The News Desk of the Sunday Times has a somewhat detailed report of impending moves by the Government to deal with nuclear waste, amid some confusion and contradictory reports on whether the Government has decided to go nuclear.
Against the backdrop of increasing expenditure incurred on switching fuel turbines when water-levels in reservoirs drop, and the country's over-reliance on hydro-powered energy capacity from its many dams, Sri Lanka is looking for alternate methods to light up homes, hospitals, hotels and offices and fire the engines of our industries.
Sri Lanka's heavy reliance on hydro-power has long been a matter of concern for planners projecting a growing demand for electricity from a burgeoning population now at the 20 million mark. This week, on the sidelines of an exhibition on Sustainable Energy Sources, the Power and Energy Minister went on record saying that our hydro-power stations were not at full throttle due to the prevailing dry weather and that the Electricity Board had spent Rs. 3.6 billion from July (on imported oil) to ensure consumers did not face power cuts.
Power cuts there have been in different parts of the island though the Minister prefers to call them "power failures". Interestingly, these 'power failures' last exactly an hour until the engineers fix the problem!
In this rush to diversify into alternate energy sources, the Government together with the private sector has ventured into not only environment-friendly solar and wind-power plants, but also dangerously toxic coal power plants. Now it seems it is also flirting with the idea of 'going nuclear'. There is no official announcement that nuclear energy is an option, but there are hints in that direction.
In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami that hit north-east Japan in March and incapacitated a nuclear power plant at Fukushima, the world has taken serious notice of the fall-out from such nuclear disasters. Indeed, there have been early warnings like the disaster at Chernobyl, and much debate on the cost-benefits of nuclear-generated power in a world where oil reserves are believed to be fast dwindling. But Fukushima seems to have sealed that debate at least in one major economically advanced nation - Germany. Its Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that all the country's 17 nuclear power plants would be shut down by 2022 with some made non-operational with immediate effect. Germany has concluded that nuclear power is dangerous, that there is no solution to nuclear waste storage, and that nuclear or fossil fuels are not the way ahead. This trend is expected to extend to the rest of Europe sooner than later.
The Netherlands, for instance, is utilising a concept begun in the United States to use smart applications to maximize energy retention during peak sunlight hours by embedding crystal silicon solar cells to collect the sun's energy in special panels on public highways to light them at night. These industrialised countries are well on their way towards using such renewable sources of energy. Then, are economically-less-advanced countries like Sri Lanka going to be the dumping grounds for their nuclear plants? The question to be asked is 'why invest in a potentially dangerous soon-to-be obsolete energy source of the atom that the West is doing away with?'
Just last week, the Cabinet announced it was entering into an agreement for co-operation with the US to receive technical assistance for Sri Lanka's "nuclear and other radio-active material" that is used by civilians. The word "nuclear' is now very much part of the lexicon of the energy sector of this country. The Minister insists that this has nothing to do with 'going nuclear' and downplays it by saying that this is to help clear radioactive material from hospitals etc. A fact sheet by the US embassy in Colombo also downplays the Cabinet decision saying it is only a move to set up a technical committee to study US assistance to "remove two radioactive sources no longer in use" in Sri Lanka, without naming these two sources.
US President Barack Obama has pledged to lead the international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years. Despite these efforts, a senior official of the Ministry of Power and Energy told a meeting of prospective investors in Colombo not long ago that the Government would begin feasibility studies for nuclear power, and hoped to get prior safety approval from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Given these mixed signals, one is not sure what the Government has in mind.
There are several nuclear plants in our own neighbourhood, among them three big ones at Kalpakkan and Kudunkulam (Tamil Nadu) and Kaiga (Karnataka) in southern India. Sri Lanka and its citizens will not be immune to a disaster in any of these plants, the exclusion zone of an accident having a 50 kilometre radius. Unfortunately, while the Sri Lankan authorities have raised issue with their Indian counterparts and called for a Memorandum of Understanding, the Government has hardly raised a whimper about these issues during high-level bi-lateral discussions with India; where the focus seems to be the 13th Amendment, IDPs or poaching. It is high time that Sri Lanka upped the ante and included this troubling issue in future agendas with India.
In our News Desk report today, it is stated that our own Atomic Energy Authority was hamstrung with only 23 scientists but doubled the number only after Fukushima. Even then it is totally inadequate at coping with a nuclear accident. Our disaster preparedness is limited to tsunamis, floods and landslides -- nuclear is hardly on the radar. There is often this danger of well-connected businessmen being agents for foreign governments or companies trying to dump used nuclear plants from the West on us, in spite of the environmental consequences. How the controversial coal project at Norachcholai was rammed through rough-shod with political backing overriding environmental opposition is a case in point.
There is a feeling in the Government that in the face of a future oil crunch worldwide, solar and wind-powered energy will be insufficient to cater to the growing needs of power and energy in Sri Lanka and nuclear is the answer at least as a supplement to the existing hydro-powered energy. The Minister says nuclear is a good source of energy and points out that one gram of uranium is equivalent to three tons of coal and that we use 700,000 tons of coal to produce 300 mega watts of electricity while only a few kilos of uranium will be needed to produce that electricity. But whether nuclear can be considered cheaper and cleaner, considering the possibility that the consequences of an accident can outweigh the benefits, is the issue at hand.
In a country where we are still grappling with the inability to tackle our day-to-day mundane garbage disposal problems, how well equipped are we to deal with something like a nuclear disaster? There is already an alarmingly elevated level of skin and blood borne diseases in this country. The IAEA itself is engaged in providing radiotherapy equipment to hospitals to combat cancer. It was only last year that the Indian Government donated a Bhabhatron -II Telecobalt unit, through the IAEA to the Hambantota General Hospital. Our news report refers to the difficulties the Cancer Hospital at Maharagama is facing with the local Pradeshiya Sabha etc., in getting rid of its radioactive waste. In Brazil and Mexico there were cases, reported by the IAEA, where waste material found its way to local villages, that eventually had to be abandoned.
No doubt the Government is aware of these issues, but shouldn't it be paying more attention? Is it time to sound the alarm and see why the Europeans are going the way they are on this vexed issue. Home energy systems that are within the reach of citizens are increasingly what the world is looking at. Already solar-powered hotels are functioning in Sri Lanka. The South Koreans just opened a large solar power plant in Hambantota hoping to save 200,000 litres of diesel annually. Viable alternatives as options to oil-generated energy for our industries, offices and homes are something the Government should place greater emphasis on, maybe other than nuclear energy.