Sat | Sep 30, 2023

Letter of the Day | Concerns about nuclear energy direction for Ja

Published:Thursday | June 8, 2023 | 12:05 AM


As a young university graduate with a degree in physics and applied physics, I was an ardent advocate of nuclear power in Jamaica. I argued that the use of nuclear power was necessary to generate abundant, cheap energy to allow Jamaica to develop manufacturing industries such as the production of aluminium and other finished goods, providing much-needed jobs and economic growth. At the same time, I dismissed cons such as environmental pollution and safety issues as being irrelevant and of secondary concern.

With advancing years and hopefully a little more wisdom, I have come to realise that we have an obligation to pass our only planet on to our descendants in a condition that is no worse than we found it.

The recent announcements by the prime minister and Minister Vaz that Jamaica is planning to add nuclear power generation in the form of small nuclear reactors to our energy mix, leaves me with grave concerns about the advice they are receiving.

As Dr Dennis Minott has said in several articles in your newspaper, there are a number of issues that need to be carefully considered before making such a decision. Among them are:

1. Although the manufacturers of these plants promise that they will take them back for disposal when they reach the end of their useful life, what guarantee do we have that the company will still be around to fulfil its obligation when the 40-50 year expected lifespan expires?

2. Even if the company is still in business, changes in government regulations in their home country may well bar them from shipping the unit or its disassembled components into their country. The radioactive waste may then find its way into poor third countries in exchange for a pittance paid to corrupt politicians, or simply be dumped into the ocean.

3. Although some nuclear power plants use air cooling, most such plants, including small modular reactors (SMRs), use significant amounts of water for cooling and for the production of steam to generate electricity. This water can be held in either a closed-loop or a ‘once-through’ system. The actual amount of water consumed will vary depending on the technology being used and may fall as the technology improves, but a reasonable estimate for an SMR generating 300 MW will typically range between two to 14 million gallons per day for the primary coolant (used to transfer heat away from the fuel rods), plus an additional eight to 80 million gallons per day for the secondary coolant (used to transfer heat from the primary coolant to the steam-generation system, where the actual electricity is produced). In total, we are looking at anywhere from 10-94 million gallons of water consumed per day, depending on the plant design and whether the system is open or closed-loop.

4. Even more concerning, and a fact that is often glossed over by advocates, is that ALL nuclear reactors produce radioactive coolant (usually water) as a by-product of their operation. By design, coolant comes into contact with the reactor core where the uranium fuel rods are contained. As the fuel undergoes fission, radioactive isotopes are generated, some of which can dissolve or become suspended in the coolant. This radioactive coolant is treated to reduce the radioactivity as much as is possible with current technology, but it is impossible to remove it entirely. The radioactive coolant has to be stored somewhere – usually in some sort of storage pond. In a country that sits on a major fault zone, where a high-magnitude earthquake is a matter of ‘when’ NOT ‘if’, a pond full of radioactive water/coolant represents a potential environmental disaster. If you have doubts about this, consider the repeated discharge of polluted industrial effluent into the Rio Cobre.


5. Returning to the issue of disposing of the nuclear plant at the end of its useful life, the most common methods are: a) decommissioning and dismantling, b) entombment (encasing it in an element such as lead), and c) deep geological repository (disposing of the radioactive components by dumping them in a salt formation or deep rock formation). Given Jamaica’s small land area and widespread porous limestone geology, options b) and c) are impractical, which leaves us with option a) which involves removing all radioactive materials, decontaminating the site, and demolishing the facility. The radioactive waste generated during this process is packaged and stored in specialised containers for long-term storage or disposal. It is obvious that to minimise transmission costs and losses, the SMR location can’t be too remote from where the power is to be used, which means that in reality, this demolished, still-radioactive site will be left sitting within a few miles of major industrial and/or residential centres. It is important to note that EVERY gram of radioactive waste generated since the first nuclear power plant was built in 1954, is still sitting somewhere out there emitting radiation!

We should ask ourselves why, prior to the Ukraine-Russia war, many European and Asian countries were planning to mothball their very expensive nuclear power plants long before they had become obsolete.

Assuming that we find a suitable location and an adequate water supply and that the plant does become a reality, I very much doubt that future generations will thank us for the legacy we plan to leave for them.