Zia Mian, Contributor
For reasons and developments that I shall discuss in this two-part series, deve-lopments in nuclear-energy technology have made it possible that it can play a central role in Jamaica's sustainable energy future and national energy security.
Back in the 1970s, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) studied the market potential for deploying nuclear energy in Jamaica. At that time, the nuclear power plants made economic sense only if the generation unit size could be around 1,000 megawatts (MW). The IAEA study concluded that the Jamaican power system did not afford a market size for deploying nuclear-power generation economically. Even today, the total installed public generation capacity in Jamaica is less than the critical threshold of 1,000 MW. The present installed capacity is about 815 MW and the peak system demand is about 640 MW. Any generation unit larger than 75 - 100 MW would seriously compromise generation system reliability by increasing chances for blackouts.
The IAEA, however, held a workshop on nuclear power planning, which I attended. At the initiative of Professor Gerald Lalor, the University of West Indies (UWI) Mona Campus proceeded to acquire a small "SLOWPOKE" or Safe Low-Power Kritical Experiment, or low-energy, pool-type nuclear research reactor. The SLOWPOKE reactor was designed by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited in the late 1960s and was primarily intended for research applications at the Canadian universities. With the support of the European Economic Commission, the UWI was successful in obtaining and installing, this research reactor in 1984.
The reactor was installed at the International Centre for Environmental & Nuclear Sciences (ICENS) at UWI. It has helped ICENS to do critical research in geochemical mapping, agricultural crops, soil and environment in Jamaica and the Caribbean. It has also provided opportunities for the training of Jamaicans in the nuclear technology.
As far as the development of nuclear power in the United States is concerned, since 1970, no new approval was granted for construction of nuclear power plants. During the Carter administration, the construction of new nuclear power plants was virtually killed by interest groups. I recall that as a member of the Trilateral Commission's Review Task Force (chaired by Prof John Sawhill, president, NYU and late assistant energy secretary, US Department of Energy) that was formed to review President Carter's proposed energy policy, we found no strong support for deploying nuclear power. The Carter policy emphasised tax measures, conservation and efficiency enhancements, and a dramatic change in the American lifestyle to reduce energy consumption. The incident at Three Mile Island further increased the doubts about nuclear power. In 1972, the number of new nuclear plants ordered reached as high as 35, however, following the oil crisis of 1973, it dropped to zero.
Although nuclear power is not expensive, during the 1970s the construction costs were driven up by environmental delays. Owing to safety concerns, it took over 10 years to obtain the necessary licences. By 1981, the electric utilities were paying 17 per cent interest on loans for the construction of power plants and construction times for nuclear power plants extended out from eight years to up to 20 years. The costs of new plants escalated from original estimates of about US$ 400 million to about US$ 4 billion at completion. In comparison, GE and other US firms built 1,000-MW and larger nuclear plants in Japan, Korea and Taiwan in four to five years, and at very competitive costs.
The nuclear plants are the lowest-cost producer of baseload electricity. The average production cost of little over two cents per kilowatt-hour includes the costs of operating and maintaining the plant, purchasing fuel and paying for the management of spent fuel. Notwithstanding, the share of nuclear energy in the US electricity supply mix at present is at about 20 per cent. The United States is lagging behind other countries in developing, deploying, enhancing and exporting nuclear plants and technology. In comparison, France delivers 75 per cent of its electricity from nuclear plants.
While there have always been concerns regarding the nuclear plants, according to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), "from the outset, there has been a strong awareness of the potential hazard of both nuclear criticality and the release of radioactive materials. There have been two major reactor accidents in the history of civil nuclear power - Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. One was contained without harm to anyone and the other involved an intense fire, without provision for containment. These are the only major accidents to have occurred in some 14,000 cumulative reactor-years of commercial operation in 32 countries. The risks from western nuclear power plants, in terms of the consequences of an accident or terrorist attack, are minimal compared with other commonly accepted risks. Nuclear power plants are very robust. Safety is achieved through 'defence in depth'."
The recent energy crisis in California, and public recognition in New York and other states, has highlighted the failure to build new power plants over the last three decades and has resurrected interest in nuclear energy. In February 2010, President Obama pledged more than US$8 billion in conditional loan guarantees for the construction of two new nuclear reactors at Georgia Power's Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant (NPP). These reactors are just the first of many new nuclear projects that are likely to come on stream. He has granted new authority to the DOE; and in his 2011 budget has pledged support for six to nine new reactors (loan guarantees of about US$ 20 billion). This money would come from the US Treasury.
I recently attended a symposium in the United States which focused on the development of the small modular reactors (SMR). The symposium presented information on the designs and applications of SMRs. The SMRs are considered ideal for unique applications which, among others, include remote deployment, military operations, water purification, and reducing the cost of electricity by replacing expensive fossil fuel-based generation capacity serving small power systems, such as in Jamaica. The SMRs are quick to build and their costs compare favourably with natural gas combined cycle plants, as well as renewable power generation (eg, wind power). The features of new reactors include increased safety and security, high reliability and use of non-weapon grade fuel. The re-fuel cycle, depending on design, ranges from three years to 25 years.
The experts at the symposium agreed that the deployment of SMRs would assist nuclear-power safety and security, non-proliferation, waste management, resource utilisation and economy, as well as offer a variety of energy products and flexibility in design, siting and fuel-cycle options. The SMRs offer the following important features, which suit smaller economies' needs:
In the next article, I shall discuss the case, steps and timing for deploying nuclear energy to alter Jamaica's energy-supply mix.
Zia Mian, a retired senior World Bank official, at present is director general of the Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR). Views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not directly or indirectly reflect those of the Government of Jamaica or OUR. Feedback may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org