Gamma rays: N50bn tech facility wastes away
The multi billion naira Gamma Irradiation Facility (GIF) established by the federal government to provide succour to farmers against food storage and prevent post-harvest losses has gone comatose at the Nuclear Technology Centre (NTC) Sheda Science and Technology Complex (SHESTCO), Abuja.
The facility, built at a cost of over N50 billion and inaugurated by former President Olusegun Obasanjo shortly before leaving office, never worked as expected as it had remained under lock and key since its inauguration in 2006.
During the inauguration, the facility was described as one of the most modern commercial irradiation plants in the world and the only one of its kind in the West African sub-region.
The facility was established to treat over 20 metric tons of products daily including agricultural products to elongate their shelf live and make them acceptable at the international market.
Gamma irradiation is a technology that is used in the preservation of food crops and other agricultural products; it is a process by which products like yams, tomatoes, mangoes, oranges and other food products are passed through a ray called the Gamma Ray. When food crops are passed through this ray, it sterilizes the food crops against microbial infection. The ray also maintains the quality of the food product against spoilage thereby curbing post-harvest losses.
“If a crop is passed through this ray, it will make the crop to last for more than six months or one year without microbial infection or reduction in the quality of the product. In yam, the technology inhibits sprouting and maintains the quality of the yam for the period of storage,” said Engr Segun Ade, an Abuja-based engineer.
The facility was expected to generate N7. 245 billion yearly but since its commissioning, farmers have not been able to access it and reap the benefits inherent in the technology as it has been left comatose at the SHESTCO.
The technology is not only beneficial to farmers alone, medical practitioners can also benefit from the gamma ray technology; the technology can be used for sterilization of medical, clinical and pharmaceutical products and equipment when they are passed through the ray.
A source at SHESTCO who spoke on condition of anonymity told Daily Trust that since the technology was acquired, it has never been put to use and the facility is in comatose state. “Since the commissioning of this facility by the Obasanjo government, there were workshops that brought farmers, beverage companies and pharmaceutical companies together to see how they can benefit from this technology but since then, the technology has not been put to use due to management problem. I’m talking to you now, the facility has been abandoned and is comatose for several years now. The worst part of the problem is that the cobalt 60 source is decaying gradually, this means that the cost benefit analyses of acquiring this facility has not been put into use efficiently and this is a colossal loss to government and the end users who are farmers and pharmaceutical companies,” the source said.
Experts said the facility was suffering from ministerial and administrative politics as its movement from SHESTCO, an agency under the Ministry of Science and Technology to the Nigeria Atomic Energy Commission under the Presidency was another reason why the plant was grounded.
The facility was built by SHESTCO but currently managed by NAEC, a situation that created misgivings between the two organisations.
Among allegations making the round are that of a management agreement with Siemens, which Nigeria was paying N150 million monthly as it was said to have vast experience in the management of irradiation plants.
SHESTCO, Daily Trust found, was established as a technology centre. With physics advanced lab, they have biotechnology and genetic engineering lab and chemistry lab as well as the Nuclear Technological Centre lab which are supposed to serve as support units for research for the GIF. During President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, however the GIF was removed from SHESTCO without following due process.
“Under Goodluck Jonathan, the GIF was moved from SHESTCO to Nigerian Atomic Energy Commission (NAEC) because of government subvention but the enabling law establishing SHESTCO was not amended. The movement was done without recourse to the enabling law establishing the centre; meanwhile, other ancillary facilities like the electro-mechanical workshop still remained under SHESTCO,” the source added.
Chairman of NAEC, Dr. Franklin Erapamo Osaisai, told Daily Trust that the challenges facing the facility had nothing to do with mismanagement or incompetence.
Osaisai said that the facility was down, but not shut, due to technical challenges including the decay of the Cobalt 60, the nuclear fuel that the facility relied on for irradiation.
“By 2006 when the facility was inaugurated, the Cobalt 60 source strength had decayed considerably with less than 5 years’ life span. This is not something we can do on our own, we are working with our technical partner, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), on this to ensure we upgrade the source before we can undertake industrial application,” he said.
Other challenges the facility is facing, according to the chairman, are inadequate power supply which left the agency to rely on generating sets anytime the facility is operated.
He acknowledged that the facility would not be able to meet the nation’s overall expectations especially in the agricultural sector, adding that the initial design was to have the facility replicated in various parts of the country.
He denied having any technical agreement with any company for the management of the plant saying that the agency’s staff were well trained to management the facility.
The facility, according to Daily Trust investigation, was designed with full capacity utilization, to engage hundreds of Nigerian scientists and create employment opportunities but nothing of the sort has taken place since inception.
Another source who also spoke on condition of anonymity noted that the nation was “losing billions of naira due to underutilization of the irradiator as most products which have great export value can be irradiated and preserved to meet international quarantine requirements for greater economic benefits”
As the operators’ trade blame on why the facility lies comatose, it is important to note that less than a decade ago, the N50 billion facility was said to be one of the best in the world but can that still be said of it today?