Jun 24

China, France, India, Russia, UK, USA and a few other countries with enormous financial and technical resources, and highly trained and disciplined work forces, are going ahead with the construction of nuclear power stations whereas an equally advanced country like Germany has decided to phase out even its existing ones. What should Sri Lanka do?

There is no question that, if you ignore certain major factors which apply particularly to small and relatively poor countries, nuclear power can superficially be shown to be one of the more economical sources of energy for the production of electricity. But can Sri Lanka afford to ignore these factors? That is the question that the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) has asked itself and offers its answers for the consideration of our technical and political decision-makers, and the Sri Lankan public.

The first point of consequence is that the advanced nuclear power countries possess the required scientific and engineering knowledge themselves. Sri Lanka, on the other hand, would have to pay a premium to gain access to almost all this knowledge and keep on paying heavily for all subsequent improvements. As in most commercial transactions, the prices quoted at the time of tendering or initial negotiations would be held at an attractively low level to persuade the customer to accept the suppliers’ proposals. Once a commitment is made and the project is completed, the supplier would be free to raise its prices for technical supervision, consumables (especially nuclear fuel) and spares. There would be little room for bargaining. This type of disadvantage would not be experienced to anything like the same extent in the case of other forms of power production, where the technical requirements are invariably far less complex. The monopolistic element would be there, say, in a coal power station as well but not to the degree of exclusivity that would be associated with nuclear power. Hence, Sri Lanka would be very much more vulnerable to extremely high price increases in the case of nuclear power than in the case of the other less complex means of power production.

The next point of importance is that most of the funds that an advanced country spends on its nuclear plants remains within that country and it is only a few items, eg. uranium, which it would have to buy from outside. On the other hand, in the case of a less developed country, 80-90 per cent of the total expenditure would be in foreign exchange and only 10-20% would remain within that country. Contrastingly, if other simpler types of plant are considered, the corresponding percentages would be much more favourable, except perhaps for photovoltaic installations. Whereas the expenditure on a nuclear power station could significantly help the economy of a country with nuclear capability, it would have a large negative effect on the economy of a less developed country. Therefore, one should take into account the collateral disadvantages of spending money on a nuclear power station in relation to its impact on the rest of the economy. This cannot be done with great precision but a good economist would be able to make a useful assessment.

We next turn to the incidence of accidents, technical failures and Nature’s interventions by first considering the hypothetical failure of large dam, which could in extreme circumstances kill hundreds of thousands of those living downstream. We may note immediately that catastrophic collapses of large dams are unknown because of the simplicity of the structures and electromechanical components, apart from the precautions taken in the investigations, planning, design, construction, operation, monitoring and maintenance of such projects. Nevertheless, in the extremely improbable case of one failing, immense volumes of water would pour out and flood the valleys below but almost everything on high ground would be generally unaffected – and certainly not anything that is outside the river basin. The effects of the flooding would be “local” in effect and could, for all practical purposes, be erased within a period of some years, at a cost that can at least be computed, albeit roughly. As opposed to this, radiation and contaminated material from a nuclear calamity could affect large areas of our planet and some of the wind-blown radioactive particles may render far distant areas unfit for the survival of most forms of life. The cost of mitigating the damage caused by such an occurrence would, in CIMOGG’s view, be so enormous as to be impossible of estimation beforehand because one cannot be certain of the way the winds and sea currents will carry the contaminated air and cooling water, or how much radioactive material would be consumed by fish and other marine organisms. The worst aspect is that, in the case of some of the biologically harmful materials which are likely to be released, their radioactivity would decay to only half the original value even after some hundreds of years. Although nuclear power promoters will say that there are stringent safeguards to prevent or limit radiation damage, there have been a number of serious and threatening precedents – Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima being the best known – that do not encourage one to lay great store by such assurances.

The fourth issue that we must be aware of is the scale of compensation that we would have to pay other countries (apart from our own citizens) for radiation which spreads outside our borders, affecting not only the land and air but all biological systems. Whilst we may be able to get away by paying compensation of a million rupees to a Sri Lankan for death, injury or a living death, the reparations that would be claimed by foreign victims could run into many billions of dollars.

The US spent long years to identify and to try to develop, within a mountain of geologically stable rock, a huge cavern to store spent nuclear fuel but the public reaction in the chosen State was so adverse that the authorities had to abandon the scheme. As for Sri Lanka, is it conceivable that there could be any place within its borders where nuclear fuel could be stored safely for centuries?

Operating a nuclear power station requires a degree of supervision and assiduity which is of a whole order more intense than that required by any other source of energy because the consequences of a major mishap in a nuclear power station would far exceed in scale those of any other type of power facility. The discipline, self-sacrifice and commitment to the welfare of the public that was seen in the case of the Fukushima disaster were so exemplary that we would have to admit that, as a nation, we have yet to reach those levels by a very wide margin. There was no looting of abandoned buildings. Queues for emergency supplies were orderly and patient. Strikingly, the personnel of the nuclear power station did not let the frightful danger of exposure to high levels of radiation prevent them from going about the work of trying to limit further damage and release of additional radiation. The most heartwarming of the stories that came to be associated with the Fukushima disaster was the offer by long retired personnel of the station to take over damage limitation and repair work from the employees currently working in highly hazardous conditions. By doing so they were trying to ensure that these younger personnel would not have their lives cut short prematurely by being exposed to more radiation than they had already received. In all honesty, could we be sure that we would be able to rely, to the same extent as those of the Japanese, on the work ethic and sense of responsibility of present day Sri Lankans? Could we leave the running of a nuclear power station to those who are not highly committed and responsible or are we going to rely on foreign personnel to run these stations? Would they be as duty-bound to Sri Lanka as they would be to their own countries? There is no use talking about isolated instances of our countrymen who have in the past sacrificed their lives to save those of others in danger. It is the whole of society which has to reach the higher standards required.

On the face of it, one could grade the sources of power for a small, developing country approximately as follows –

  • Nuclear - Potentially the cheapest but with excessive open-ended risks, both economic and environmental
  • Coal power - More expensive than nuclear but with less economic risks. Substantial environmental negatives
  • Wind & Solar Panels - Most expensive but with the smallest environmental negatives and physical risks.

The other sources, such as geothermal, tidal, wave-activated, solar heating etc, will need a lot more study before they can become serious competitors in our conditions. Consequently, our fellow citizens may find it prudent, in the long term, to rely on the old “Chinese” adage: “Good things no cheap; cheap things no good”, and commit themselves to the higher priced but safer sources of electricity based on wind and solar panels, now that we have only a relatively small amount of untapped hydropower left.

As far as one can judge, the matters referred to above are not taken into account by those who advocate nuclear power for Sri Lanka.CIMOGG does not claim to be an authority on nuclear power or any other type of power but puts forward these common-sense observations in order to promote wide public discussion (which our governments almost invariably discourage) so that vested interests and technocrats do not puzzle us with figures which do take into account simple realities, and thereby push us into a desperate situation from which there could be no retreat.

Jun 07

In a newspaper article contributed by the Citizens’ Movement of Good Governance (CIMOGG) in early October 2007, it was argued that, other than in the case of a declaration of war or some other major emergency, a Green Paper or a White Paper should invariably be published outlining and explaining every significant new Government proposal so as to encourage members of the public to come up with their own views on such proposals (see the book “Good Governance and the Rule of Law – A.C.Visvalingam – April 2011” – p83). It was emphasised that virtually all Government bills are intended to deal with problems which have been known for years and years and that there could be no genuine justification for treating any of these as “urgent”, or in maintaining secrecy regarding their contents, or delaying the printing and sale of the relevant Gazettes, about which there have been many complaints in Parliament over the years. Instead, open discussion is now completely discouraged and the primary democratic requirement for transparency in law-making has become a disastrous joke. In the aforesaid article, CIMOGG went so far as to state that it was not aware of a single bill that was rushed through in a hurry since Independence that could not have benefited from some months of considered public scrutiny. Adding weight to our contention, the Constitution, too, carries the exhortation that “the State shall strengthen and broaden the democratic structure of Government and the democratic rights of the People … by affording all possible opportunities to the People to participate at every level in … Government”.

Why we raise this matter again is to state regretfully that, if the Government had set out for adequate public discussion its proposals for the now temporarily aborted Private Sector Pensions Bill, there would have been less violent challenges to its provisions. The impatience shown by the Government in this instance cannot by any measure be considered untypical. Any moderately discerning person would have to conclude that the Government had some additional undeclared agenda as well, and was determined to leave no time or space for concerned persons and institutions to study the Bill in depth and have it amended suitably. Had there been complete openness shown in this exercise, there would have been no anti-Bill demonstrations, violence, disruptions to the movement of the public at large or the other adverse repercussions on the scale seen recently – including, not least of all, the much-lamented death of a young man and severe injuries to others.

For quite inappropriate comic relief, there is also the perception that the Inspector General of Police has been nominally and conveniently “sacrificed” to cover up the Government’s folly and disregard in riding rough-shod over every objection and all objectors. The IGP’s gesture was devalued instantly when it was revealed that he had only a few days left to retire anyway. It would not surprise us if, after a brief interval, he is given a foreign office posting as compensation for his unprotesting acquiescence.

An equally important reason why Government actions will tend to encourage resort to various degrees of explosive turmoil is the more basic issue of the existence of the 18th Amendment, which has reduced Sri Lanka to a pitiful constitutional dictatorship. At the time of its hurried passage through Parliament, there was not even a pretence that the fundamental requirement for a distinct separation of powers was going to be given any place at all in the Government’s plans. In 2001, Parliament, including the then MP Mahinda Rajapaksa, had voted unanimously for the 17th Amendment – although some MPs later claimed that this amendment was faulty because it had been passed in haste! In late 2010, Parliament abandoned the 17th Amendment and replaced it far more hastily with the 18th Amendment, not unanimously but with only a two-thirds majority. Hence, every MP who voted for the fiendish 18th Amendment may be deemed to have opted to go voluntarily into political slavery, abdicating his or her independence, and unquestioningly agreeing to be subject for ever to the President’s unbounded authority. The terrible result of their actions is that we now have a system of government where the People are compelled to accept without dissent the decisions of one all-powerful person. However persuasively such decisions are paraded before the public by highly paid public relations experts as having been arrived at by the Cabinet and a free Parliament, the truth is otherwise. The factual position is that the People, having delegated their legislative, executive and judicial powers to their representatives, now find their representatives have been converted into puppets who are compelled to do what they are told – and no more and no less. This is surely a prescription for the People to turn to extra-legal methods of protesting to have their voices heard.

Even though 18th Amendment has coloured the sky a deep dark grey against the free exercise of the People’s rights, it is important that the People should not wait to act until another fierce confrontation with the forces of law and order arises. While things are calm, voters should get together into small “neighbourhood” groups and write politely but forcefully to their District MPs, with copies to the freer newspapers, making known their own views regarding the issues of importance to them. Even though one can be almost certain that there will be no acknowledgment or reply, the writing of petitions, done on a more or less regular basis, will definitely have a beneficial impact on our lawmakers’ attitudes in respect of their accountability to the People. If large numbers of voters sign these petitions, even the most thick-skinned MPs will find that these pinpricks swell greatly to become something far more painful. The People’s representatives may thereby be stirred into joint action with their equally power-deprived colleagues to play a more proactive role for the good of the Country.

Readers are probably curious about what exactly could be the reasons, other than the arrogance of power and contempt for the public, which might necessitate keeping the People in the dark about the full details and implications of the Private Sector Pensions Bill. Reading between the lines of newspaper comments on the Bill, the following may be matters which are sought to be kept hidden from the public; but one cannot be sure because they are secrets after all!

One idea is that foreign financial institutions and governments are willing to assist Sri Lanka only provided it increases savings and reduces consumption. A new Pensions Fund would be a step in this direction because the contributions made to it would leave a little less spending money in the hands of the all private sector employees and thus help to swell the State’s coffers. Presumably it would be embarrassing to admit to the public that this is the price to be paid to secure the help that is being sought from the very same IMF, World Bank and the many western powers that get bashed by our “patriots” day in and day out. The second scenario is that, when large sums of money become available to the Government, it would be so exhilarating to be able to splash out freely on the numerous prestigious projects that are in the queue for financing, leaving the next generation to pick up the burden of paying back the capital and interest. Thirdly, of even more interest, perhaps, is that the law could be appropriately formulated so as to permit the moneys collected in the Pension Fund to be invested in public-quoted firms in such massive amounts that it would enable those in power to appoint relatives, friends and sycophants to key positions in these companies and secure for them high emoluments, generous perquisites and extensive undervalued shareholdings, thus strengthening and retaining their loyalties. It may be that all three reasons are simultaneously valid.