Nuclear gets positive energy - Government and Opposition agree as international agency offers help whenever the country is ready
Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Yukiya Amano has expressed the commitment of his organisation to help Jamaica exploit the benefits of nuclear energy.
The island has long flirted with the idea of introducing nuclear energy to the list of power options for the national grid, and Amano, who made an official visit to the island last week, said while the IAEA does not intervene in the national policies of member states, when Jamaica is ready to take that step the agency will be there to guide the way.
"If you decide to use nuclear power generation we will help you to use it safely, securely and sustainably," said Amano, who was a special guest at the University of the West Indies, Mona campus, where he toured the International Centre for Environmental and Nuclear Sciences (ICENS).
The ICENS is home to a small nuclear research reactor.
"Initial cost is high, running cost is low. It means that you need to use nuclear power for a long time in a sustainable manner. Safety must come first and we congratulate your country for having adopted a new nuclear law, and preparation is ongoing for implementation, and it is moving in the right direction."
Amano highlighted that research is ongoing to develop medium-sized and small nuclear reactors, and it is this development that has Opposition Spokesperson on Energy and Mining Phillip Paulwell feeling optimistic.
"It is in the energy policy and I do believe that it will be a viable option, especially because we anticipate that the mini nuclear plants, what we call compact plants, will be fully developed in another five to 10 years," Paulwell told The Sunday Gleaner.
"That will enable us to have facilities that can generate up to 50 megawatts of capacity. Right now, the plants are huge and it wouldn't be therefore appropriate for Jamaica. These prototypes are being developed, we are aware of them and it will enable us to get to less than the US$0.12 US$0.10 per kilowatt-hour that I was fixed on.
"I believe that with nuclear you can get down to US$0.06 per kilowatt-hour," added Paulwell.
The former energy minister said he is not opposed to other fuel sources being considered, such as coal, as he is aware that technological advances now permit cleaner emission.
But he has no doubt that nuclear is going to be a serious contender.
The current Minister of Energy, Science and Technology Andrew Wheatley is also sold on the benefits to be derived from the use of nuclear energy, but is not sure as to when it will come on stream.
"While we might not be ready for it (nuclear energy) now, it is something that is part of the energy policy, and some time down the road Jamaica might find itself in a position where we are able to utilise nuclear energy," said Wheatley.
"Look at what is taking place now in other jurisdictions, especially parts of Europe, we are seeing very, very cheap energy in areas where they use nuclear energy, and we are also excited at the possibility of using it, but we are also mindful that where we are right now, we are not ready for it."
According to Wheatley, in preparation for the use of nuclear energy there has to be a serious public-education campaign to dispel the safety concerns while investors have to be identified. He is, however, optimistic that Jamaicans will eventually embrace the use of nuclear energy, resulting in cheaper electricity.
Jamaica has an annual electricity bill of $14 billion, which is fuelled mainly by heavy oil. The bill is expected to reduce slightly with the introduction of natural gas and the use of more renewable sources of energy on the national grid.