For Sri Lanka, nuclear energy may be the best bet in the long run
President Wickremesinghe Seeks “serious Consideration” Of The Use Of Nuclear Energy
Colombo: In his recent address to the Advocata Institute in Colombo, Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe said: “I think we need to seriously consider getting a report on using nuclear energy in Sri Lanka.” In the current economic context in Sri Lanka, 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.
Using nuclear energy is not a new idea in Sri Lanka. Addressing the 54th General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at Vienna in 2010, the then Minister of Power and Energy, Patali Champika Ranawaka, said that Sri Lanka had incorporated nuclear power in the country’ s energy mix. The Sri Lanka Atomic Energy Act, No. 40 was passed in 2014. And in April 2022, an IAEA team of experts came on a six-day mission to Sri Lanka. Team leader Jose Bastos said that Sri Lanka needed to further develop the required human resources.
According to Sri Lanka: Country Commercial Guide 2021, Sri Lanka aims to be an energy self-sufficient nation by 2030. The objective is to increase power generation capacity from the existing 4,043 megawatts (MW) to 6,900 MW by 2025. Sri Lanka plans to add 842 MW of major hydro, 215 MW of mini hydro, 1,389 MW of solar, 1,205 MW of wind, 85 MW of biomass, 425 MW of oil-based power, 1,500 MW of natural gas and 2,700 MW of coal power into the electricity generation system.
The annual total electricity demand is about 14,150 gigawatt hours (GWH). The annual demand for electricity is expected to increase by 4.9% the next 20 years, according to the 2021 Guide.
However, despite the long-term plans, Sri Lanka experienced numerous power outages in 2018, 2019, and 2020 as hydropower reached capacity and began to decline due to unpredictable weather patterns, the Commercial Guide points out. In June 2021, bids were collected for tenders in LNG infrastructure, including establishing an offshore Fuel Supply Regasification Unit (FSRU). The current oil refinery is over 45 years old and urgently needs modernization to meet petroleum sector demand, it says.
In his 2018 paper entitled: Investigate the Necessity of Use of Nuclear Power As an Energy Source in Sri Lanka with Special Concern on Present Nuclear Trend ( http://ir.kdu.ac.lk/handle/345/2548) BRS Bamunusinghe of the Kotelawala Defense University points out that electricity demand in Sri Lanka had grown at an annual rate of about 6% over a decade. The unreliability of renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and hydropower makes their contribution to a sustainable energy mix questionable, he says.
Additionally, concerns about environmental issues have limited the development of fossil fuel power plants. “Hence, Nuclear Power Plants (NPPs) can be considered as a strong and competitive candidate in Sri Lankan energy industry,” Bamunusinghe says.
In another paper in 2018, Mahesh N Jayakody and Jeysingam Jeyasugiththan of Colombo University and Prasad Mahakumara of the government, pointed out that nuclear plants are marked by low maintenance costs and a minimum adverse environmental impact. In the long run, nuclear energy would work out to be cheaper, they aver.
These researchers recommended the VVER-1000 and the AP-1000 models based on Pressurized Water Technology (PWR) as suitable for Sri Lanka.
Generally recommending nuclear energy, a US Office of Nuclear Energy report of 2021 says that nuclear plants have the highest “capacity factor” (maximum capacity) compared to any other energy source. “Nuclear plants are producing maximum power more than 92% 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.”
And nuclear power plants require less maintenance and are designed to operate for longer stretches before refueling (typically every 1.5 or 2 years), the report adds.
“Natural gas and coal capacity factors are generally lower due to routine maintenance and/or refueling at these facilities. Renewable plants are considered intermittent or variable sources and are mostly limited by a lack of fuel (i.e. 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 US Office of Nuclear Energy report said.
Many claim that renewable energy sources such as solar and wind along with reduced use of fossil fuels will be enough to meet the climate change challenge. It is also said that the world might run out of uranium, the raw material for nuclear power plants.
But this is debunked by Physics World. It says: “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 1000 years, we would have ample time to develop exotic new future energy sources.”
However, the biggest problem that a nuclear energy program might face in Sri Lanka is the people’s perception that nuclear plants are accident-prone and dangerous, given the memory of the Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile accidents.
Addressing this issue, Physics World says that the Chernobyl 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 4290 energy-related accidents by the European Commission’s ExternE research project for example, found that oil kills 36 workers per terawatt-hour. In contrast, coal kills 25 and hydro, wind, solar and nuclear kill fewer than 0.2 per terawatt-hour.”
Danger from 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 debunks this saying: “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.”
As regards the method of disposal, the website says that the international consensus is that geological disposal is the best option.