Colombo, Economy, Environment

Pitfalls of Sri Lanka going nuclear – Opening the public debate

Sri Lanka on the nuclear map

Recently Sri Lanka has shown increased interest in using nuclear energy for future power generation. The Atomic Energy Authority (AEA) of Sri Lanka is in the process of seeking cabinet approval to initiate a programme for ‘Nuclear Energy for Peaceful Use’.

Initial explorations in Sri Lanka have shown that some areas of the Southern and Western coastline have thorium deposits, which can be used as a nuclear fuel. India, which utilizes thorium for large-scale energy production has entered discussions on how it could assist Sri Lanka to develop thorium based energy.

This article argues that nuclear energy is not a viable option for energy generation in Sri Lanka as it is not safe, cost effective or emission free as proponents of nuclear energy suggest. The article advocates that the Sri Lankan Government should explore and invest in renewable energy sources to manage Sri Lanka’s energy needs in the future.

The ugly truth about nuclear energy

Nuclear energy is not cost effective – initial costs of installing a nuclear power plant are exorbitant and this will be passed through to the taxpayers over the years. In addition nuclear power is one of the most protected and subsidized industries globally, “In the mid-1990s, governments worldwide were subsidising fossil fuels and nuclear power to the tune of US$250-300 billion per annum. Global subsidies for conventional (fossil fuel and nuclear) energy remain many magnitudes higher than those for more benign alternatives such as efficiency and renewables” (Medical Association for Prevention of War- Australia).

The Government will also incur additional costs for exploration, extraction and transportation of material, maintainance of plant, and providing high-end security to the material and the plant.  These costs too will be passed on to the people.

In addition if a nuclear accident occurs in the island the people will be burdened with the cost of decontamination and health care.

Therefore generating electricity from nuclear power is an expensive process and not a one-time investment.

Nuclear energy is not safe – A report by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War highlights the large-scale irreversible damage caused by the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 (Pflugbeil, Paulitz, and Claußen, 2006). According to Russian authorities about 90% (540,000 to 775,000) of the young men sent out to clean the nuclear accident have become invalids, falling sick and dying prematurely.  Infant mortality (perinatal mortality) has significantly risen in several European countries and Genetic and teratogenic damage (malformations) have also significantly risen in many European countries (Pflugbeil, Paulitz, and Claußen, 2006).  In Bavaria alone, between 1000 and 3000 additional birth deformities have been found since Chernobyl.  The overall extent of the genetic damage caused by the Chernobyl catastrophe can only be vaguely estimated since only 10% of the overall excepted damage can be seen in the first generation (Pflugbeil, Paulitz, and Claußen, 2006).

Although scientists argue that all modern nuclear power plants take every necessary precaution to avoid nuclear disasters like the Chernobyl tragedy there have been strings of accidents that have occurred right up to 2009 ( Accidents can generally be classified as loss of coolant accident, criticality accident, decay heat accident, transport accident, equipment failure accident, human error accident, and lost source accident.

In 2004 August in Mihama, Japan, non-radioactive steam leaked from a nuclear power plant, killing four workers and severely burning seven others ( It was considered Japan’s worst nuclear accident. In 2006 at the Kjeller reactor in Norway, there was a leak in a pump used with the recombination circuit ( The Norwegian Institute for Energy Technology said radiation seeped out for about 15 minutes. This was not the first time that there was an accident at the Kjeller reactor; there were 3 serious accidents from 2001 to 2006 ( On the 2 September 2008 the German government confirmed that the Asse II facility, a nuclear waste storage that held 126,000 barrels of waste, has a leak, and has been leaking for over twenty years ( After this confirmation, Germany was forced to think about another place for storing all the waste (

It is evident that accidents occur at nuclear sites and that the most sophisticated security measures are not infallible. A nuclear accident in Sri Lanka, which has a landmass of 65,610 km2, could threaten the entire island and create a nuclear wasteland.

Nuclear energy is not climate friendly – nuclear power generation has a high dependence on fossil fuels. A study conducted by the Oko Institute highlights that the entire nuclear fuel cycle emits Co2 indirectly thereby contributing to the process of climate change (Fritsche, 2006). In comparison to renewable energy, energy generated from nuclear power releases 4-5 times more Co2 per unit of energy produced, taking into account the entire nuclear fuel cycle (Fritsche, 2006).

In November 2000 the world recognised nuclear power as a dangerous and unnecessary technology by refusing to give it greenhouse gas credits during the UN Climate Change talks in The Hague (Greenpeace). Nuclear power was dealt a further blow when a UN Sustainable Development Conference refused to label nuclear a sustainable technology in April 2001 (Greenpeace).

Nuclear energy will degrade the environment– Sri Lanka is a bio-diversity hot spot with unique flora and fauna species. The generation of electricity through nuclear power will seriously degrade the environment and threaten the fragile eco-systems on the island. Mining for nuclear material causes serious environmental degradation that cannot be repaired (Mudd).

The Atomic Energy Authority has proposed to set up a nuclear installation in a small island off the main coast and have suggested the islands of Mannar or Delft as potential sites. Mannar district is around 2,002 sq. km2 and hosts around 104,000 people. It has a coastline of 163 km was a major fishing port before the conflict and the fishing restrictions. In addition over 60% of Mannar’s population are involved in paddy cultivation. Delft Island is also a major fishing port.

Setting up nuclear facilities in these islands off the West and North of Sri Lanka will undoubtedly create health hazards for the people living in the islands, degrade the environment and seriously hinder agriculture and fishing which are the livelihoods of the people. The impacts will not be confined to the locality of the installation and will also affect agriculture, marine life, local fauna and flora across Sri Lanka.

Radiation emitted in the nuclear industry will harm local employees – The health impacts of exposure to radiation, and fissile material are being researched across the world. Although not conclusively proven research indicates that exposure to thorium could increase birth defects and liver diseases (Najem, and Voyce, 1990). Research carried out in the US suggests that low-level radiation exposure on workers exposed in the nuclear industry increase their health risks. Therefore a proliferation of nuclear power plants inevitably means more nuclear workers and more residents exposed to low-level ionizing radiation, with increased health risks attendant to this exposure (Clapp, 2005).

Nuclear waste is a health hazard – disposing of nuclear material would be a major challenge for Sri Lanka which is grappling with a serious solid waste disposal problem. Every nuclear power station converts uranium fuel rods through nuclear fission into highly radioactive nuclear waste. Nuclear waste constitutes a life-threatening hazard because of its radioactive emissions. A typical power reactor produces 25-30 tonnes of spent fuel annually (Green, 2005). Annually, about 12,000 to 14,000 tonnes of spent fuel are produced by power reactors worldwide (Green, 2005). People, animals and plants need to therefore be shielded from it for several hundreds of thousands of years. Nuclear power stations have been in operation for some 50 years but to date no one knows how nuclear waste can ultimately be stored. Worldwide there is not one safe and secure disposal option for the highly radioactive waste produced by nuclear power stations.

Nuclear power could pose a regional security threat – The volatility of the South Asian region dictates that nuclear power plants pose a major security risk for the entire region. Terrorism, sabotage and 9/11 style attacks on nuclear reactors would create massive destruction. Therefore it is irresponsible to construct new nuclear power plants rather than phase out and close existing plants.

Nuclear resources are finite – Like fossil fuels, nuclear power depends on non-renewable and finite resources (Green, 2005). The world’s resources of Uranium will not last more than a few decades, especially now that the US is building new plants, China is expanding rapidly and countries like India are also talking about increasing their nuclear energy production.

Energy conservation and renewable energy

In the 1980 and 1990 Sri Lanka invested heavily on large-scale hydro-power schemes. However currently these hydro-power schemes do not generate the estimated mega watts of power due to a multitude of reasons including cracks in dams, and siltation in the catchment areas. It is critical that existing sources of power generation are maintained and improved to maximize power generation to meet future energy needs.

In addition it is critical that Sri Lankans conserve energy. Currently many communities across the globe are experimenting with clean energy lifestyles, which use energy efficiently. In UK, US and Canada new healthy sustainable communities are being built based on the premise that an ordinary resident will be able to live sustainably with little extra effort.

Sri Lanka has a responsibility to explore and invest in energy sources, which are renewable, and emission free. It is of critical importance that wind, solar, and bioenergy sources are given prominence and that electricity generation from these renewable sources are increased. Although Europe and the United States have invested in nuclear power there is active debate and mounting pressure to phase out these installations in favour of clean, renewable sources. Europe is planning to get 22% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010, creating nearly a million additional jobs. The trend of rapid rise in nuclear energy is only seen in India and China, which expect an exponential rise in energy demand by 2050.

Raising awareness against using nuclear power

Unfortunately the public debate on nuclear energy in Sri Lanka is almost non-existent. Proponents of nuclear energy allege that nuclear energy has been unfairly demonized. The Atomic Energy Authority of Sri Lanka has initiated the Young Nuclear Scientists’ Society (YNSS) with the aim of attracting the younger generation to using nuclear power. In this situation there is an urgent need to generate public debate on nuclear energy generation so that Sri Lanka can make informed energy polices. Nuclear energy is not an energy option for Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans must take a stand now.


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Green, Jim., 2005. Greenpeace. Nuclear Power: No Solution to Climate Change.  [Online] Available at: [Accessed 5 September 2009].

Greenpeace. End the nuclear age. [Online]

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Medical Association for Prevention of War- Australia. Nuclear Power.  [Online] Available at: [Accessed 3 September 2009].

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Najem, G. R., and Voyce, L. K., 1990. Health Effects of a Thorium Waste Disposal Site. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 3 September 2009].

Clapp, R. W., 2005. Nuclear Power and Public Health. Environmental Health Perspectives Volume 113, Number 11. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 4 September 2009]. Accidents 2000. [Online] Available at: menu/ key-issues/nuclear-weapons/issues/accidents/accidents-2000s.htm [Accessed 3 September 2009].

Pflugbeil, S., Paulitz, H., and Claußen, A., 2006. Health Effects of Chernobyl

20 years after the reactor catastrophe. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 5 December 2009].