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Assistant professor presents on nuclear safeguards in energy-deficient Ghana

A sign outside the Ghana Atomic Energy Comission Laboratory.

Ghana and a handful of other African countries are pursuing nuclear power as a much-needed solution to their energy needs. But before being approved to build nuclear reactors, these countries must first meet the nuclear safeguard requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Photos courtesy of Matthew Bernards.

The lights are out in Ghana.

In the coastal country off the Gulf of Guinea, power cuts are so constant that Ghanaians even have a nickname for it: dumsor, which roughly translates to “on-and-off.” It’s an appropriate moniker for the country’s current electricity rationing schedule. There, the power is only on for 12 hours at a time, then off for another 24.

A tour guide shows program participants around an unused nuclear power facility.

Ghana is just one of many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa currently suffering from a power crisis; their energy capacity just can’t meet the growing demands of the population, leading to extreme power rationing called “load shedding.”

It’s a harsh reality that Matthew Bernards, an assistant professor in the University of Missouri’s Chemical Engineering Department, said he was “a little bit floored” to learn just a week before he would be traveling to the nation’s capital, Accra, for a conference on nuclear safeguards.

Ghana is just one of many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa currently suffering from a power crisis; their energy capacity just can’t meet the growing demands of the population, leading to extreme power rationing called “load shedding.”

Matthew Bernards poses with several other participants in the conference on the steps of a building.

Matthew Bernards, assistant professor of chemical engineering, was invited to travel to Accra, Ghana, to give a presentation on the certificate during a one-week professional development course titled “Introduction to Nuclear Security and Safeguards for Sub-Sahara Africa.” The goal of the course, cosponsored by the Department of Energy, the Department of State and the National Nuclear Security Administration, was for Bernards and other experts to train professionals from Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and Cameroon on the subject matter so that they could turn around and implement them within their own educational programs.

Some of these countries are pursuing nuclear power as a much-needed solution to their energy needs. But before being approved to build nuclear reactors, these countries must first meet the nuclear safeguard requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

That’s where Bernards and others come in.

Bernards is involved with with MU’s Graduate Certificate in Nuclear Safeguards Science and Technology. The four-course sequence is the only nuclear safeguard certificate program offered by a U.S. university.

In late June, Bernards was invited to travel to Accra to give a presentation on the certificate during a one-week professional development course titled “Introduction to Nuclear Security and Safeguards for Sub-Sahara Africa.” The invitation came about through his involvement over the past few years with Argonne National Laboratory through their Safeguards University Engagement Program.

The goal of the course, cosponsored by the Department of Energy, the Department of State and the National Nuclear Security Administration, was for Bernards and other experts to train professionals from Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and Cameroon on the subject matter so they could turn around and implement them within their own educational programs.

“The popular phrase is ‘training the trainer,’” said Bernards, who was the only U.S. university representative to attend the workshop. All other presenters were affiliated with a national laboratory.

During his presentation, Bernards explained MU’s nuclear safeguard certificate and then led an exercise in identifying ways to introduce safeguards and security topics to undergraduate engineering students.

“The idea of nuclear safeguards is basically the structure that the entire world uses to prevent the spread of nuclear materials that could be used in a nuclear weapon,” Bernards said, “so from that perspective the importance of it is pretty obvious.”

He and others gave their presentations during the first session held on August 3-7. The participants were then divided into small groups and given a topic in nuclear safeguards that they will give their own hour-long academic presentation on during the second session in late October.

To those who attended, the importance of increasing energy capacity was hard to miss; the hotel the conference was held at was not exempt to the power cuts, and a generator was used to power laptops for the PowerPoint presentations.

Bernards spent many nights by the pool after the hotel gates were closed, talking with participants and learning about the unique sets of challenges they faced within their countries.

One Nigerian professor told of how he had continued to teach at his university while it was used to house the military during its war with Boko Haram.

“The differences in capabilities and resources was really interesting,” Bernards said.

Bernards’ trip to Ghana was one of his last treks on behalf of the university. He will be transitioning his work elsewhere within the year.

Of his time spent in Ghana, Bernards said it was an eye-opening and valuable experience. “It helps you realize what we take for granted here in the U.S. The main reason all of these countries are pursuing nuclear power is that they just don’t have the energy they need to meet the growing demands.

“Whereas here in the U.S., you flip the switch and the light’s on all the time.”