THE team at the International Centre for Environmental and Nuclear Sciences (ICENS) is in full support of the move to explore nuclear energy generation but only as small nuclear reactors.
Section head of the Nuclear Analytic Laboratory at ICENS at The University of the West Indies, Mona, Johann Antoine, expressed optimism for the new venture which he says is incumbent on ICENS to help.
"Wherever we can support the process, we absolutely will," said Antoine in an exclusive interview with the Jamaica Observer.
The team at ICENS has over 40 years of experience with nuclear technology but has yet to get first-hand experience with nuclear energy. ICENS uses the Jamaican Safe Low Power Critical Experiment (SLOWPOKE-2) nuclear reactor to aid in research and national development initiatives. It uses the same type of fluid that a nuclear energy facility would, but on a much smaller and different scale.
The talks of introducing nuclear energy to Jamaica's renewable energy mix has excited the nuclear energy advocate, Antoine, who suggests that now is the time to explore nuclear energy, as years of technological advancement have made nuclear reactors relatively safer.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), inside nuclear power plants, "nuclear reactors and their equipment contain and control the chain reactions, most commonly fuelled by uranium-235, to produce heat through fission. The heat warms the reactor's cooling agent, typically water, to produce steam. The steam is then channelled to spin turbines, activating an electric generator to create low-carbon electricity."
Antoine says he is in full support of exploring nuclear energy, but only as small modular reactors which would generate enough electricity capacity for Jamaica.
"In a situation of a micro reactor which is 10-megawatt electric, has advantages, you can add that to smaller grids, rural grids, maybe even ones that don't have developed infrastructure. It is much cheaper to add that to your energy grid. You can use that to support even a mix that includes renewables," he said enthusiastically.
Having small reactors, he said, would not only be safer but more suitable given the size of Jamaica. He explained that in previous years, conventional nuclear technology for power generation was either too large or too expensive, which would have been unsuitable for a developing island state. Now, with technology advancing, he says Jamaica is in a better position to adopt nuclear energy.
"I believe it's possible now, with small modular reactors, you can tailor your reactor for your circumstance, and so you can decide, you know what, I need an underpinning of a hundred megawatts electric for argument sake, to my grid. I can add that, I can add 50, I can decide I just need another 25," said Antoine.
Still, many people imagine a large nuclear power plant when the discussion on nuclear energy arises. Images from the disasters of Chernobyl and Fukushima are still fresh in the minds of people who oppose the decision over fears of similar risks of nuclear energy. In addressing those concerns, Antoine explained, that's the reason why those sizes and types of reactors were not appropriate for Jamaica.
He added that the risks of radiation exposure are significantly reduced due to advanced technology and the size of the nuclear reactor.
"You're talking about really old technology [past nuclear plants], 50, 60 years old. What we have for our reactor is a design that makes it safe, so that's built into the design of the core. It has inherent safety features and passive safety features â€” one of the tests is that it shuts itself down if it looks like it's giving a runaway reaction," Antoine assured.
He says starting with small modular reactors lessens risk and so can the design, by taking into account possible external threats.
"Let's say you have three designs, and you're saying this design looks like the better design to withstand an earthquake, or maybe we have a 100-year event so you ask, what about a hurricane? Or what will a potential tsunami do to this? Okay, pick that design," he said confidently. He then added, "Almost anything has a risk. We go on a plane that's a risk, and we accept those risks, because of the benefits."
According to the IAEA, "Nuclear power is a low-carbon source of energy, because, unlike coal, oil or gas power plants, nuclear power plants practically do not produce CO2 during their operation."
The ability of nuclear energy to generate electricity that is carbon-free is a huge benefit for the world and Antoine pointed to this feature as a huge beneficiary in helping meet climate change goals.
"You have a goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius that you want to keep under in order to avert a climate disaster. The more carbon-free sources that you have and the longer you run those, the greater likelihood that you're going to avert that rise in temperature that would then create that climate disaster," he said.
However, he believes that nuclear is a medium-term solution. As technology advances it is expected that longer-term solutions may be more suitable. But for now, he says for the output of energy that is desired along with the carbon-free emissions, there is no other stable or more efficient source compared to nuclear.
While some people are calling for other renewable options to be used instead, Antoine suggests a hybrid approach would be better. While he advocates for the enhanced use of renewables, he highlighted the disadvantages of renewables being dependent on weather and location.
"[If] you have a few cloudy days, your output is down, what are you going to do to support that capacity?" he asked, while using solar energy as an example. He added, "Nuclear energy in the form of small modular reactors makes it far more feasible as a hybrid structure where you have nuclear-underpinning renewables." With this system, he says capacity can be added to the electric grid as needed.
The nuclear advocate is however, cognizant, of the fact that Jamaica is not yet ready to operate even a small nuclear reactor. He says the authorities would have to design a model, go through testing phases to understand how one operates and conduct a feasibility study to determine site selection. But the first step, he says, is to expand the country's regulatory capacity.
"If we can't regulate right now, we couldn't regulate a nuclear reactor no matter how small it is. We need to increase that capacity, we also need to increase local capacity, the industry in general, and we need a lot more engineering capacity that is necessary to support that," Antoine explained to the Business Observer.
While there could be a turn-key solution by hiring foreigners, Antoine says he's not in support of that approach.
"We have local capacity to run a bauxite plant, yes, but to run our own plant right now for power we should have the same thing for nuclear reactor no matter how small it is," he said.
Overall, he says nuclear technology in reactors and medicines has been operating in Jamaica for years, and that there's nothing to fear from nuclear energy. However, he says, "If the Jamaican people don't want it [nuclear energy] that's it. I want a cogent conversation where all the facts are put out, we all see what's out there, then make a decision based on that and based on our own needs and situations."