In his address to the Advocata Institute in Colombo, earlier this month, President Ranil Wickremesinghe said:“I think we need to seriously consider getting a report on using nuclear energy in Sri Lanka.”In the current context of national penury, any plan to go for nuclear energy will seem far-fetched, even impossible. But considering the expansion of Sri Lanka’s energy needs in the years to come, and also considering the need to meet the challenges posed by climate change, working on the nuclear energy option is worth ‘serious’ consideration, as the President put it.
Using nuclear energy is not a new idea in Sri Lanka. It was mooted way back in 1969. But, it took time to take any shape. Years later in 2010, addressing the 54th General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, the then Minister of Power and Energy, Patali Champika Ranawaka said Sri Lanka had incorporated nuclear power in the country’s energy mix. The Atomic Energy Authority of Sri Lanka (AEASL) was in the process of training people in nuclear energy, he said.
The AEASL was tasked to conduct a pre-feasibility study of nuclear energy as a viable option beyond 2020 for power generation. The Sri Lanka Atomic Energy Act, No. 40 was passed in 2014.
In April 2022, an IAEA team of experts concluded a six-day mission to Sri Lanka to review the country’s nuclear infrastructure development. Team leader Jose Bastos said, Sri Lanka needed to further develop the required human resources.
In 2018, Mahesh N. Jayakody and Jeysingam Jeyasugiththan of Colombo University and Prasad Mahakumara of the Government, published a Paper on the suitability of nuclear power plants for Sri Lanka. They recommended a mixture of fossil fuel, renewable sources, and nuclear plants for power generation. The installation cost of nuclear plants would be high and disposing of nuclear waste would be challenging,but nuclear plants are marked by low maintenance costs and a minimum adverse environmental impact, they argued.
In the long run, nuclear energy would work out to be cheaper, they said. These researchers recommended the VVER-1000 and the AP-1000 models based on Pressurised Water Technology (PWR) as suitable for Sri Lanka.
Favourable International Experience
Nuclear plants are a reality in South Asia. India has 22 reactors, Pakistan six, and Bangladesh is building two.According to the website of Physics World, France gets over 80 per cent of its electricity from fission reactors. But Australia, Portugal, and Norway have no commercial reactors. Germany, which wanted to decommission its three surviving nuclear reactors by year-end, is likely to keep them going, as there is a serious energy crisis with coal and gas ceasing to come from Russia.
According to a report of the US Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), nuclear power is the largest source of low-carbon electricity in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.
“Supported by robust technical evidence and growing operating experience, many countries are already taking advantage of nuclear Long-Term Operation (LTO) to meet their climate goals in a cost-effective manner, while enhancing the security of electricity supply by 2050,” the NEA report says.
A US Office of Nuclear Energy report of 2021 says nuclear plants have the highest ‘capacity factor’ (maximum capacity) compared to any other energy source.“Nuclear plants are producing maximum power more than 92 per cent of the time during the year. That’s about nearly two times more than natural gas and coal units, and are almost three times or more reliable than wind and solar plants.”
According to Physics World, it would be incorrect to claim that large amounts of energy (generating greenhouse gases) would be required to mine, process, and enrich uranium, and to construct and later decommission nuclear power stations.
“This simply ignores a wealth of realworld data. Authoritative and independently verified whole-of-life-cycle analyses in peer-reviewed journals have repeatedly shown that energy inputs to nuclear power are as low as, or lower than, wind, hydro, and solar thermal, and less than half those of solar photovoltaic panels,” Physics World said.
According to the report of the US Office of Nuclear Energy, nuclear power plants require less maintenance and are designed to operate for longer stretches before refuelling (typically every 1.5 or 2 years).
“Natural gas and coal capacity factors are generally lower due to routine maintenance and/or refuelling at these facilities. Renewable plants are considered intermittent or variable sources and are mostly limited by a lack of fuel (that is, wind, sun, or water). As a result, these plants need a backup power source such as large-scale storage (not currently available at grid-scale)—or they can be paired with a reliable baseload power like nuclear energy,” the report said.
Many claim that renewable energy sources such as solar and wind along with reduced use of fossil fuels would be enough to meet the climate change challenge. It is also said the world might run out of uranium, the raw material for nuclear power plants. This is debunked by Physics World.
“Uranium and thorium are both more abundant than tin; and with the new generation of fast-breeder and thorium reactors, we would have abundant nuclear energy for millions of years. Yet, even if the resources lasted a mere 1,000 years, we would have ample time to develop exotic new future energy sources,” it says.
However, the biggest problem that a nuclear energy programme might face in Sri Lanka is the people’s perception that nuclear plants are accident-prone and dangerous, given the memory of the Chornobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile accidents. The fear of nuclear waste poses a threat is also palpable. But the authors of the Sri Lankan research paper quoted earlier, maintain that the evolution of nuclear power plant technologies has made reactors very safe and protected from human error.
“The utilisation of self-regulating backup systems, the optimum design of the power plant and adoption of a rigorous programme for quality assurance are some of the key features used in modern nuclear power plants to ensure safety,” they point out.
Addressing this issue, Physics World says that the Chornobyl accident does not mean that the technology is inherently dangerous.“Nuclear power is hundreds of times safer than coal, gas, and oil that countries currently rely on. A study of 4,290 energy-related accidents by the European Commission’s ExternE research project for example, found that oil kills 36 workers per terawatt-hour, (a terawatt hour is a unit of energy used for expressing the amount of produced energy, electricity and heat. 1 TWh = 1,000,000 MWh). In contrast, coal kills 25 and hydro, wind, solar, and nuclear kill fewer than 0.2 per terawatt-hour.”
Issue of Nuclear Waste
On the danger from nuclear waste, there is a widely-held belief that nuclear waste would have to be managed for thousands of years. But www.world-nuclear.org says: “The amount of waste generated by nuclear power is very small relative to other thermal electricity generation technologies; nuclear waste is neither particularly hazardous nor hard to manage relative to other toxic industrial waste; and lastly, methods for the final disposal of high-level radioactive waste are technically proven. The international consensus is that geological disposal is the best option.”
Further: “In over 50 years of civil nuclear power experience, the management and disposal of civil nuclear waste has not caused any serious health or environmental problems, nor posed any real risk to the general public. Alternatives for power generation are not without challenges, and their undesirable by-products are generally not well controlled.”
By P.K. Balachandran