With the rising cost of fossil fuels (fuels generated from oil deposits in the ground) the world has been experimenting with alternate or renewable energy sources and, in about a year or so, Jamaica could have its first radiation laws, as the Bureau of Standards makes substantial progress in that direction.
A submission is expected to be made shortly to Cabinet, allowing members to peruse the submission on radiation management before it is tabled in Parliament, to facilitate deliberations which would, after approval, lay the groundwork for implementation of a policy on Radiation Management.
Options for renewable energy include solar, wind, hydro, thermal and nuclear. A close assessment of these alternatives, however, gives varying cost benefit results. For example, wind power remains an expensive alternative to produce; solar, though experiencing some re-invigoration, is too expensive to produce in large quantifiable amounts; and changes in nuclear technology is making it worth looking at as an attractive alternative.
Commenting on the option of nuclear energy for Jamaica, Director General of the International Centre for Environmental and Nuclear Sciences (ICENS) at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Professor Gerald Lalor Lalor says it would be foolhardy not to take advantage of the nuclear centre at the UWI, Mona to begin the forward thinking process and to start making plans for a 100-Megawatt reactor in another seven years, followed by another in three years, on until all the projected energy demands of the country are met.
Special Projects Consultant at the Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica (PCJ) Dr. Raymond Wright
“You’re going to need some new thinking, training of people, legislation and insurance . It is something that, in my view, is quite urgent. I am not saying, go out and buy. What I am saying is that, 10 years is not a long time. Any investment you make in a nuclear plant, you can expect it to be operating for 50 to 60 years,” he noted.
Nuclear energy, apart from generating electricity for domestic use, can also be used to smelt bauxite, generate hydrogen for public transport and in the processing industries.
During his budget presentation, Prime Minister Bruce Golding accepted a suggestion from Leader of the Opposition, the Most Hon Portia Simpson-Miller, to take another look at the prospects of introducing nuclear energy, as a means of meeting long term energy needs. A committee of experts was subsequently convened to examine this option.
The idea of using nuclear energy to supplement the energy consumption needs of Jamaica, was again brought to public attention by Special Projects Consultant at the Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica (PCJ) Dr. Raymond Wright.
SLOW Poke Nuclear reactor at the University of the West Indies, Mona, in full bloom. The reactor is not used to provide energy but as a research tool
He contends that using nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuel, currently being used as the primary source of producing electricity in Jamaica, would reduce the cost of producing electricity to mere United States cents per kilowatt hour (the international standard for cost measurement of electricity), making it cheaper than the current cost of electricity production in Jamaica.
France, a major user of nuclear energy, has a production cost of US$0.05cents per kilowatt hour. As an option for Jamaica’s productive and entertainment sectors, which are high volume consumers of electricity, and householders, this is quite attractive
Dr. Wright thinks the high cost of energy makes the productive sector’s ability to compete very challenging.
“The real problem for Jamaica is that, if we are to move forward, energy is the engine of everybody’s economic growth and our effort must be to reduce the cost of electricity, as fast as possible,” he said.
Members of the Jamaica Manufacturers Association (JMA), led by its President, Omar Azan, would no doubt be happy with a reduction in the cost of electricity, as they have expressed concern that the cost of electricity has made them uncompetitive against imported goods. Consumers also find local goods and services expensive but, were the cost of electricity lowered, it could have a significant impact on the costs.
Dr. Raymond Wright feels with today’s technology and the recent strides that have been made, Jamaicans would have nothing to fear from nuclear power.
“The question that has bothered us for years is nuclear waste, and that is not as important as it was some years ago. Nuclear waste can be collected properly under arrangements with other countries and disposed of in a proper fashion. The concern is primarily twofold, the danger of an accident and the fear of it becoming a tool for terrorism,” he said.
However, according to Dr. Wright, conventional nuclear plants are not economically below the production of 600 megawatts and, in Jamaica’s case, there is an installed capacity of just over 700 megawatts with a demand of somewhere between 600 and 620 megawatts daily.
So, if a conventional nuclear plant was to be installed in Jamaica given the current demand, it would mean that that would become the country’s sole source of supply. However, he said that would be ill-advised, because it would need to be closed down for maintenance.
“So what we’re looking for is smaller nuclear plants, in the range of 150 to 300 megawatts, which can be expanded on a modular basis; then it becomes perfect for small countries like Jamaica,” Dr. Wright said, suggesting as a suitable small nuclear plant, the Pebble Bed reactor which uses small helium balls.
Small nuclear technology is nothing new, Dr. Wright added, as there are submarines, warships and large aircraft carriers that employ nuclear technology for their energy needs. There is a small reactor at the University of the West Indies (UWI), which is primarily for research purposes. It is called a ‘Slow Poke’ reactor, used as a training tool without the capacity to generate electricity.
Professor Lalor gives his full support to the introduction and use of nuclear energy to supplement the country’s energy needs.
Considering that the future holds more and more hurricanes, which are projected to get more powerful each time, coupled with huge sea level rises, the safest bet would be on nuclear power. Additionally, nuclear technology does not have the problem of carbon emissions and in the last five years has become cheaper to produce than coal.
“So Nuclear has two distinct advantages today. costs and it does not generate the carbon dioxide that so many other things do,” he said.
Developments in nuclear technology have advanced dramatically, a whole range of nuclear reactor designs have emerged, varying in size from 10mw up to 300mw, and some models are being designed as a self-contained capsule.
“These reactors will be built in a factory, standardized, shipped out by rail or car or ship and you install them at the site that you want and, because they are smaller, all kinds of safety measures can go in,” he said. Making them weatherproof is a distinctive option he adds.
“You can make them hurricane proof by burying them underground, and they can generate power for up to 40-50 years before you have to do anything to it. When you have to do something to it just dig it up and ship it back to the manufacturers, they can recharge it and ship it back if you want,” he noted.
Professor Lalor pointed out that these new-generation reactors were not yet available but already there was talk of use but the first license application was not due for another two years and the buzz in the industry is for reactors becoming available in five to ten years. “People will tell you that they will be so small, so safe, so easy to handle that you can put them anywhere,” he said.
Prices may be prohibitive depending on the respective country’s economy. For example a 50 Megawatt reactor might cost in the region of about US$50 million although in today’s economy that might not be such a big deal anymore.
A proposal to approach one of the worlds leading manufacturers of nuclear reactors to give the island a 10-megawatt energy producing reactor for demonstration purposes, is also receiving serious consideration. The 10-megawatt reactor could supply power to an area the size of Papine, the UWI and UTECH campuses and with a little extra in reserve. A similar donation would be made by the manufacturer to a village in Alaska with a population of approximately ten thousand people. This will ensure them electricity for at least 40 years and is being done as a ‘demo’ by the manufacturer.
Acting on a request by the Minister of Energy and Mining, Hon James Robertson, for providing an objective assessment of the use of nuclear energy, Professor Lalor concluded that “. it does look like something that is worth very urgent attention, that some of the necessary legislation should be put in place now (as the International Atomic Energy Agency is demanding).”
He also pointed out that there are reactors being designed that start-up with normal high-quality uranium, but can burn waste, which can give between 60 to 100 years of continuous work before it needs to be shut down.
Professor Lalor stresses that before the concept of nuclear energy is introduced to Jamaica, however, a serious effort must be made to educate the public about the benefits of low cost energy, the safety of the new-breed of nuclear reactors and the quantum leap the island will make toward its development strategy.