By Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema
Sri Lanka’s decision to set up a 1,200MW nuclear power plant by 2025 is expected to be the single largest investment in the country.
The nuclear power plant is aimed at generating cheap electricity to address the increasing demand while drawing large investments to boost the country’s economy.
The Cabinet of Ministers have approved in principle to explore the possibility of setting up a nuclear power plant and conducting a pre-feasibility study on it.
Power and Energy Minister Champika Ranawaka said that government and private energy experts are currently conducting the pre-feasibility study.
Ranawaka explained that the Wien Automatic System Planning (WASP), which is a computer code for power generating system expansion planning, by the International Atomic Energy Agency has picked nuclear power as the best source of power for Sri Lanka given the current technologies and prices.
According to the Minister, while the country has not held any specific discussions on the nuclear power plant with any foreign country, Sri Lanka has expressed its intentions of setting up a nuclear power plant to officials from the US, India, Pakistan, France, China, Russia, Korea and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
“I expressed the country’s intentions during discussions at the 54th sessions of the International Atomic Energy Authority in Vienna and even had discussions with officials representing several countries,” Ranawaka said.
Nevertheless, he said there was a 15-year gestation period to set up a nuclear power plant in the country. The final decision on the location of the plant and whom the country would approach to set it up would be done after a feasibility study.
“We are still in the pre-feasibility stage and the decision on the location, technology, training, financial aid, etc., would be decided only after a feasibility study,” he added.
Ranawaka explained that Sri Lanka would have several issues to consider when setting up a nuclear power plant – the nuclear fuel (what would be used by 2025), waste disposal and safety precautions. Referring to the accidents that have taken place in nuclear power plants, Ranawaka said the people felt the impact since the necessary safety precautions were not followed.
“In Chernobyl the necessary out concrete containment was not in place. A similar scenario was reported in the USA, but there was no impact since the safety precautions were followed,” he observed.
However, Ranawaka said there was no final decision yet on setting up a nuclear power plant in the country, as things could change in the next 15 years. “If the solar and wind power technologies improve and if there are other developments, we may not go for a nuclear plant.”
The country’s power supply currently depends 60 percent on diesel power and 40 percent on hydropower. It is also in the process of building a 900-MW coal power plant with a loan of more than US$1.3 billion from China and a 500 MW coal power plant with an Indian loan.
While the Sri Lankan government contemplates the setting up of a nuclear power plant in 2025, local energy experts say that nuclear power is a good thing considering energy economics and the end users. Power sector expert, Dr. Thilak Siyambalapitiya said the cost of a nuclear plant however was debatable depending on the power plant, source of funding and the cost of fuel.
“There are also indirect costs like waste management and the final decommissioning of the plant in 30 years. Unlike a normal plant, the decommissioning of a nuclear plant is quite costly,” he said.
Some power economists have debated that nuclear power would not be as cheap as coal power generation, especially for a country that imports its fuel like Sri Lanka.
Dr. Siyambalapitiya however notes that generally power economists view nuclear power as the cheapest source of power.
According to Dr. Siyambalapitiya there are three areas that need to be considered in setting up a nuclear power plant – economics, politics and matching the power system.
He explained that small economies like Sri Lanka generally restrain themselves from going into nuclear power due to the costs involved. “In the event of a small radioactive leakage, the plant cannot operate and the country will have to bear a large cost,” he said.
“Nuclear power has political dimensions unlike in coal or oil and that cannot be accounted for in rupees and cents,” he added.
The other area of concern is that Sri Lanka is a small electric power system in comparison to other countries. “Nevertheless this would not be an issue as by 2025, Sri Lanka will have doubled its unit sizing.” As for land, human resources and safety precautions, Dr. Siyambalapitiya said they were not issues of great concern as they could be easily addressed during the long gestation period.