Is the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission dream on course?
“In this age of science and technology, and in this age of atomic revolution, neither Ghana nor Africa can afford to lag behind nations or ignore scientific developments of our time. Indeed, we start with certain definite advantages over many nations, which have preceded us in the scientific revolution.
“We in Ghana are committed to the building of an industrialised socialist society. We cannot afford to sit still and be mere passive onlookers. We must ourselves take part in the pursuit of scientific and technological research as a means of providing the basis for our socialist society for socialism without science is void.”
These were the exact words of Ghana’s first President, Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah, when he laid the foundation stone for the construction of the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission (GAEC) in 1964.
His desire to introduce nuclear technology for the peaceful use of atomic energy for national development unfortunately has not fully materialised because of his overthrow in 1966 and subsequent death in 1972.
Forty-eight years down the lane, his dream to establish a Soviet Reactor designed solely for research, production of isotopes for medical and industrial applications has not fully materialised.
He saw in his mind’s eye that GAEC would become the leading contributor to sustainable national prosperity through the effective utilisation of nuclear, biotechnology and other related technologies.
Most importantly, it was for the development of manpower to support the introduction of nuclear power to generate electricity for the country to accelerate economic growth.
During his tenure as President of Ghana, he realized the need to use Science and Technology (S&T) for national development, mankind and for Ghanaians to be equipped with greater scientific knowledge to give richer service to Ghanaians and Africans.
S&T is said to be the bedrock or the driving force of development in any nation and Ghana was fortunate to have a President who was keenly interested in S&T issues and willing to ensure that Ghana moved along with other countries to catch up with the technological world.
Osagyefo Dr Nkrumah’s passion to ensure that Ghana joined the scientific community led to the establishment of Ghana’s Atomic Reactor Centre now known as the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission (GAEC).
Established in 1964, the Centre was to enable Ghana to participate in developments in Atomic Science.
The Commission was established by an Act of Parliament, Act 204 of 1963, but ever since the Osagyefo’s overthrow, the Commission has faced many difficulties and is still facing serious challenges thus stalling these noble dreams.
Despite the series of setbacks after the overthrown of Dr Nkrumah, the Commission has remained the sole national nuclear research institution in the country serving other neigbouring countries as well.
It has over the years created three institutes and five centres which are equipped with facilities for investigations into various problems in physics, chemistry, reactor technology, radiation protection radiotherapy, nuclear medicine, radiation processing biotechnology, food and nutrition, human health, animal production and entomology.
The major facilities to carry out these projects are a 30-kilowatt research centre, a Gamma irradiator, two radiotherapy centres, secondary standard dosimetry and tissue culture laboratories. These facilities are operated and utilized for the benefit of society without posing safety and security problems.
With all these achievements, one may ask, whether the GAEC is receiving the needed attention to ensure that it does not compromise safety and security.
Speaking to the Ghana News Agency, the outgoing Director-General, Professor Edward Akaho, said the safety and security of GAEC had recently been under threat posing a source of worry to both the nation and the international community.
Some of the achievements of the Commission include excelling in the application of nuclear techniques to address problems of human health, food and agriculture, industry and environment.
Chronic diseases are re-emerging rapidly and there is the need for powerful nuclear and isotopic techniques to complement the conventional techniques for diagnosis and treatment.
Cancer is gradually becoming a great health concern in Ghana. Even though Ghana lacks a national data on non-communicable disease, it is said to be on the increase.
It is said to be the fourth largest killer in the country and would be the largest killer in most developing countries by 2020 if a holistic approach is not adopted to include all aspects of cancer control to involve prevention, detection, diagnosis, treatment and palliative cases.
Over the years, cancer patients were sent outside the country for treatment but GAEC in partnership with the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, and Ghana’s Ministry of Health, has established two national centres of Radiotherapy and Nuclear Medicine in Korle-Bu and Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospitals in Accra and Kumasi respectively. A new radiotherapy centre is also being built at Tamale General Hospital to serve the three northern regions and neighbouring countries.
These two teaching hospitals are actively engaged in the diagnosis and treatment of various kinds of cancers, saving the country foreign exchange.
Prof. Akaho noted that GAEC had also installed a SPECT camera at the Nuclear Medicine Unit of the Korle- Bu Centre for the detection of cancers of various forms and for nuclear cardiology.
“The Commission in conjunction with the Ministry of Health has explored the possibility under the Agency’s Programme of Action for Cancer Therapy (PACT) to establish partnership with World Health Organisation, the International Agency for Research on Cancer and other international agencies to develop strategies for a comprehensive programme in cancer therapy in Ghana.”
With regard to food and agriculture, rich results have been achieved and when promoted, would enhance food production, safety and security. This has been possible through the use of Tissue Culture Research.
Through the use of radiation mutation technique, scientists of the Biotechnology and Nuclear Agriculture Research Institute (BNARI) of GAEC, in collaboration with staff of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, have developed the “Tek Bankyi”, a variety of cassava.
Adapting irradiation technology can play a vital role in the reduction of post-harvest losses and for quarantine treatment to allow export of fruits and vegetables to the United States, Europe and other international markets.
According to Prof. Akaho, though it is not economical to use the weak source designed purposely for Research and Development, they are compelled to undertake commercial irradiation, because of lack of funds to run their activities.
Currently, GEAC is negotiating with a financier and Government to establish a commercial cobalt-60 irradiator so they can satisfy their numerous exporters and manufactures of medical products such as intravenous infusion sets, cotton wool and syringes as well as fresh yam and pineapples.
BNARI’s use of tissue culture technique can produce two million planting materials and clumps of MD2 pineapple in a year for sale to farmers and multiply other crops like cassava, banana, plantain, sugar cane and sweet potato.
This tissue culture has resulted in savings in foreign exchange, which would have been spent to import clumps of MD2 pineapple.
Under Industrial Applications, GAEC continues to maximize the commercial application of radiotracer and sealed source technologies to solve problems in sectors such as the petroleum industry and mineral ore processing plants to attain increased productivity, safety and environmental impact.
In addition, nuclear technologists are engaged in the use of non-destructive testing of welds in the construction and manufacturing industries.
The Commission has established a Digital Electronic and Nuclear Instrumentation Centre where they design, repair and undertake preventive maintenance of scientific instruments and nuclear medicine equipment.
In the area of Nuclear Safety and Security, the Commission has developed adequate systems for radiological protection of patients and the control of exposure in diagnostic and interventional radiology and radiotherapy in line with international standards.
Prof. Akaho explained that the staff of the Radiation Protection Institute of the Commission had developed radiation protection infrastructures in other IAEA member states and their laboratories continued to attract scientific visitors, fellows and participants from other IAEA member states.
The Commission in 2008 established a School of Nuclear and Allied Sciences.
The new Act of Parliament, Act 588 of 2000, has given the GAEC the mandate to promote the commercialisation of Research and Development results to create a Business Development Unit to raise competitiveness and productivity of industrial enterprises within the Commission.
It has therefore prepared a Corporate Strategic Plan to ensure that whatever challenges they might encounter were properly addressed to meet the expectations of stakeholders.
To be able to achieve all these under strenuous conditions, the Commission wants to behave as the giraffe which stretches its long neck to see very far away.
As the Commission continues to upgrade and expand nuclear facilities, it is also conscious of the fact that the accumulation of knowledge based on technical information in the form of scientific analysis of engineering systems also includes tacit knowledge embodied in people.
It is for this reason that preservation and management of nuclear knowledge in Ghana has emerged as a growing challenge to the sustainability of nuclear programmes and activities in the country.
Ghana will be better placed to introduce nuclear power to solve our electricity generation and supply problems if human resource development and strengthening of basic infrastructure in nuclear science and technology are successful.
Though the Government has done well in support of the science and technology, a lot more needs to be done.
With the recent hullabaloo about who owns the land around GEAC fresh in our minds, the question of whether the big dream of Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah of making Ghana’s Atomic Energy a centre of excellence is on course remains valid.
If Ghana really wants to make science and technology the bedrock of development, then, we need to give the various science and technology institutions the needed full attention and support.
By Linda Asante Agyei