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INVESTIGATION: Fraud, failed projects, idle staff at Nigeria’s abandoned nuclear centre (II)

Manned by unknown teenager, the barrier at the entrance of SHETSCO

Awarded at over N400 million in 2009, what was supposed to be a radioactive waste management facility at Nigeria’s Nuclear Technology Centre never came to life.

Instead, a building overgrown with scrubs lies east of the gamma irradiation facility. Waste management plants and equipment comprise various devices and machines used for treating, converting, disposing and processing wastes from various sources.

The construction of low/medium radioactive waste management facility was awarded at the contract sum of N401.4 million to Commerce General Limited and so far, N312 million has been paid to the contractor, the Nigeria Atomic Energy Commission (NAEC) said in response to a Freedom of Information request made over a month ago.

The project, according to NAEC, was 78 percent complete and has “only suffered delays.”

“The project was not abandoned. It only suffered delays due to factors outside the control of the commission,” the agency said.

The delays, NAEC said, include; “inadequate funding of capital projects generally, over the years, modification of the original design, as recommended by IAEA experts, which has resulted into changes in the BOQ figures and this development is being discussed with the contractor,” and also, “no outstanding Interim Payment Certificate on the project.”

A staff of the NTC, who was privy to the contract and execution since 2009, said the project had been used to embezzle money from government since the time of award.

“It is true that they changed the plan of the plant but they’ve never done anything meaningful there since they mounted these blocks,” he said.

“The contractor is not qualified and along the line, he got stuck in the project and we’ve not seen or heard about him for many years now.”

Efforts to reach the management of Commerce Nigeria Limited were unsuccessful as the company has no website or any visible record.

Its recorded address at Plot 3, Railway Avenue, Kachia Road, Kakuri, Kaduna South, Kaduna, does not exist, this paper found out during a visit there.

“We’ve never heard of that place,” several residents of Kachia told this reporter after attempts were made to locate the company.

In Nigeria, it is not uncommon for ‘brief case’ contractors, most times in connivance with the awarding entity, to register a company for the sole purpose of bidding for contracts and making quick money.

As alleged by staff of the centre, this may be the case as even the figures quoted in FOI response by NAEC are contradictory.

Supposed waste management plant overgrown by bushes

While the commission said the project was 78 percent complete, a visit to the facility told a different story: an expanse of land overgrown with weeds and a construction no way near half-way complete which, in no way, justified the commission’s claim of paying almost 80 percent of the total contract sum to the contractor.

If the contract was awarded at N401. 4 million and N312 million had been paid so far, the balance should be about N89 million. But NAEC quoted N329 million.

‘Abandoned’ nuclear instrumentation laboratory

One of the components of the masterplan of the centre is the nuclear instrumentation laboratory which is supposed to serve as workshop for students, researchers and others in the nuclear field.

The project was awarded at the cost of N829.6 million to Trois Associate Limited in 2012 and it is 68% complete, NAEC’s response to an FOI stated.

The nuclear instrumentation laboratory overgrown with weeds

Again, NAEC claimed that the project was not abandoned and was delayed due to paucity of funds.

“For instance, there was no provision for the project in year 2016 and only about 11% of the capital has been released so far in the current year (2017),” the response noted.

When this paper first visited the centre in September, there was no contractor on site. In fact, there was no way a contractor would have reached the building as anyone who dared would have to clear about 100 metres of weeds and trees surrounding the laboratory building.

“The contract has been on hold due to non-payment of funds,” the contractor handling the project, Gbenga Ogunsola, told this paper when contacted in October.

“We demobilised in 2015 March because our outstanding valuation was not honoured by the commission. It was due payment that was just paid last month.”

He said the project is about 75 percent complete as against the 68 percent quoted by NAEC and that he is already on site after a recent release of fund.

Mr. Ogunsola would not state the amount recently released but there seems to be more to worry about.

Although the project was awarded at an agreed amount of N829.6 million, the N265.2 million balance would not be enough to conclude the construction.

“Definitely no,” Mr. Ogunsola said when asked if the balance would be enough to complete the project.

“We intend to present a case for review to the commission. We are still working on that. We are not going to review the whole thing, we’ll just review the outstanding work. I’m looking at between 25 to 30% review but I’m not sure yet.”

However, apart from clearing of the surrounding bushes, there were no further works on the site when this reporter visited in December, four weeks after receiving the FOI response from NAEC.

A FAILED VISION

Emmanuel Emovon, a professor and the then Minister of Science and Technology, while receiving former military leader, Ibrahim Babangida, at the foundation ceremony of the nuclear facility in 1988, envisaged that the centre should be a “sanctuary to the scientific and technological community where members can retire to occasionally for more positive thinking about the physical.”

To make that vision a reality, the Goodluck Jonathan government in 2012 made budgetary provision for the construction of a recreational and educational facility.

The sports facility now used by farmers

The contract was awarded to Silhouttes AB + Turnkey at N274.5 million and an initial payment of N214.2 million was made, leaving a balance of N60.3 million.

Like others, construction of the sports facility was done halfway and like in other cases, NAEC said it was delayed due to paucity of funds.

“The project was not abandoned,” in response to an inquiry.

“It only suffered delays due to inadequate funding of capital projects generally over the years. For instance, there was no provision for the project in year 2016 and only about 11% of the capital has been released so far in the current year (2017). The contractor has just been mobilised back to the site and further works on the project have commenced,” it stated.

Meanwhile, staff of the NTC said they were familiar with the management’s “deceptive” move of mobilising contractors back to site whenever they sniff a probe.

“It’s a game and they understand the game very well. They mobilised the same contractors back to site immediately the present administration came on board in anticipation of what may come up but since there were no signs of probe everything ended that way,” a staff said.

The staff added that the “fire brigade approach” of mobilising contractors back to site was only to douse tension raised by this reporter’s probe. “They will soon abandon the project again when everything dies down,” she said.

The contractor handling the project, Munachi Okorocha, declined to speak with PREMIUM TIMES without permission from NAEC.

“Speak to NAEC and let them tell me to speak to you,” Mr. Okorocha said in a phone conversation.

Okorocha became agitated when reminded him that the project was being funded by public funds and, as such, he had a duty to answer questions relating to it.

“I’m a private man, I’m not a public man,” he said angrily and hung up.

Okorocha’s reluctance to speak about the project may not be unconnected to the current state of the sports centre which, in recent times, has been turned into a farm and grazing field for farmers and cattle herders respectively. Contrary to the claim that contractors have been mobilised, in December when this reporter visited, the site was still abandoned just as it was in previous visits.

The only visible change were two heaps of sand delivered at the site. There was no one working there.

Herders grazing within the centre

COMPLETED – BUT LOCKED – WAREHOUSE

One of the completed projects at the centre, the warehouse, has been under lock since 2009 when it was completed, PREMIUM TIMES learnt.

According to findings, the facility was supposed to be a warehouse for people to bring in their produce for irradiation and store same before transporting it out of the centre.

However, none of these lines of activity has ever happened at the centre.

“There was a time, it was thought that the Gamma Irradiation Facility could be commercialised,” said Sunday Thomas, Director-General of SHETSCO.

One of the things that was required was a warehouse whereby people who needed to bring their goods for irradiation will have a warehouse for storage.

“Just before they (NAEC) left the Ministry of Science and Technology to the Presidency, there was one man who went to the President and said the Gamma facility could be commercialised. The President asked the then Minister of Science and Tech to look into the possibility.

“The Minister then set up a committee and part of the recommendation of that committee is that it could be commercialised but one of the first things to do is to build a warehouse. Before the report of that committee could be fully implemented, the management of the centre had gone to NAEC and NAEC had left the Ministry. I wouldn’t know why they didn’t follow up.”

However, despite the availability of the Gamma facility and the warehouse, the Chairman of NAEC, Simon Mallam, said the non-availability of funds has delayed the commercialisation of the facility.

“That is why we have the warehouse,” he said.

Built and locked up, NTC’s warehouse

“We bring products in, irradiate them and take them out from the other side. But funds have not been forthcoming for us to do that the way we wanted. Since 2015, we have not seen any capital expenditure. So, this is the hard reality.”

Mr. Mallam said the facility cannot irradiate up to a tonne of produce in its present condition.

A nuclear technology expert and former director of SHETSCO, Charles Adesanmi, noted that the Gamma facility can still be used for commercial purposes but needs to be upgraded for maximum output.

“The Gamma facility there is already old,” he said.

“The cobalt-60 that is being used there has a half-life of about five (years). So, every five years, it deteriorates by half. It means that by 2015, it had gone down to a quarter of what it used to be.”

BREACH OF STANDARD

If the fundamental safety principles instituted by the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, is anything to go by, the NTC will exist as many entities but a standard nuclear centre.

Nigeria joined IAEA, an international body for cooperation in the nuclear field in promoting safe, secure and peaceful use of nuclear technologies, in 1964.

The IAEA safety standards, was enshrined to ensure protection of people and the environment against radiation risks, safety of facilities and activities that give rise to radiation risks. The world body recognised this to include, safety of nuclear installations, radiation safety, the safety of radioactive waste management and safety in the transport of radioactive material.

The world body listed some fundamentals which must be observed by member states in section 3.30 of the safety standard.

“The most harmful consequences arising from facilities and activities have come from the loss of control over a nuclear reactor core, nuclear chain reaction, radioactive source or other source of radiation. Consequently, to ensure that the likelihood of an accident having harmful consequences is extremely low, measures have to be taken; to prevent the occurrence of failures or abnormal conditions (including breaches of security) that could lead to such a loss of control; To prevent the escalation of any such failures or abnormal conditions that do occur; to prevent the loss of, or the loss of control over, a radioactive source or other source of radiation.”

As presented in the first part of this story, PREMIUM TIMES investigation has revealed that the centre has violated the core of safety principles expected at the centre and thus, risk withdrawal of its license.

Investigations also revealed that most of these breaches would have been avoided had contracts awarded been fully implemented.

For instance, the management of the centre has failed in providing adequate security for the centre even as the country is going through a tumultuous time in security.

Also worrisome is the mismanagement of the Gamma Irradiation Facility, the non-existence of a waste management facility to properly dispose nuclear wastes and others abandoned within the centre.

The IAEA could not provide a report of Nigeria’s performance in nuclear safety upon inquiry by this reporter.

However, the regulatory body in an email response by its Press and Public Information Officer, Jeffrey Donovan, noted that the sole responsibility of decommissioning a nuclear centre lies with the national authorities responsible for nuclear safety and nuclear security, in this case, the Nigeria Nuclear Regulatory Agency, NNRA.

The response states, “The IAEA’s role is to assist its Member States in fulfilling their responsibilities on nuclear safety and nuclear security. The IAEA does this in a number of ways, including through its safety standards. In addition, upon the request of a Member State, the IAEA conducts peer-review missions to review Member State activities against IAEA safety standards in a number of areas, including the nuclear regulatory framework, operational safety, or nuclear security. At the end of these missions, the IAEA-led team typically issues a report to the host Government that includes recommendations and suggestions for improvements.”

The IAEA did not also state if it had recommended decommissioning to the country due to the poor state of the facility.

WHO RUNS THE NTC

As evident in this investigation, one of the major problems which accounts for the sorry state of the centre is the dichotomy of management.

While the full budget of the centre goes to NAEC, the initiator, SHETSCO, shares in the burden of maintaining the centre, thus, the NTC stands hanging in terms of management. Mr. Mallam traced this problem to improper handover.

“The NTC was formerly under SHETSCO but when NAEC was activated, the Minister made a memo to the president on the transfer of some nuclear related establishments under the supervision of NAEC which President Obasanjo approved. The NTC was one of them. The staff in SHETSCO working at the NTC were supposed to automatically transfer to NAEC.

“However, the implementation of that decision has had some challenges because there were attempts to do a full handover by the Ministry of Science and Technology which was by then supervising the two agencies but there were some difficulties in fully implementing that decision. So, some parts of it remain under SHETSCO, the Gamma Irradiation Facility came under NAEC others like the power house, security, and others are been run by SHETSCO. So, that has created difficulty in having some synergy and we have a committee to solve that.”

He assured this reporter that the dichotomy would soon be a thing of the past.

“Under President Jonathan, a Presidential Technical Committee was set up chaired by the Head of Service to look at the management framework of the atomic energy sector completely in the country and submit a report,” Mr Mallam continued.

“Unfortunately, that committee worked and for whatever reason, the report has not been finalised. But we are working with the Present Head of Service to see how the report can be finalised. So, most of the issues as to the implementation of that decision were supposed to be addressed by the committee.”

MORE HARDSHIP FOR STAFF

Amidst the non-availability of tools to work with, staff of the centre have expressed their grievances over their redundancy.

Some of them who confided in this reporter said they come to work to do nothing daily as the machines are no longer working.

Don’t be deceived, most of these machines are not working

Bisi (not real name) said the situation was better when the centre was solely run by SHETSCO.

“It’s not only about salary but I also have to think about my career,” Ms. Bisi said.

“Even though my salary is being paid regularly but I’ve not been doing anything for years now. Nothing is working here and we can’t continue to keep quiet. We come here every day just to talk and while away time. Nothing is functioning here.”

Another staff, Emeka (not real name) said he was unhappy at being idle and urged the government to merge the nuclear centres into one entity.

“It’s better that the place is left to be managed by one entity. If there is any fault now, you will see that there will be shift of blame. So, let everything that happens here be on one person. We don’t want SHETSO, NAEC joint management again. We want just one. We want to work.”

But the situation is outside NAEC’s control, according to Mr. Mallam.

“If you’ve not been able to secure funds, irrespective of who is managing it, you will not be able to do anything,” he said.

“For instance, if a facility develops some fault and to fix that somebody gives you about 800 Euros bill, you have to plan that in the budget before you could get it repaired. But what we have challenged our staff to do is that there are some of those things they can work on themselves. So, it’s not a question of people go there and no work but the challenges of fund and we are working to get appropriate funding. With the support we are gradually getting from the government, we are likely going to solve some of those problems within the next one year.”

Speaking at the South-west Sensitization Programme on National Science, Technology and Innovation Roadmap, the Minister of Science & Technology, Ogbonnaya Onu, said the Federal Government’s National Science, Technology and Innovation Roadmap will save the country about $11 billion in five years.

The federal government in August approved the 13-year National Science, Technology and Innovation Road Map starting from 2017 to 2030.

Mr. Onu said the roadmap would enhance the nation’s emerging post-crude oil economy, catalyse economic growth and boost competitiveness of the nation’s raw material endowment.

“This is the Road Map of all Road Maps. Other road maps have the life span of 3-5 years, but this road map of 13 years would outlive this present government and would also outlive my stay as the minister.

“If China with over one billion population could do it, Nigeria will. Our problem is not the population but to correct the mistakes our fathers made.

How well can we correct these mistakes? For experts in the field, the correction lies mainly with adequate funding of the sector.

“It is unfortunate that we keep talking about nuclear programme but the government is not spending on this,” Mr. Adesanmi Charles, a former DG of the nuclear centre said.

“Any programme that will gulp money, the government can propagate it but later turn their eye to it and nuclear technology is always expensive to run. They need to put more money. For example, nuclear technology can be used in power generation.

“We can ask our friends in other parts of the world to come and invest in nuclear technology but first, we must put our money down. It is business. We can get up to 5,000 megawatts from nuclear source in the next five years if we take deliberate steps. We can target.”

While experts continue to hope for better funding of the sector and the Minister continues to reel out the government’s plan, the centre lies abandoned by contractors and its own management.

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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