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Leading sustainable development

Nuclear Energy- Leading sustainable development

No matter how many regional alliances Jamaica enter into, or free trade agreements we ratify – the main thing that will always remain the foundation of survival – is competition. Every balance struck natural or man-made is a result of equal and unchanging competition for resources between more than one organism. For Jamaica to survive in a rapidly-advancing world which embraces open competition through free trade and globalisation, we must change the way we approach our standard mode of operation by first gaining a competitive advantage. In the basic sense, competitive advantage comes three-fold for sustainability:

  1. 1. Cost leadership – delivering the same services as competitors at a lower cost.
  2. 2. Differentiation – greater services to customers at the same prices as competitors.
  3. 3. Focus – concentration on a narrow exclusive competitive segment hoping to achieve a local rather than industry-wide competitive advantage.

Sustainable development

According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, energy is one of the key building blocks of sustainable development. In all countries, it is the fundamental requirement for providing other basic life necessities, such as food, water, shelter and clothing. Without energy, from its simplest forms such as biomass to its more complex counterparts such as fossil fuels or hydro-electricity, society is unable to maintain or improve living standards, meet the basic needs of its citizens or maintain the socio-economic infrastructure necessary for political and economic stability.
It is clear that fossil fuel energy for some time has been a volatile source of energy for small states such as Jamaica, after seeing our fuel bill almost double last year because of world speculation on political happenings far beyond our control and influence. We need a better more stable and efficient source of energy that is environmentally safe, affordable and renewable.

Energy diversification

Recent studies on Jamaica’s electricity requirements confirm the need for energy diversification and the necessity for replacement of obsolete plants. The generation cost of these old plants is so high that costly commitments for at least some diversification and plant replacement may well be necessary.

According to Dr Charles Grant in his paper entitled ‘Nuclear Power Generation in Small Nations’, renewable sources of energy may be inefficient to meet our energy needs: “… In 2002, Jamaica produced 6.3 TWh of electricity, 97.4 per cent of which was generated from oil. Renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, tides and waves do not provide directly either continuous base-load power, or peak-load power when it is needed and our potential for hydropower (118 MW)8 is not sufficient for current demand. The Wigton Wind Farm project in Manchester has 23 wind turbines installed with a capacity of 900 kW each, for a total capacity of 20.7 MW (potential for 70 MW). The wind farm is expected to run at an average capacity factor of 35 per cent, which would supply approximately 62,000 MWh of electricity per year. The use of biomass in Jamaica is in the region of 1.2 million barrels fuel oil equivalent. However, none of the biomass processes are used for electricity generation. Renewable energy sources are, therefore, limited to some 10-20 per cent of the capacity of our electricity grid, so other sources seem necessary to reduce dependence upon fossil fuels.”

Possible solution

One solution we can investigate is nuclear energy. Below shows a comparison of the costs of electricity from nuclear fission compared with other energy sources.

Global nuclear generating capacity is growing rapidly: fourteen new power plants were connected to the grid between 2004 and 2007, 35 reactors are under construction, with a further 91 ordered or planned. As of March, 2008, there was a total of 228 reactors proposed worldwide.


The advantages of nuclear power are:
(1) The plants do not emit carbon dioxide, nitrogen or sulphur oxides and release much less radioactivity than coal or oil-fuelled plants;
(2) Its enormous energy density is several million times that of chemical fuels. One single pass use a kg of uranium fuel generates 400,000 kWh of electricity, compared to about 4 kWh from oil;
(3) Uranium projections for the future are robust and many countries are seeking new sources;
(4) the operating costs of fission reactors are not very sensitive to fuel prices, doubling the cost of nuclear fuel would increase the price of nuclear generated electricity by five per cent compared with, for example, the effect of doubling the cost of natural gas, which could lead to electricity price rises of 75 per cent;
(5) The industry is at least as safe as is any other of its scale.
There remain concerns that include: (1) the long lead time and high capital costs to construct and commission nuclear reactors; (2) ‘final’ disposal of nuclear wastes; (3) proliferation of nuclear weapons (4) the availability of nuclear-trained persons in the face of the expected global demand.
The new generations of nuclear reactors incorporate several improvements including: enhanced reactor safety; improve nuclear power generation economics; minimise environmental impact; and improve resource utilisation.

The Pebble Bed Reactor

The Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) is a new type of high temperature helium gas-cooled nuclear reactor, that got its name from the type of fuel the reactor runs on – little tennis ball size spheres with a uranium core and a ceramic coating, offering a unique safety mechanism which makes it easy to store the spent fuel, because the silicon carbide coating on the fuel spheres will keep the radioactive decay particles isolated for approximately a million years, which is longer that the activity even of plutonium.
There are opportunities for Jamaica to assess the comparative designs of small reactors but at this stage the pebble bed is nearest to production and is an attractive possibility. This design is claimed to be simpler to operate and maintain, to make extensive use of passive systems for safety and to utilise components that can hardly be compromised by human error. In particular, the design excludes core damage and radioactive releases were an accident to occur. The relatively low power output, relative simplicity, and built in high safety margins, support consideration for application in Jamaica and the regulatory and licensing processes are likely to be simpler and quicker. South Africa has developed a German technology for a 160 MWe modular unit (PMBR). Chinergy (in China) is preparing to build a somewhat similar 195 MWe unit, and the US is developing another design with 285 MWe modules.
Requirements for starting a nuclear power programme
Even a small nuclear power programme is a major undertaking for Jamaica. It involves relatively large capital sums, significant investment in a sustainable human and technological infrastructure, legal and regulatory support to ensure safety and security, and safeguards against proliferation. Most countries have taken 10 to 20 years between the time that an initial decision is taken to launch a programme and a reactor comes on stream. However, with the introduction of standardised reactors this time may be significantly reduced. Considerations to move forward however, will necessarily take time as what now seems to be the most suitable reactor, has still to be tested under commercial conditions. Yet, even during the preparation for a decision there can be valuable spin-off benefits including the push to do some related work that should be done anyway and is affordable.
The MIAS is a non-profit organisation of the University of the West Indies, Pure and Applied Sciences Department, offering analytical, technical and web services and specialised science projects. If you have any question or comments about these articles please email: or or contact the MIAS Analytical Services Division at 970-2042 or 512-3067 for enquires on services offered.

Category/ies:Nuclear Tech.
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