Sunday, October 03, 2010

Don’t Nuke Sri Lanka Please!

Hemantha Withanage
Executive Director, Centre for Environmental Justice

Sri Lanka is becoming a power hungry nation. Unnecessary lighting and unsustainable electricity consumption need more and more power generation. Despite the protest against coal power, Sri Lanka is building several coal power station with 3200 MW generation capacity. 1000 MW by the China and another 1000 MW by India are on the way. New Energy Minister (Former Environmental Minister) Champika Ranawaka now wants to become the nuclear champion by building a Nuclear Power plant by 2025. It is pity that Minister Ranawaka who started his environmental carrier as an activist against the coal power has now playing this role to supply power for energy hungry and unsustainable development paradigm.

A year ago, in the time of annual meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency Professor Tissa Vitarana Minister of Science and Technology was somehow become convinced that Nuclear power is the future power option for Sri Lanka. He said that Thorium deposits available in some parts of Sri Lanka can be a source of energy. Minister Ranwaka who attended the 54th annual meeting in this year suddenly becomes vocal on the same plan. It seems now Minister Tissa Vitarana found another Minister to back his idea.

The news appeared in the Daily Mirror of 5th September 2009 reporting that Minister Tissa Vitarana has invited Indian scientists to conduct a feasibility study to search for Thorium deposits in the Southern coastal belt for use as an energy source for nuclear power generation in Sri Lanka with the assistance from the Indian Government. However, Minister Ranawaka is looking for the assistance from the Russian scientist.

There is very much protest to the promotion of nuclear power by the general public in worldwide. The meltdown in Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear power plant in April 1986 was the world's worst nuclear disaster. The explosion of the nuclear reactor killed at least 32 immediately. However, thousands more have died since 1986 due to related diseases. Over 100,000 people were evacuated from the region following the blast. Radiation is still a problem in the region.

According to Benjamin K. Sovacool that worldwide there have been 99 fatal accidents at nuclear power plants from 1952 to 2009, totaling US$20.5 billion in property damages. Fifty-seven accidents have occurred since the Chernobyl disaster and almost two-thirds (56 out of 99) of all nuclear-related accidents have occurred in USA which has access to latest technology.

As we have seen in other countries, nuclear power is a risky and dangerous source of power. It needs pre-processing, maintenance, waste disposal and decommissioning involving very high risks and sensitivity.

One of the foremost facts of nuclear power plants is the construction cost. Recently built nuclear plants in some countries cost more than several billions of US dollars. In the Sri Lankan scenario, this will lead to a big financial risk. Also it takes more than one decade to construct such a plant. Therefore considering the financial constraints and the time involved, a nuclear power plant is not the best solution to meet the present growing demands of energy of the country. According to some economists nuclear power plants involve very high construction costs with low fuel cost. While the cost is from the government, the risk is for the people and benefits go to the construction companies rather than the public.

Thorium deposits exhaust and will not last more than 50-60 years according to the researchers. The problem arising here will be supplying of energy source when deposits are drained. If the material has to be imported (from Russia or elsewhere), the proposed targets will not be achieved and will be another burden on the country’s finances.

The environmental hazards due to mining of Thorium have to be addressed widely. Extraction of radioactive elements, such as Thorium, gives rise to considerable amounts of radioactive waste which cannot be under estimated. The safe disposal and transportation of residues of such plants also have to be given substantial considerations. Also social, economical and environmental measures need to be adopted to prevent possible nuclear disasters. There are many residents living around and working in Indian Uranium mining sites facing death and other health problems.

It is true that the countries who developed Nuclear power should consult the neighbouring nations. India did not follow this agreement when they develop number of nuclear station in the southern tip of India. Any disaster in these plants may also cause risks to Sri Lanka too.

As we have learned, Nuclear power is not carbon neutral. According to some researches, “the nuclear fuel cycle is responsible for emitting 84 to 122 grams of carbon dioxide for every KWh, mostly from mining, plant construction, and plant decommissioning.

Another factor that may be of interest is the issue of liability. As experienced in other countries, nuclear equipment suppliers will expect an immunity clause before providing equipment or services. The clause(s) will either limit liability to a ridiculously low amount and/or immunize private equipment manufacturers, service providers altogether from any liabilities arising from a meltdown or nuclear disaster.

These are few reasons that we must consider before thinking nuclear power in Sri Lanka. It is hard to understand why we go for these risky and unsustainable options when we have sustainable sources such as wind, solar, dendro, small hydro and wave. Hope ministers don’t forget that Energy sovereignty when dealing with energy security.

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