be a fan that will be pumping the hydrogen out. The more you leave it, the more the accumulation. It will get to a point that the concentration within that environment becomes very high and so it can just spark up. You hear of hydrogen bomb and the likes. It means that there will be great explosion.

“If such occurs, everybody around here and up to like five kilometres radius are in danger. If there is any explosion here they will have the effect in as far as Garki. That’s if there is explosion. If there is no explosion, all of us here will just be working and after sometime, like six months, you’ll see somebody fall sick and die, another month, another person die.”

Apart from power supply, the existing poor water supply to the facility has the potential of igniting the same explosive effect.

The source also explained the likely effect of inadequate water on the facility.

“The cobalt is under water, like a very big pool. Because the water is disintegrating into hydrogen and oxygen, the water level is reducing and you have to be topping it every time. The water that we use in topping it is a very high pure water. It must not have any impurity. If it has any impurity, it can react with that cobalt-60 and there will still be problem.

“If the water level is not enough, it means you are having your cobalt-60 into the environment and it’s very dangerous. It will have the same effect as that of power supply.

“After the change in management, SHETSCO and NAEC was to jointly manage the workshop, water supply and water supply station to power the Gamma Irradiation Source and other parts of the NTC,” the director general of SHETSCO, Mr. Thomas, said.

“We were supposed to be doing it together but we do the bulk of the powering. At that time, we buy a tanker of diesel every month, it was quite expensive. We were doing the bulk of it because we had moved our temporary admin office from the federal secretariat to the NTC. We feel we are the one there so we couldn’t afford to let anything happen.”

An expert says this situation poses a great health risk to anyone around the centre.

Aladese David, a nuclear and atomic physicist at the Obafemi Awolowo University, said the supply must be constant or the management adopts other radiation shields.

“Water always stands as a hindrance to radiation. Gamma radiation is harmful to the body so the water should always be there as a shield. And you also need power to pump the water,” Mr. David said.

“The risk of radiation is very high. Skin cancer is one of the major problems that may arise. There is the tendency of cataract of the eye and many others. Most of the effects are health related. Nuclear radiation kills faster than any other radiation. It kills gradually. It is best to have excess water supply to the facility to avoid the radiation.”

He added that there are other Gamma radiation shields aside water. These include copper and lead.

“Lead is the best gamma radiation shield,” he concluded.

Again, the chairman of NAEC, Mr. Mallam, blamed the commission’s inability to contribute to funding of power supply on dearth of fund.

He, however, downplayed the potential of radiation risk.

“We have known the difficulties in terms of power and water supply. The main challenge is that we are running on diesel. SHETSCO will supply and we share the cost but sometimes, we both run out of resources and there is very little we can do.

“The issue is not that they are dangerous to workers or people living there, radiation sources will not fly, but the key thing is to keep the source in its particular condition. We are gradually improving and we are hoping that with releases of more funds, we’ll be able to do one of two things,” he said.

(This investigation is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, ICIR).


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