News Features  


Does Sri Lanka really need nuclear power?

By Dr Janaka Ratnasiri

According to media reports, the government has taken a policy decision to consider pursuing nuclear power as an option for future electricity generation and has requested assistance from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to carry out a pre-feasibility study. The IAEA apparently has agreed for this and has already sent one of their experts to discuss the matter with relevant authorities and advice them of the path the government need to follow if it decides to pursue the matter after completing a pre-feasibility study.

However, the question which may arise among the concerned public here, especially after seeing the misery undergone by the people in Fukushima resulting from the damage caused to several nuclear plants following the earthquake and the tsunami, is whether – does Sri Lanka really need a nuclear power plant? Is it not possible to meet our future electricity needs without resorting to nuclear power?

Before attempting to find answers to these questions, we need to find out what would our future needs likely to be. The country’s main utility, the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) regularly publishes a report on its Long Term Generation Expansion (LTGE) Plan, which gives forecasts of future electricity demand for 13-14 year periods, along with a plan for expanding its generation network to meet the forecasted demand, subject to the criterion that the plants to be added should be least cost options. Even though CEB has been doing this exercise for more than two decades, what has been included in the LTGE plans, has not been realized in practice, for whatever the reason.

The country’s total electricity consumption in 2009, according to CEB website, has been nearly 10,000 GWh, produced by CEB, private operators and a large number of small plant operators. This gives a per capita annual consumption of 500 kWh, which is of course rather low compared to the values in other Asian countries, except a few. The LTGE plan for 2009-2022 report prepared in 2007 forecasts an annual demand in the range 39,056 – 56,056 GWh for 2027. Considering the population growth up to 22 million by 2027 assuming a reduced growth rate from its current value of 1% annually, the corresponding annual per capita consumption would be in the range 1,800 – 2,500 kWh. The question is whether Sri Lanka could increase its consumption by several fold to this level within a matter of 17 years.

The validity of future forecasts could be judged from the previous forecasts made for the current period. In its LTGE plan 1996-2010 published in 1996, the CEB has forecasted its generation for 2009 to be a low of 13,665 GWh and a high of 17,799 GWh. However, the actual generation in 2009 has been only 9,882 GWh while in 2008, it has been a slightly higher value – 9,901 GWh, indicating a negative growth. The CEB’s forecasts are out by a wide margin being the range 13.6 – 17.8%. Therefore, the CEB forecasts made for the future need to be accepted with caution. They are far from reality, and no development should be done on unrealistic forecasts. Even with a 5% growth, the demand would be not more 23,000 GWh by 2025.  
The government after decades of hassle got the country’s first coal power plant with capacity 300 MW commissioned a few days ago. Two more units of 300 MW each are expected to be built at the same site. This will enhance the country’s present installed capacity to 3,500 MW. An additional coal power plant of 500 MW capacity is in the pipeline to be built near Trincomalee with Indian collaboration. There is, however, no justification whatsoever to add new coal plants in view of the current cost of coal and the heavy pollution these plants cause to the environment and people’s health. It is a pity the government disregards these hazards and pursues more coal power.

The best option for the county to pursue at this stage is to shift to natural gas as its next fuel option. It is clean with absolutely no pollution, air, liquid or solid, injurious to the health of people. It will also reduce the country’s burden of having to reduce carbon emissions as required under climate change negotiations being pursued currently. Bringing natural gas in its liquefied form (LNG) requires the availability of deep ports, and the country has two such locations with the necessary infrastructure. One is at Trincomalee and the other is at Hambantota, the future metropolis of the country. Natural gas has the added advantage that it could be used in other sectors including transport, industries, hospitality sector and commercial sector with greater efficiency than what could be achieved with other fuels. Whatever future needs could be met with NG imported from neighboring countries. The country has the necessary demand to justify building terminals for importing LNG. If the drilling for oil, to be undertaken shortly, hits a gas deposit, the country will no longer have to depend on imported gas.

The country has a vast amount of renewable energy (RE) that could be extracted from biomass, wind and solar radiation falling at our doorstep. A rough estimate on the energy that could be extracted from biomass including gliricidea plantations in new and existing tea/coconut plantations, agriculture residues, bagasse from sugar cane and sweet sorghum (yet to be introduced), would be around 100,000 GWh annually. This is 10 times the current electricity consumption. This amount does not include the 10-12 million tonnes of biomass currently used in households, commercial establishments and in industries to extract thermal energy. If these end-users are provided with efficient devices, the same usage could be achieved with much less quantities and in fact the balance could be diverted for applications presently served with oil. Thus, biomass usage could be broadened without any burden on our forest resources.

The government has already initiated action to pursue RE by establishing the SL Sustainable Energy Authority (SLSEA) in 2007 to promote as well as regulate the RE industry. The government has declared gliricidea as a national crop after tea, coconut and rubber, for use in energy generation. However, exploitation of biomass, though pursued by several parties, has failed to make an impact because of the many barriers the investors have to face. These include issues on release and use of land for plantations, conflict in policies (offering subsidies for oil making biomass use in industries uneconomical), low technology for extracting energy, lack of end-use devices, and the worst to appease politicians giving approvals (for which there is no remedy other than their conscience). Though inter-ministerial committees have been appointed to promote biomass utilization many years ago, nothing tangible seems to have come out.

In order to overcome these barriers and give the industry a firm footing, the Ministry of Environment, during the tenure of Patali Champika Ranawaka as Minister of Environment, has submitted a proposal to the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), the financial arm of the Climate Change Convention, seeking funding to undertake studies and implement programmes to address the above issues. It is heartening to note that GEF has approved the proposal and has agreed to provide funding up to US$ 4 million to be shared among GEF, UNDP and FAO for a six-year period from 2011 to 2016. The government too is expected to provide US$ 3.5 million and the local private sector to chip in another million dollars. The project will be implemented jointly by the Ministry, Forest Department and SLSEA. Hopefully, by 2016 and during years to follow, we could expect a greater share of biomass energy in our national energy mix.

In the meantime, SLSEA has been soliciting proposals from investors to undertake small RE projects to extract energy from hydro sites, biomass including dendro, waste and agriculture residue, wind, solar and other sources such as wave energy. The response has been extremely good, with either commissioning or constructing or approving of 96 MW of dendro, 550 MW of small hydro, 136 MW of waste and 246 MW of wind power projects. All these will add over 1,000 MW (coming from about 340 projects) after all the projects currently under construction or approved are completed. Their energy generation potential is estimated to be about 3,400 GWh annually (assuming 70% plant factor for the thermal and 30% for other two).

In addition, there are over 1300 applications yet to be approved, and once these are processed and implemented, we could expect at least another 4,000 MW of capacity and about 13,000 GWh of energy availability from the grid, more than what two or three nuclear plants could deliver with no hassle whatsoever. These figures are not speculations but what has already been and what could be achieved in the near future. With the successful implementation of the GEF project, we could expect the biomass share to increase further.
Even in the other two sectors – wind and solar – there is high potential with the total wind potential availability in the country estimated to be 24,000 MW, out of which at least 2,000 MW could be easily harnessed for adding to the grid. The rest could be made use as stand alone plants to generate hydrogen to use along with fuel-cells, the future energy device for operating vehicles and generating electricity at user sites. There is a high potential for generating wind energy where wind regimes are high in the hill country and coastal areas by individuals using small wind turbines below 1000 W capacity. To make such investments popular, these should be made available with duty free concessions.

With solar too, the present concept of associating solar energy with small panels to provide electricity to villages is now changing, with several private sector organizations installing large panels to generate electricity to meet their day time requirements and sell any excess to the utility through the net metering system already introduced here. In order to get more consumers pursuing this, government intervention is necessary by extending concessions on duties and taxes at customs and making any investments on RE projects eligible for income tax deductions. In addition, concentrated solar thermal systems could be installed where strong levels of radiation are present such as extreme SE and NE of the country. These could add a significant amount of energy to the system, equivalent to what could be obtained by a nuclear plant. So, with the potential of the current projects being pursued and what could be obtained in the future through renewables, the obvious answer to the question posed at the beginning is an emphatic “no”. 

If the government wishes to pursue nuclear power, one has to wait till 2025, as enumerated by the IAEA expert who addressed a gathering of local scientists recently. Furthermore, the government will have to go through a rigorous screening process as recommended by the IAEA, establish a legal framework, train hundreds of scientists and engineers and thousands of technicians to do the design and operation of the plant, evacuate people from the site selected for the plant and kilometers around it, be indebted to foreign governments and foreign companies for the supply of the fuel and decommissioning of the plant, and keep medical treatment facilities handy in the event of a radiation leak resulting from an unforeseen accident or a natural disaster. Even if the plant is operating without any problem and provide added electricity to improve people’s living standards, they will have to live in fear for the rest of their lives without knowing when the plant develops a radiation leak. When alternative sources are readily and economically available, is it worth all the hassle the country has to undergo to pursue nuclear power, simply to be among the “elite” in the world if that is what our policy makers are after, especially after seeing the suffering that Japanese people are going through.