Does Sri Lanka really need nuclear power?

Does Sri Lanka
really need nuclear power?

By Dr Janaka Ratnasiri

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

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.

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