Cabinet gives approval for multibillion dollar Russian nuke project Successive governments have searched for years the depths of the Mannar basin for oil but the continuous failure to strike black gold beneath the Lankan sea seems to have pushed this government to find the answer for a cheaper fuel source buried in the Chernobyl disaster’s [...]


Govt’s amazing death wish for nuclear plant on Lankan soil


  • Cabinet gives approval for multibillion dollar Russian nuke project
Successive governments have searched for years the depths of the Mannar basin for oil but the continuous failure to strike black gold beneath the Lankan sea seems to have pushed this government to find the answer for a cheaper fuel source buried in the Chernobyl disaster’s nuclear debris.

On February 28, Cabinet spokesman Bandula Gunawardena unveiled the Government’s gigantic leap into the dangerous realm of nuclear technology and said the cabinet had approved plans to set up a nuclear power plant on Lankan soil.

The importance of this groundbreaking decision was clearly spelt out by Minister Gunawardena on Tuesday. He said: “This will be a historic decision and a milestone in Sri Lanka’s history to address the power crisis via nuclear energy.”

Though the cabinet gave the green light to enter this red zone, fraught with danger as it is, no state can merely walk in without first obtaining international clearance.

As a first step, therefore, the Cabinet had approved signing the vital international conventions relating to electricity generation using nuclear power; and on Monday, had given formal approval for Lanka to become party to the Vienna Convention on Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage, Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage.

Even the full title of the Vienna Convention on Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage should have been a cause for alarm but it seems not to have deterred the Lankan Cabinet from venturing into this high-risk arena. Instead, ignoring the warning sign board, the cabinet had recklessly rushed in where the wise fear to tread.

Yet it’s not bad, is it, for the Sri Lankan Government which, only last Thursday, pathetically confessed in public that it was so bankrupt of even its own printed currency, it did not have Rs.10 billion — or 27 million US dollars — to afford a constitutionally mandatory local election, to be now seen, a week later, to be discussing grandiose 10 billion dollar or more plans to set up a nuclear reactor and also agree to accept its inestimable billions of dollar damage risk, by its readiness to sign the Vienna Treaty which only 40 nations have so far ratified?

Perhaps, if the big boys, now gathered next door in Delhi for the G20 Foreign Ministers’ meeting with India’s Prime Minister Modi playing host, were not suitably impressed with pereheras, military parades and the what not, staged last month by the government to show the world that Lanka can still celebrate, they will be astonished and galvanised to find down and out Lanka applying for membership at the world’s most exclusive club of the rich and powerful states.

RUSSIA’S CHERNOBYL DISASTER: The remains of reactor 4. Today, 37 years later, it is still sealed within a sarcophagus, a massive steel and concrete structure to prevent radioactive contamination from spreading from the wreckage

But how are we to afford an entire nuclear power plant when we cannot spare a dime for an extra can of petrol? Simple. It’s easy when you know how to fall prey to foreign charms.

As Minister Bandula explained: “The Government looks at Russia for cutting-edge nuclear technology and financial support. The cost is unbearable I agree, but this attempt is to explore energy efficiency and switch to other energy sources.”

It was left to the Head of the Atomic Energy Authority, Rosa, to elaborate on details. He said that it was an unsolicited project from a state-owned Russian company. “If our need was urgent, offshore barges carrying three nuclear reactors could be built within two and a half years and towed to Lankan waters or we go for a land-based nuclear power plant which will take 5 or 6 years.”

Commenting on the cost factor, he said that after studying similar agreements that Russia had made with other countries, we would get a 15-year grace period and, thereafter, have a small, ‘very small’ interest component to pay.

Not bad, is it, for Lanka’s Government to be seen displaying its audacious spirit and showing off its gumption to take on multibillion-dollar loans from foreign governments for highly volatile projects, while bogged deep in the mire, begging its present creditors to restructure its massive debt to qualify for a paltry IMF bailout loan?

The government seems to be on a high, building castles in the air and nuclear power plants on the ground.

The Atomic Authority Chairman gave a lecture on the logistics of building a nuclear reactor on soil or offshore on water. But he did not speak of the risks involved in maintaining nuclear reactors nor of the hazards of nuclear-waste disposal, except to say it was all in good Russian hands.

Nuclear power is hyped as a reliable and efficient source of energy and is billed as perfectly safe. That is until an accident happens when all hell breaks loose.

Take Russia’s, or then Soviet Union’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant. This power plant located in what is now northern Ukraine was commissioned into service in 1977. On April 25 and 26 in 1986, one of its reactors exploded and burned. The damage that ensued was horrendous.  According to a National Geographic report published on the incident in 2011, “more than 30 years on, scientists estimate the zone around the former plant will be inhabitable for 20,000 years.”

A catalogue of some of its horrors is as follows:

n The explosion released more than 30 percent of Chernobyl’s 190 metric tons of uranium into the atmosphere.

n The Soviet Union evacuated 335,000 people from the area and established a 19-mile-wide exclusion zone around the reactor

n The United Nation’s Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation has reported that more than 6000 children and infants developed thyroid cancer,

n The disaster has been estimated to have cost approximately USD 235 billion in damages. What is now Belarus, after the breakup of the USSR bloc, which saw 23 percent of its territory contaminated, lost about a fifth of its agricultural land. At the height of its disaster response efforts in 1991, Belarus spent 22 percent of its total budget dealing with Chernobyl.

n What remains of the reactor is now contained in a sarcophagus – the sort used to entomb Egyptian mummies – called the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant sarcophagus, a massive steel and concrete structure covering the entire nuclear reactor No 4 building of the Chernobyl power plant to prevent the spread of radioactive contamination from the wreckage.

n Th sarcophagus locked in 200 tons of radioactive lava-like corium, a mixture of nuclear fuel, fission products and other toxic material. It also keeps trapped within, 30 tons of highly contaminated dust and 16 tons of uranium and plutonium. That sarcophagus had to be replaced in 2017 and has to be regularly monitored.

n The cleanup operation is expected to last at least till 2065, that’s 80 years after the explosion.

n Even the pro-nuke World Nuclear Association, the international organisation that represents the global nuclear industry, had to grudgingly admit that the Chernobyl disaster was the result of ‘a flawed Soviet reactor design coupled with serious mistakes made by the plant operators.’

As Murphy’s fifth law states: ‘If anything simply cannot go wrong, it will anyway’ or to put it another way, ‘if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong’.

If that was the Chernobyl disaster, take the Japanese Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.

Exactly 12 years ago, on March 11, 2011 a massive 9.1 magnitude earthquake struck Japan, 60 miles north of the nuclear plant at Fukushima, which was situated on the Japanese east coast, 137 miles away from the capital, Tokyo.

Residents had just 10 minutes warning before the tsunami hit Japan’s eastern coast. At the Fukushima plant, systems had detected the quake and had automatically shut down the nuclear reactors. Emergency diesel generators were turned on to keep coolant pumping around the cores, which remained incredibly hot even after the reactors stop.

But soon a wave over 46 feet high hit Fukushima. It broke through the defensive sea wall and flooded the plant, knocking out the emergency generators. With the cooling process halted, the nuclear fuel in three of the reactors overheated. This resulted in a nuclear meltdown.

Worse was to follow. A series of chemical explosions badly damaged the building and radioactive material leaked into the atmosphere, including the sea. Evacuation was ordered and an 8-mile-wide exclusion zone declared. More than 154,000 people were reported to have been evacuated.

According to a March-2021-datelined BBC report, tens of thousands of workers will be needed over the next 30 to 40 years to safely remove nuclear waste, fuel rods and more than one million tons of radioactive water still kept at the site.

Ten years after the disaster, several towns remain no-go zones in northeastern Japan. And clean-up ops continue to enable residents to return. A 371-square-kilometre “difficult-to-return zone” remains evacuated as of 2021, and the true toll may not be known for decades.

The lesson is clear. Natural disasters can strike, accidents can happen, human error can wreak havoc at any nuclear power plant. If anything can go wrong, it can, it will and it has gone wrong, leaving the country with massive nuclear debris which takes decades, if not longer, to clean up and a massive bill in damages which will clean us out. To gloss over nuclear hazards as if they were a simple breakdown at Norochcholai’s Chinese-built coal plant, is to practice heinous deceit upon the people.

Do some in the cabinet have the foggiest about nuclear power and the hazards involved? Or do their specialities lie more rooted in rocket science or steeped in ancient languages, especially Greek?  Whether some have even heard of Russia’s Chernobyl which was built by Russia’s then available ‘cutting edge nuclear technology’, is doubtful. To depend on the advice of local atomic energy experts promoting their own hobby horse and rubbishing alternate forms of energy is dangerous.

For instance, in 2012 when the Indian Government decided to commission a nuclear power plant in Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu, Lankan environmentalists expressed their grave concerns about the hazards it posed to the island in the event of an accident.

Even the Lankan Government lodged its concerns with the Indian Government, though it later expressed regret that its concern about the plant had been misconstrued.

In April 2012, six weeks before the commissioning date, Centre for Environmental Justice director Hemantha Withanage told the Sunday Times that construction of the Kudankulam Nuclear Plant in Tamil Nadu began in the late ’90s and he had been protesting since then.

He said: “Sri Lanka is only about 150 kilometres from Kudankulam, so any incident will have a direct impact on Sri Lanka. If a technology-savvy country like Japan could not contain its Fukushima nuclear plant, and if Germany decided to close down all its nuclear plants by 2020 because of the risks, shouldn’t countries in this part of the world have the same concerns?”

The Kudankulam plant is located in the coastal belt and is prone to tsunamis. In the 2004 tsunami, waves hit the vicinity of the nuclear plant, which had to be shut down, although no damage occurred. The same tsunami threat is present in Lanka as the country discovered on December 26, 2004.

Has the Atomic Energy Chief considered the means of nuclear waste disposal? Yes, he has. The Russians have promised to take it back. As he told the Sunday Times this week the power reactors the Russians would build are believed to be ‘inherently safe’ and ‘minimum in risk’. He said: “If something does happen to our nuclear reactor, we would get to know of it and take the necessary precautions.”

Can we? Could we? Do we have the qualified personnel – especially bearing in mind the flight of the qualified from Lanka – to completely handle operations or, in the event of an accident, to contain the situation? When we couldn’t salvage the burning Pearl X not even a mile from the coast, can we contain a nuclear disaster?

Even a minor accident at a nuclear plant can develop into a major catastrophe. Will the Russians clean up the nuclear debris for the next 65 years and pay billions of dollars, Lanka will be liable to pay as damages to the affected, to even the Maldives or India?

Is Sri Lanka, being a small island, the ideal spot to site a nuclear reactor? Are we now to swallow the Russian sinker even as we fell for the Chinese bait?

If we could have protested to India when she set up a nuclear plant in Kudankulam 150 miles away, why is there silence when one is to be set up in our midst?

Can we risk having our rice fields scorched or our tea lands contaminated, the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi threatened with extinction, our tourism destroyed should radioactive winds blow across the narrow length and breadth of this island and the accompanying rains make the entire country awash with cancer-causing contamination?

Believe that fortune favours the brave, if you must, but be wary of being foolhardy. We mistake second-hand salesmen who come to flog their cheap goods for saviours who manifest to shower their economic blessings even if it is radiation rain. We move from foreign saviour to foreign saviour believing in each saviour we find and find ourselves no longer able to believe in ourselves as the Buddha had advised. At least the Christians trust the Lord but lock their doors.

With everything successive governments have touched lying ruined, is it safe to entrust nuclear power to governments and risk a nuclear holocaust?


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