SL should keep nuclear energy option open

The population of Sri Lanka in 2009 was 20.5 million with a per capita income of Rs. 212,972 ($ 2048), the highest in South Asia. With the end of the ethnic conflict, the economy is expected to grow at about 8 per cent this year and will show a steady increase in the future, if major upheavals in the socio economic front are not experienced.

There is an unprecedented growth in the tourism sector and tremendous increase in hotel construction with significant FDI flows.

The industrial sector is also showing a marked improvement especially in the manufacturing and export of garments, export of precious stones and cut and polished gems and jewelry. Plans are underway for establishment of a heavy industrial zone in Sampur in the north east of the country .The SMI sector is also showing increased output and investments including those in local arts and crafts  for the tourists as well as for exports.

The agricultural sector is presently experiencing a boost with increase in prices of   exports of tea and rubber as well as minor export crops such as cinnamon and spices.

The services sector also showed a major increase especially in telecommunications and outsourcing of services such as communication technology.

The improvement of infrastructure with the upgrading of the roads and the railway network as well as improvements to bridges especially in the North and the East has triggered investors to look at new areas for tourism, establishing factories and other services with FDI.

All these significant changes to the socio economic fabric of the entire country are possible due to the “Mahinda Chintana” which has been endorsed by the people for the third time at the recently concluded Local Government Polls.

The Government which has identified rapid economic development as its major priority is forging ahead to make Sri Lanka a developed country in Asia during the next decade.

Generating energy for the future
The availability of energy will be a major catalyst that will fuel such rapid growth of the GDP in Sri Lanka and to keep this momentum, it is mandatory that an effective, pragmatic and sustainable energy policy for the next 50 years be drawn up by the government taking all the projected demographic and socio economic challenges that will be envisaged.

Sector status
The installed electricity generation is mainly by hydro and thermal power.  In 2009 the hydroelectric generation  was  1,379 MW (Megawatts) and the thermal plants by burning furnace oil generated 1290 MW the same year making a total of 2669 MW or 9859 GWh  (Gig Watt hours). Accordingly the percentages of hydro to thermal power generation are 52 and 48 and the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) as well as the private sector operating the major facilities. The private sector is also involved in operating mini hydro plants and a 100 MW combined cycle thermal plant.

Lanka Electricity Company (LECO) is involved in the distribution of electricity in Colombo city and its suburbs after purchase in bulk from CEB.

Out of a total of 8447 GWh produced by CEB in 2009 domestic , industrial as well as general purpose including hotels consumed 2 927 , 2519 and 1768 GWh respectively.  In 2009 LECO purchased from CEB 1320 GWh and sales totaled 1254 GWh broken down to domestic 456, industrial 208 and general purposes including hotels 332 respectively. Street lighting consumed 28 GWh.

The total sale of electricity by CEB in 2009 excluding system losses of 0.3 % was 8441 GWh. In 2009, the operating loss of the CEB was Rs. 7.9 billion and the average cost of electricity to the consumer the same year was Rs. 12.55 per unit.

 In 2009, the share of CEB in total electricity generation stood at 55 % compared to 58 % in 2008 while the share of the private power producers in 2009 stood at 44 % of the total electricity production. It is interesting to note that the CEB on the average incurred a cost of Rs 6.57 to generate a unit of electricity in 2009 but the average purchase price from the private sector the same year amounted to Rs. 13.89.!

Coal for energy
A new dimension in generation of electricity dawned with the commissioning of the Norochcholai coal fired thermal power pant. Use of coal for electricity generation was proposed by CEB in the early 1980s met with a lot of obstacles from people with vested interests ranging from those advocating oil fired thermal plants and wale watching at the first site selected at French Point, Clapenburg Bay in Trincomalee.

The opposition was so strong that a team of environmentalists went to the extent of convincing the decision makers that the tea estates will be completely destroyed by acid rain falling in the hill country with the release of flue gases from the plant by burning of coal which will contain sulphur giving rise to acid rain. Finally, the Coast Conservation Department whose jurisdiction the site was located, refused permission to build the plant.

The project was hanging free till 2005, when the President was bold enough to go ahead with the coal fired thermal power plant with a loan from the Chinese government. The plant will produce 900 MW of electricity in 3 stages, and the first stage to produce 300 MW for the national grid was commissioned by the President on 22 March 2011.

 The fuel cost for each unit of electricity will be Rs. 5 as compared to a unit generated by an oil fired plant of Rs.15. If the cost saving up to now from 1990 as the year the plant would have been commissioned if approval was given by the cabinet in 1985, would run into thousands of billions of Rupees which is the economic cost of indecision of this major project.

 The plant will be constructed in 3 stages and after completion of the final stage will add 900 MW to the national grid which will be 30 % of the total power presently generated.

 Projected energy requirement
 There are no long term projections for energy consumption for agriculture, industrial and services and tourism sectors in the country and it is a difficult task for policy planners to advocate an appropriate energy mix, taking into consideration the rapid economic growth in these sectors. Heavy industries in proposed industrial zones will be dependent on available of power especially in the metallurgical and other chemical industries which are energy intensive.

The increase in tourism will necessitate the construction of star class hotels in Colombo as well as in tourist resorts along the coast and hill country. The recreational facilities that are an integral part of tourism will also require more energy which has not been projected up to now.

 Accordingly it will be highly desirable to take the sum total of energy requirements and  formulate a national plan with the most pragmatic energy mix keeping in mind the sustainability of the energy sector shifting towards low cost power generation in the medium term and long term.

  Electricity from hydropower
The installed capacity of hydro power is at present 1375 MW, with the addition of another 150 MW from Upper Kotmale. No reliable studies have been conducted to estimate the capacity for additional hydropower production including the mini hydro plants. Moreover, no continuous environmental impact studies to ascertain the rate of siltation in the present reservoirs as well as those proposed  have been undertaken. There is opposition to the Uma Oya project by environmentalists. Some schools of thought are of the view that during the rainy season when the reservoirs are full, it will create earth tremors which will be a danger to the stability of major dams. However, no proper seismic measurements have been made to substantiate these statements. Accordingly it is reasonable to assume that there are limitations in producing energy from hydropower.

Electricity from coal, natural gas
Coal and natural gas are widely used in production of electricity in countries which have reserves of these non renewable natural resources.

However Sri Lanka has no reserves of thermal coal (coal with low sulphur) and has not discovered any natural gas up to now although attempts are made in finding oil and natural gas in the Mannar basin by an Indian exploration company.

Accordingly a realistic energy mix will not be able to depend entirely on coal and natural gas.

Environmental impact

of burning coal
Today, there is an increasing concern about global warming and climate change and public concern about future sources of clean energy with a low “carbon footprint”. A report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) noted that there are few options available in near future to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the production of energy: increased energy efficiency, increased reliance on renewable sources such as wind and solar power , capture and sequencing of carbon dioxide emissions and increasing the contribution from nuclear reactors.

Sri Lanka has only recently embarked in producing electricity from coal and has to very carefully observe the environmental impacts of burning coal such as release of flue gases containing sulphur dioxide giving rise to acid rain deleterious to fast growing and long term crops as well as global warming that lead to climate change. However, we will be fortunate if there is a discovery of natural gas in the Mannar basin as it is a clean source of energy.

Nuclear energy
The recent disaster at Fukushima Dallchi nuclear power plant in Japan has given rise to fierce debates on the use of nuclear power to produce electricity throughout the world. In Germany in response to public demonstrations Angela Merkel the Chancellor has suspended he decision to extend the life of the country’s nuclear power stations up to 2036. In Britain, the Energy Secretary stated that “as Europe seeks to remove carbon based fuels from its economy, there is long term debate about finding the right mix between nuclear energy and energy generated from renewable sources… The events of the last few weeks haven’t done the nuclear industry any favors. I would not invest in the promised new generation of nuclear power plants”

Energy policy for SL
In the backdrop of the absence of thermal coal, natural gas and limitations of using additional hydropower with the high cost of furnace oil in oil fired thermal generators, a long term energy policy should keep the nuclear energy option open.

To understand why the nuclear option should be kept in any long term policy it is best to compare the progress India has made in nuclear power generation.

India has a flourishing and largely indigenous nuclear power program and expects to have 20 000 MW nuclear capacity on line by 2020 and 63 000 MW by 2032. The Indian Atomic Energy Commission envisages some 500 to 600 GW (Gigawatts) of nuclear energy on line by 2060 and has speculated that it could meet 50 % of all electricity requirements. These plans however will be significantly scaled down with the Japanese nuclear disaster. It is interesting to note that India is exploring the use of thorium as a nuclear fuel by breeding fissile U 233 and Sri Lanka which has thorium in the monazite deposits offshore at Beruwela  should seek bi lateral assistance to train our nuclear scientists in this new technology.

It is also desirable for Sri Lanka to formulate a long term nuclear energy policy which should be an integral part of a national energy policy.

Such a policy should first focus on nuclear science and engineering education keeping in mind that there will be continuing long term significant need for such personnel in industry, government and academia across a wide range of disciplines in fundamental nuclear chemistry , chemistry of radioactive elements, analytical applications, nuclear probes for chemical studies tracer techniques and nuclear medicine and radiopharmaceuticals. Further nuclear scientists, engineers and technicians should be trained in nuclear reactor design, construction and maintenance on nuclear reactors and simulators.

A follow up of a survey  for uranium mineralization  in Sri Lanka carried out with the assistance of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in January 1979 should be initiated by GSMB targeting the Kala Oya,Galgmuwa,Polonnaruwa and Kaudulla, Rukam and Maha Oya  , Kalmunai, Passara and Potuvil, Rakwana and Timbolketiya areas. The assessment of monazite which contains thorium in the off shore area of Beruwala should be given priority as thorium is being used for breeder reactors to produce energy especially in India
The need for training at university nuclear reactors especially in United States (North Carolina, MIT and university of California Davis) could be pursued by Sri Lanka.

It is important that the government  designate the Atomic Energy Authority as the focal point to coordinate all training activities and also to report on the requirements of nuclear energy for formulating a sustainable energy policy.

The demand for energy will increase significantly over the next five decades, and it is of paramount importance for Sri Lanka to identify an appropriate long term energy policy including non renewable energy mix of hydropower, thermal power using coal, LNG                                               well as renewable sources such wind farms, solar energy, biogas and ethanol from plants and keep nuclear power also as a viable option. In this regard it is pertinent to stress that burning of coal, furnace oil and biomass will give rise to global warming and LNG will be the least pollutant of this group. Wind farms and solar energy are expensive. However, the recent nuclear disaster in Japan has led to LNG and coal becoming more expensive and long term supply has been disrupted. Accordingly, the most reliable source of energy although hazardous is nuclear power. The safe operation of a nuclear power facility will depend on properly trained nuclear scientists, engineers, technicians and other support personnel such as health physicists etc. As the commissioning of a nuclear power plant has a lead time between 10 to 15 years, it is proposed that Sri Lanka should not discard nuclear energy at this stage in its energy mix and energy security, and embark on a long term training and familiarization program in this field for posterity.

(The writer is a retired Economic Affairs Officer United Nations ESCAP and can be reached at
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