Colombo, March 6:

A leading Sri Lankan Sunday paper reported that President Ranil Wickremesinghe 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 ROSATOM.

The paper said that the reactor is to be an SMR (Small Medium Reactor) 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 supply of electricity to the consumer at a lower price. According to a report of the US 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, President 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 US$ 10 billion and the setting up time could vary from 8 to 12 years, though what the SLAEB envisages will be a fraction of this, presumably.

However, buttressing his case for nuclear power, 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 Lankan 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 the setting up of VVER-1000 (Russian) and AP-1000 (US) models based on Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) technology.

South Asian Example

President Wickremesinghe and others of a similar persuasion are taking the cue from South Asian and other countries which have gone nuclear. India has 22 reactors, Pakistan six, and Bangladesh is building two. France gets over 80% of its electricity from fission reactors. Germany, which wanted to decommission its three surviving nuclear reactors following disasters in some other parts of the world, is likely to keep them going, as there is a serious energy crisis following the Russo-Ukrainian war.

At any rate, the US Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) says that nuclear power is the largest source of low-carbon electricity in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. The US Office of Nuclear Energy report of 2021 said that nuclear plants had the highest ‘capacity factor’ (maximum capacity) compared to any other energy source.

“Nuclear plants are producing maximum power more than 92% of the time during the year. That’s about nearly two times more than natural gas and coal units, and are almost three 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 Chornobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile accidents. But the authors of the Sri Lankan research paper, Jayalath, 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 US 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  make a meltdown “physically impossible.”

Physics World says: “ A study of 4,290 energy-related accidents by the European Commission’s ExternE research project found that oil kills 36 workers per terawatt-hour, ( or 1,000,000 MWh). In contrast, coal kills 25. Hydro, wind, solar, and nuclear kill fewer than 0.2 per terawatt-hour.”According to a Harvard University study, in 2018 alone, around 8.7 million premature deaths were caused by fossil fuel pollution.

On the danger from nuclear waste, says: “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 mounting costs of putting up nuclear plants and of accidents is deep and enduring. The International Energy Agency estimates that the developed world is on track to lose 66% of its current nuclear capacity by 2040. In the US, where nuclear power produces nearly 40% of the country’s low-carbon power, 11 reactors have been decommissioned since 2013 — and nine more will soon join them.

Nuclear Power for Carbon Neutrality

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.

US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who started the “Atoms for Peace” project in 1952 declared: “This greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind.” His supporters said that nuclear energy would be so cheap that it would be “too cheap to meter”.

But things have not worked that way. And accidents at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima put paid to such enthusiasm. In the 1970s, anti-nuclear environmental groups got into the act. Italy banned nuclear power outright. The US saw a 26-year moratorium nuclear plant construction.  By 1987 nuclear power seemed to be terminally ill.

Going away from nuclear energy after Fukushima, Japan planned to build 22 new coal plants in the next five years. On track to miss its 2030 gas emissions target, California State would lose two nuclear reactors in 2025. Nuclear energy provided 93% of Pennsylvania State’s carbon-free electricity before one of its five reactors was shut in 2019.

But safer reactors are being devised by US companies, as pointed out earlier with government funds. President Joe Biden’s March 2021 ‘American Jobs Plan’ has provisions to fund advanced nuclear reactors as well as hydroelectric plants to provide clean energy for all at affordable rates.

Darren Gale, X-Energy’s vice president of commercial operations is quoted as saying. ” We can’t demand clean power and then refuse to let you build nuclear power plants to make that happen. Congress, public opinion, everybody is starting to change because they’ve seen the alternative is building more oil and gas.”

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 Koodankulam nuclear plant located in neighbouring Tamil Nadu.


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