EXPONENTIAL start-up costs, qualified employees, proper waste disposal and site selection are being cited as factors for Jamaica's shortfall to be able to successfully establish a nuclear energy facility on the island.
The concerns were raised by Dr Dennis Minott, a scientist trained in applied nuclear physics, with a PhD in physics and undergraduate training in engineering, who has described announcements by the Government to introduce nuclear energy in the renewable energy mix as delusive.
"The cost of small nuclei is running at about US$8 million per megawatt. Just the capital cost. And for Jamaica, if we were even to have a 10-megawatt plant let alone a 100-megawatt plant that would be US$800 million of installation cost, let alone the cost of personnel, the cost of infrastructure, the need for clear space and the need to be extremely military," Dr Minott revealed to the Jamaica Observer in an interview.
In a recent sectoral debate presentation in Parliament, Minister of Science, Energy and Technology Daryl Vaz said if Jamaica does not join the rest of the world in pursuit of building its own nuclear energy capabilities, the country will be left behind. However, the renewable energy specialist says several things need to be in place before such a move could even be considered, and Jamaica's economic position already put it at a disadvantage.
He explained that for such transformation to take place, a rigorous evaluation of what the aim is will be needed. For a nuclear plant to operate effectively, he says the trained human capital is paramount and it would require to have on stream, all the time, one or two nuclear physicists available 24/7 and these trained employees will need to be properly compensated.
"It cost CAN$251,000, US$190,000 (plus) per annum to even get a low-grade physicist to work full time at the boring, but important job of supervising a nuclear power reactor. Then you need engineers, they come in at roughly the same costs, then you have got to have operators, they come in at about US$90,000 plus per annum," added Dr Minott.
He reiterated that the country has no experienced civilian engineers, physicists, operators or fire personnel in dealing with nuclear energy. For the most part, the human capital that is available and is knowledgeable about some nuclear science and technology resides at the University of the West Indies, Mona, in the International Centre for Environmental and Nuclear Sciences (ICENS). But, ICENS only operates a small nuclear reactor, which is slow and small-scale and Dr Minott says it is a misrepresentation of what a nuclear facility is.
"It [ICENS] has nothing to do with this [nuclear energy] at all. It is blatantly untrue to say that we've had 40 years of experience with nuclear power, we have not, and we have no experience whatsoever. We may have one or two people trained in nuclear power like myself, but nobody based on anything in Jamaica has been trained in Jamaica to handle nuclear matters," he said.
But even with trained members operating in a nuclear facility, proper disposal of nuclear waste is another concern.
"We are not doing a good job at dealing with waste at all, let alone with nuclear waste which is thousands and millions of times more dangerous," he said discerningly.
In pointing to the country's already troubled disposal practices, including from medical waste which has been piling up, Dr Minott said those waste could possibly include radionuclides from nuclear medicine practice. He believes if medical waste is not being disposed of properly now, the same will follow suit with nuclear waste.
"Have no doubt that the medical doctors who must have administered those nuclear medicines knew that these were extremely hazardous materials but they are out there because whoever is disposing of them is not incinerating them," said Dr Minott with serious concern.
He says that medical nuclear waste is likely to stay radioactive for three or four months, while nuclear waste has far longer-lasting radioactivity. He explained that even if nuclear waste is disposed of in deep salt mines some 500 to 600 metres or more below the earth's surface or in mountains, they are still radiating. As such, it's just a matter of putting them out of direct reach from people, and he's of the view that it's highly unlikely nuclear waste generated in Jamaica will be dumped elsewhere.
He, however, admitted that it is possible to minimise the risks against alpha particles, and beta particles because they can be contained. But gamma radiation, which is electromagnetic radiation, cannot be contained effectively without adequate shielding and less frequent exposure.
"Workers cannot be continuously going five days a week or seven days a week, spending five hours per day, on a reactor, and not come away hurt, and I'm not talking about nuclear accidents, I'm just talking about normal operations," he said.
He added that the narrative or assumption that Jamaica has an insufficiency of power is false and a false solution is being pushed. He says the issue of grid stability is not only dependent on the availability of power.
"Jamaica doesn't have an ideal grid but it's not unstable. JPS doesn't necessarily run an unstable utility. The problem is we have failed to invest in infrastructure, the distribution lines as well as the big transmissions lines. We have failed to invest in the kinds of consumption devices that we ought to, and not just invest, we do not maintain them as well as we should. We do a bad job at it," said Dr Minott.
He further added that if Jamaica were to get and concentrate on getting power properly connected to the electricity grid, then it would have stability because the instability that Jamaica endures is not caused by lack of power.
If all these were to be in place, though an advantage to pursue the creation of its own nuclear facility, Dr Minott reminded of Jamaica's geographical position on the tectonic plates which poses a major risk of a nuclear accident due to earthquakes.
"Even an earthquake that is near the Jamaican soil, let alone one that hits and moves two tectonic plates in the way we know they can shake and I don't know of any nuclear plant that's built to withstand that," he added.
And based on Jamaica's small size, he says it's a terrible idea to build a nuclear plant in Jamaica, explaining that large reactors are only appropriate for places with enough space. The Business Observer asked Dr Minott, should a nuclear facility be built in Jamaica, where would be a good location? His response was "The part of Jamaica that fits on Antarctica."