Chandre Dharmawardana, in the Island, 23 March 2011
Japan’s most-recent nuclear accident has become a wake up call to many countries whose thirst (and greed) for energy seem to know no bounds. Three-mile Island, Chernobyl and dozens of other less publicised accidents had been forgotten. India had even tested a nuclear weapon, in competition with Pakistan’s blasts.Nuclear energy in India and other countries
India has some 20 nuclear plants, many of which are old reactors whose designs date back to the Indira Gandhi days of the 1960s. A new round of reactors are also being built by the Russians, with Russian financing, and Russian sales of nuclear fuel. The highly radioactive burnt fuel, Plutonium ash etc., will be for India to `keep safely’. The capital cost of building a reactor is very high. From then on, a country which does not have its nuclear fuel becomes an indirect slave to a foreign country. Several Indian scientific colleagues have privately expressed their concerns about the safety of these reactors, as well as the ultimate loss of sovereignty of the country. However, there is little open expression of critical opinion on such matters in India. There has been some talk of developing India’s own nuclear reactors using local Ilmenite, but that a matter for the research scientist who is poorly funded and ignored by an industry which wants an immediate turn-key installation. Sri Lanka too has a good supply of Ilmenite.
The rate of nuclearization of energy in India pales into insignificance when compared to countries like China. A similar frantic nuclearization took place in Europe, particularly in France, during the period 1960-1980. Japan also installed most of its reactors during that era. However, the rise of public opposition, Green agitation, as well as the increasing capital costs of nuclear installations have halted new constructions, not only in Europe, but also in North America. The technologically very sensible “super-phoenix” reactor designed to burn the waste fuel from other reactors was also stopped in the face of political agitation. Nevertheless, today France is one of the western countries which has successfully moved out of its dependence on oil, with 80% of its energy coming from the atom. So it is not surprising that countries like India and China, looking for fast-paced development, would embrace nuclear energy as a reasonable solution in the face of oil shortages and global warming. In that sense, nuclear energy is an excellent choice.
Nuclear energy in the context of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is also at a critical moment in its history. It has ended a long war against terrorism and begun to open the land by building new infrastructure and new industries. Its thirst for energy will only grow in the coming decade. Unfortunately, the country is heavily in debt. Even the existing power plants are no bargain. The financing arrangements for even the $455 million Norochchollai (old name: Moragolla) power plant (300MW), followed by another 900MW later on, will lead to a debt servicing commitment of $200-300 million a year. Sri Lanka’s gross annual foreign-debt servicing in 2008 was some $1.5 billion, 6% of which was interest payment. But Sri Lanka is unlikely to get nuclear reactors from western countries. So it has to go to Iran, or possibly Russia, or China to get the technology, the money as well as the fuel.
But Sri Lanka has no capacity for disposing the burnt nuclear “ash”. Such wasted fuel, being highly radioactive, would have to be guarded and stored absolutely safely for many thousands of years so that there are no leaks into the environment, water table, or pilfering by terrorists or ransom agents.
Several of the fires at Fukushima were from the spent fuel stored at the site. Just as it is extremely capital-intensive to build nuclear reactors, it is extremely expensive to repair them, or mothball them into retirement. Needless to say, any accident (due to human error, natural disasters, floods etc.) can easily go out of hand, as seen in Chernobyl and Fukushima. All four Fukushima reactors that show trouble were old plants from the 1970s, built by General Electric, that should have been mothballed a decade ago. The Japanese accident has shown that even a highly technological, highly disciplined nation like the Japanese cannot deal with serious nuclear accidents. In the US too, there are at least a dozen old reactors whose safety is highly questionable – but the public does not know it. One of them is close to New York city!
Hans Bethe, one of the great atomic scientists and a member of the Manhatten team said long ago that even if nuclear energy is the only option for a power greedy world, it is not compatible with management by private enterprises which ignore safety and transparency to make money. But the Soviet State paid no attention to safety, as it regarded human beings as expendable raw material. In effect, today we do have the technology to make completely safe nuclear plants, and they can be designed to withstand a Richter 10 earthquake, multiple tsunamis etc., but there are no engineering solutions to human error and human greed.
A regional atomic-energy oversight is needed
Even if Sri Lanka builds no nuclear reactors, the danger to Sri Lanka’s civil society already exists from the aging Nuclear Reactors of India. Sri Lanka is only a few hundred kilometers from Kundukkulam and Kalpakkam nuclear complexes in South India. The southerly monsoons and winds will certainly bring any unwanted emissions from these installations towards Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka has no voice, or even an observer’s capacity, in the Indian nuclear operations. The IAEA merely plays the role of a God Father as it has to work through the Indian regulatory authorities, respecting national sovereignty.
Thus it is of the greatest importance that Sri Lanka seeks an agreement, somewhat similar to its agreements over its territorial waters and rights to its seas, in dealing with the common biosphere that we share with South India.
Professor Dharmawardana has been a consultant to the French Atomic Energy Commission, The US Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. He is a Professor of Physics and a scientist attached to the National Research Council of Canada. The author was a Professor of Chemistry and a past Vice-Chancellor of the Vidyodya University (Sri Jayewardenepura University.