Op-Ed: Nuclear Energy in Jamaica

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By Ramesh Sujanani
Op-Ed Contributor

Last year, the aspect of liquefied natural gas being of uncertain supply, and rapidly increasing in price, was brought to the forefront of the energy supply in Jamaica. Some months later, so-called “clean coal,” was also mentioned in the editorial pages of the Jamaica Gleaner.

According to Professor Dennis Morrison, Jamaica needs to find new energy sources in order to save the country’s economy; our total need in the next five years, with steady growth and replacing old stock, is 1500 megawatts.

The source of this supply must be competitive if we are to survive as a viable nation; hence the need for clean, affordable energy sources.

The clean energy sector is emerging as one of the most dynamic and competitive in the world, witnessing 630 percent growth in finance and investments since 2004. As of now, there is no method of safe, continuous power except hydroelectric.

The biggest risk right now is that governments will look to high-carbon energy sources such as coal, shale, or tar sands to warm their cold nuclear feet. But the urgency of climate change suggests this is no time to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire.

It’s also worth remembering the ongoing devastation wrought by the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, whose one-year anniversary is coming up in April. BP set up a $20 billion fund, of which $4 billion has already been paid, to settle claims by businesses and individuals.

This is on top of the actual costs to BP itself (and its insurers). Moreover, US authorities have considered prosecuting BP managers for manslaughter due to their cost-cutting measures which compromised safety.

And let’s not forget the thousands of coal miners who die each year, or those who die of respiratory illnesses linked to air pollution spewed out by coal-powered plants. A report by Sierra Club puts the death toll at 4,000 per year in just the Northeastern region of the US alone.

The new coal-fired plants are inexpensive, and it is possible to obtain the coal. The problem is that to operate one with 1000-megawatts would require 90-100 tons every day. Over 350,000 tons of ash would be produced and over 4 million tons of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and sulfuric oxides would be released to the environment.

Whereas, with nuclear power the environmental damage is a “one” of an effect which may proliferate if no safeguards for containment work, as was the case in Chernobyl, and Fukushima. There is no emergency acid rain or global warming problem with nuclear.

The disadvantages of nuclear are that more capital investments are required at the start, because of safety systems and radioactive containment. But nuclear plants these days have a life of 50-60 years, so the annual cost may be absorbed in the cost of investment over this time frame.

Radioactive materials produced by nuclear power offer diagnostic and therapeutic treatments in medicine, power supplies to remote areas, food irradiation and radiography of metal welding.

The fuel costs of both coal and nuclear are competitive — that is, coal and reactor uranium. The latter produces additional fuel as the process continues.

What is the solution? We need to place on order a small nuclear reactor, and, in the interim, find some alternative to cover requirements.

I would not rule out an efficient, modern, diesel or hydro power. LNG supplies are unreliable and increasingly expensive as time progresses.

I also think that if the Jamaica Public Service is willing to put in an LNG plant, they should pay for the hydro power plant’s development, and participate in the cost of a small nuclear power plant.

Note: the opinions expressed in Caribbean Journal Op-Eds are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Caribbean Journal.