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Paulwell in the dark about nuclear energy

Published:Tuesday | March 27, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Del Warmington, Contributor

THERE WAS an initial burst of enthusiasm and delight when I heard the new minister of energy indicating that he intend to cogently address the challenging energy problem facing Jamaica. I got the impression he was going to exhibit his agile perception and adroit judgment. I thought he was answering the clarion call to alleviate the country from a misguided energy policy.

But it sent a shiver up my spine when eminent leaders such as Minister Philip Paulwell started advocating nuclear energy as a solution. The practicality of such a solution is on the dark side of the moon. In other words it is nebulous. I am perpetually amused at how often we seem to find complex solutions for simple problems.

Granted, it is prudent for him to evaluate all options. The choices we face are coal, natural gas, nuclear, oil and renewables. But like any multiple choice test, we have to use the process of elimination. Realistically, both coal and nuclear will have to be eliminated.

WHO feels it knows it

We just had the one-year anniversary of the devastating Fukushima meltdown in Japan. The latent effects are still being been felt. The cost of the earthquake and tsunami is now estimated at US$210 billion. Of the 54 nuclear plants in Japan at the meltdown only two are in operations today. Even though Tokyo is 150 miles away from Fukushima, the government was making plans to evacuate its citizens. As the great Bob Marley said; "Those who feels it knows it, Lord". Now Japan has decided to move from nuclear energy to gas. Germany has decided to phase out its nuclear plants. Same for Switzerland and voters in Italy have soundly rejected any expansion of nuclear plants. We should not forget Chernobyl in 1986. The area remains off limit 26 years after. Jamaica should not be trying to reinvent the wheel.

The most compelling argument against a nuclear plant in Jamaica is its location, latitude 18 degree 15'N and longitude 77 degree 30'W. Jamaica lays both in an earthquake and hurricane belt. We can't assume that nuclear disaster only happen in other people's country. No one can predict the magnitude of the next earthquake. Will it be 5.4 or 9.0 on the Richter scale? Can the current weak power grid support a nuclear reactor? Can it withstand a seismic event? Let's not forget the ruinous 1692 and 1907 earthquakes in Port Royal. Ironically, Mr. Paulwell represents Port Royal in the House of Representatives.

The most totemic argument we hear for a nuclear plant in Jamaica is that it is cheap. Folks, the nuclear industry cannot exist without government subsidy. How much subsidy Mr. Paulwell is going to give to a nuclear plant? How much will be taken away from education, health and law enforcement? We need to know these answers.

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), it costs between US$6-US$10 billion to build a 1200- megawatt nuclear plant. However, nuclear plants are notorious for construction delays and cost overruns. Take the case of Taiwan, its latest nuclear plant which started construction in 1999 was scheduled to be finish by 2004 and cost $3.7 billion. It is now projected that it will not be completed before 2014 and the cost is estimated at least $12 billion. Let nobody fool you ,the construction of nuclear plants are extremely complex and costly.

Then again, we hear the argument for mini nuclear plant with new technology. The major promoter of this is Badcock Wilcox (Gen4Energy, Nuscale, Holtec and Terrapower also have designs). They indicated that they can build mini 184-megawatt nuclear plants. However, neither they nor the NEI will give cost estimates. Please note that these plants have not yet received the necessary approval from the United States Department of Energy. The question we need to ask is whether Jamaica wants to be a guinea pig for new nuclear technology. We must always remember there is only one way for a caterpillar to transform into a butterfly. There is no shortcut.