Sunday Times, a leading Sri Lankan Sunday paper, reported that President Ranil Wickremesihghe had advised the Sri Lanka Atomic Energy Board (SLAEB) to collaborate with India to set up a nuclear power plant in Sri Lanka following an unsolicited proposal to set up a nuclear plant from Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy corporation, Rosatom.
The paper said that the reactor is to be a Small Medium Reactor (SMR), which produces around 100 Mw. It is believed to be “inherently safe” and with “minimal risk,” the chairman of the SLAEB, Prof. S. R. D. Rosa, was quoted as saying.
Rosa expects the plant to be offshore barge-based. He also said that Russia had agreed to take back the nuclear waste, which, he added, is the reason for considering the proposal.
Justifying the decision to go nuclear, Rosa said that solar and wind are good but are “intermittent, unstable, and seasonal” power sources. If Sri Lanka is to give up coal by 2030 as planned, it has to go nuclear, he reasoned. Other justifications cited were the lower running cost, the necessity to refuel only every two or three years, and the ability to supply electricity to consumers at a lower price. According to a report from the U.S. Office of Nuclear Energy, nuclear power plants require less maintenance and are designed to operate for longer stretches before refueling (typically every 1.5 or 2 years).
In 2022, Wickremesinghe told the Advocata Institute in Colombo that Sri Lankans needed to “seriously consider” going in for nuclear energy, though he conceded that in “the current context of national penury, any plan to go for nuclear energy will seem far-fetched, even impossible.”
Setting up a nuclear plant will cost $10 billion and could take from eight to 12 years, though what the SLAEB envisages will be a fraction of this, presumably.
Despite those challenges, the president said, “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.”
Sri Lankans have already done some work on this idea. In a 2018 paper, Mahesh N. Jayakody and Jeysingam Jeyasugiththan of Colombo University and Prasad Mahakumara of the government had recommended setting up VVER-1000 (Russian) and AP-1000 (U.S.) nuclear plant models based on Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) technology.
Wickremesinghe and others of a similar persuasion are taking a cue from South Asian and other countries that have invested in nuclear power. India has 22 reactors, Pakistan six, and Bangladesh is building two. France gets over 80 percent of its electricity from fission reactors. Germany, which wanted to decommission its three surviving nuclear reactors following disasters in other parts of the world, is likely to keep them going, as there is a serious energy crisis following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The United States’ Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) says that nuclear power is the largest source of low-carbon electricity in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. The U.S. Office of Nuclear Energy said in 2021 that nuclear plants had the highest “capacity factor” (maximum capacity) compared to any other energy source.
“[Nuclear power plants are producing maximum power more than 92% of the time during the year. That’s about nearly 2 times more [than] natural gas and coal units, and almost 3 times or more reliable than wind and solar plants,” the report said.
However, the biggest problem that a nuclear energy program might face in Sri Lanka is the perception that nuclear plants are costly, and accident-prone, given the memory of the Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile accidents. But the authors of the Sri Lankan research paper, Jayalath et.al., quoted earlier, maintain that the evolution of nuclear power plant technologies has made reactors very safe and protected from human error.
“The utilization of self-regulating backup systems, the optimum design of the power plant, and adoption of a rigorous program for quality assurance are some of the key features used in modern nuclear power plants to ensure safety,” they point out.
The U.S. company X-Energy is building safer and less expensive “Gen IV” nuclear reactors. X-Energy’s website says that pebble-bed designs run on nuclear fuel encased in up to 220,000 billiard-sized graphite balls, making a meltdown “physically impossible.”
The high-profile nature of nuclear accidents may make them seem more deadly than alternative fuels – but that’s not necessarily true. According to a Harvard University study, in 2018 alone, around 8.7 million premature deaths were caused by fossil fuel pollution.
“[N]uclear power is already hundreds of times safer than the coal, gas and oil we currently rely on,” reported Physics World. “A study of 4,290 energy-related accidents by the European Commission’s ExternE research project, for example, found that oil kills 36 workers per terawatt-hour, coal kills 25 and that hydro, wind, solar and, yes, nuclear, all kill fewer than 0.2 per terawatt-hour.”
On the danger from nuclear waste, the World Nuclear Association argued: “In over 50 years of civil nuclear power experience, the management and disposal of civil nuclear waste has not caused any serious health or environmental problems, nor posed any real risk to the general public.”
But the fear of the mounting costs of putting up nuclear plants and of potential accidents is deep and enduring – and not just in Sri Lanka. The International Energy Agency estimates that the developed world is on track to lose 66 percent of its current nuclear capacity by 2040. In the United States, where nuclear power produces nearly 40 percent of the country’s low-carbon power, 11 reactors have been decommissioned since 2013 – and nine more will soon join them.
However, proponents of nuclear power strongly argue that the world cannot achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 without nuclear power because renewable sources are too inconsistent and weak for industrialized or even industrializing countries.
As Darren Gale, X-Energy’s vice president of commercial operations, told CNET, “People are coming to the realization that we can’t have it both ways. We can’t demand having the [clean] power and then refuse to let you build nuclear power plants to make that happen.”
As far as Sri Lanka is concerned, although nuclear power is part of the planned energy mix, and the president is keen, the ongoing financial crisis will hold it back. There is, of course, an ingrained fear of accidents, seen in the popular opposition to the Kudankulam nuclear plant located in neighboring Tamil Nadu in India.