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.