THE SUNDAY ISLAND of 24 June 2011 carried a contribution by the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) under the title NUCLEAR POWER FOR SRI LANKA? Dr Prinath Dias, former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority of Sri Lanka, in a “reply” published on 24 July 2011, has commented on it. There are two points on which he states that we have given “incorrect information”. Dr Dias’s contention is quite unjustified and needs to be countered.
It is unlikely that the average reader would have both the CIMOGG article and Dr Dias’s “reply” filed away for ready reference. Hence, it is necessary to recall briefly the essence of the issues raised by CIMOGG originally, as well as Dr Dias’s comments regarding them.
The first point made by us was that, when the estimates of the cost of nuclear power are computed in feasibility studies, resource-poor countries should take into account certain negative factors (which are normally ignored) to allow for the fact that a very high proportion of the investment will have to be paid to foreign suppliers and little of the project funds will remain in the country. The situation would be different for a resource-rich country because much of the investment would remain in the country, with significant benefits to the economy. A good economist would be able to assess the order of the adjustment required. A similar adjustment would apply to other forms of power plant as well, but to a smaller scale.
CIMOGG had stated that China, France, India, Russia, UK, USA and a few other countries would not have had to make any negative adjustment on this ground because they are resource-rich. It was also mentioned that Germany, even with all its resources, had decided to move away from nuclear power; Dr Dias had nothing to say on this. He bluntly declared that, by omitting the names of not-so-rich countries such as Armenia, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Indonesia, Mexico, Pakistan, Slovenia, Thailand, Vietnam and some unnamed countries which have nuclear power plants functioning or being built, CIMOGG had given “incorrect information”. Our position is that, if the said countries had taken account of the economic downside and the other factors referred to by us, they may well have rejected nuclear power. Quoting them as examples to refute our reasoning does not, therefore, support the imputation that we given “incorrect information”.
Another matter considered by us was the vital importance of work ethic and discipline to ensure safety. These three factors are inextricably interconnected but Dr Dias has not commented on either work ethic or discipline. He has dealt with the safety of nuclear installations in isolation, giving them high marks on that count.
We had mentioned Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima as the best known cases of nuclear failures. Dr Dias says that the Three-Mile Island failure did not cause much harm and CIMOGG is prepared to accept his assurance in this regard. However, he does reveal, in respect of Chernobyl, that 50 persons had died of cancer by mid-2005 and that another 4,000 were expected to die of cancer thereafter. Also, about 5,000 children had developed thyroid cancer of whom 99% were being successfully treated. Now, the Chernobyl explosion took place in a technically advanced country with excellent training, good discipline and a strong work ethic. Nevertheless, the supervisory and control systems failed to prevent “the plant operators extensively violating the operating procedures while conducting an experiment with the power plant”.
In Sri Lanka, radioactive cobalt machines meant for cancer treatment have been misused to convert low quality gemstones into higher quality ones! Without a much higher level of discipline and social responsibility than we now have, what would such employees do with a nuclear reactor? Merely giving training to technicians is not going to safeguard a nuclear plant. Such training should be based on a sound foundation of education for responsible social behaviour and good work ethics built up from childhood.
Dr Dias compares the number of probable deaths in nuclear accidents (5,000 per annum) to deaths in traffic accidents (100,000 per annum) and implies that nuclear plants pose less of a risk than being on the road. What makes them unsuitable for direct numerical comparison is that the effects of automobile accidents are local in nature and limited in extent whereas, in nuclear accidents, a few of which will almost certainly be bigger than Chernobyl or Fukushima, the effects will not be limited either in extent or time. For example, we have just learnt that Japan has banned all shipments of radioactivity-contaminated beef from the Fukushima area, it having been found that places 100km away had been affected. Four months after the accident, radiation continues to escape from the plant.
We reject outright Dr Dias’s assurance that “The next generation of nuclear reactors is being built to be inherently safe. These reactors are expected to be accident proof …”. We state categorically that, in engineering, nothing made by man can be said to possess “inherent safety” or to be “accident proof”. At most, the expectations could be “a low probability of failure” or a “high level of resistance to failure” respectively.
We concur with Dr Dias that “… the amount of carbon dioxide produced in our (coal) power plants will have a minimal impact at global level …”. Considering that the majority of the countries that have a greater GDP than Sri Lanka produce very much more carbon dioxide, they should put their houses in order first before pressuring Sri Lanka. There is a strong case for us to go ahead with its relatively small coal-powered electricity generation plants than grapple with the problems posed by nuclear power.
Most people know that energy from renewable sources is much more expensive than from coal or nuclear power. However, just as in the case of computers, the cost of photovoltaic conversion is coming down – unlike the costs of other types of electricity production. This is bound to make photovoltaic power more competitive and suitable for large-scale application.
The main problem with solar and wind power are their intermittent and inconsistent nature. As great advances are being made in electricity storage technology, because such devices are required for hybrid and purely electrically-driven vehicles, the storage of intermittent power from the sun and the wind is getting more practical and cost-effective.
Another concern mentioned by Dr Dias relates to the instability that used to affect the electricity distribution system when a number of small power sources were connected to it. This difficulty seems to have been overcome now because even the smallest amount of excess power is being bought by the CEB.
If the amount of money that is planned to be spent over the next 10 years on investigations, planning and designs of a nuclear power generation were to be diverted to developing innovative methods of storing energy (eg. hydrogen production), many intermittent renewable sources of power could be better utilized. It would be a shame if our scientists and engineers throw up their hands and say that only advanced countries are equipped to do this. CIMOGG believes that Sri Lankan scientists and engineers, given the right incentives, can produce original work as long as their organizations are not headed by crooks, incompetents or bootlickers. All of us must keep in mind that innumerable important scientific advances have been made in the past not by large corporations but by individual inventors working on their own, with minimum financial resources. The benefits of encouraging individual initiative and innovation in renewable energy cannot be overemphasized.