Lanka should look at nuke option More dangers in coal power – Prof. Guruswamy
By Umesh Moramudali,Rathindra Kuruwita and Kris Thomas
Sri Lanka should not rule out the possibility of using nuclear power in its energy mix, considering the recent advances made in nuclear technology, says Dr. Lakshman Guruswamy, Nicholas Doman Professor of International Environmental Law at the Law School of the University of Colorado in Boulder. Guruswamy was recently in Sri Lanka to attend a forum organized by the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute (LKI.)
?: Professor, your research has talked about this concept of 'energy justice'. How important is energy justice and how is it related to a country like Sri Lanka?
A: Sri Lanka is very much a part of the issue concerning energy justice. By energy justice I mean that there are about a billion people in the world, depending on the area you're looking at, who do not have access to energy for four major life support areas.
For the first area, they do not have energy for cooking. So when you use biomass – agricultural waste – if you don't have good combustion, you're going to have a lot of particulate matter, which creates enormous health problems. So in the world today, there are like four million premature deaths, primarily among women and children as a result of inhaling this smoke. The first area that you're concerned about is the extent to which people in the least developed parts of the world – Sri Lanka is not included in this – people who do not have access to clean, efficient energy that has to be remedied in some way. The second such area is access to energy for lighting. Here, I'm not sure about the extent to which the whole country is electrified; somewhere around the upper 90 percentage most probably. But there is a difference between putting in points where pylons end and pulling it down to residences, there is a huge gap there. So what happens is where many parts of the world where they do not have access to energy for lighting, it leads people to use kerosene; this is not a problem in Sri Lanka, but it does happen. Kerosene is a bad fuel because children swallow kerosene, mistaking it to be water. Secondly, kerosene leads to huge amounts of deaths and burnings as a result of these little kerosene lamps. So kerosene is not a good fuel to use. We have got to give people who do not have electricity, some ability to access electricity or some form of light at night. This leads to a lot of consequences. Access to lighting is a big issue.
The third area is water and sanitation purposes. We have plenty of water in Sri Lanka and not like some sub-Saharan desert country where people have to labour to collect water and to clean it. However, we have a real problem of people not drinking good water. In the North Central Province there are people with chronic kidney diseases due to this. I'm thinking there's a bigger problem, the question of polluted water causing anaemic dysentery, a viral infection caused by polluted drinking water which is the second biggest cause of hospitalisation of patients in Sri Lanka and it leads to dehydration. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that about 50, 000 people die every year from drinking contaminated water. Sanitation is the other problem, where I think Sri Lanka is much better in comparison to other countries when it comes to this matter in South Asia. It's still not an issue because bad sanitation leads to health complications. The last aspect of area is the lack of access to mechanical power or motive power. A majority of the country are still engaged in physical labour, men and women alike. This includes labouring for agriculture purposes to household activities to transportation.
These are the areas where the responsibility primarily lies on developed countries to provide developing nations the ability to overcome the challenges in these areas. What I'm suggesting is that the United Nations has not got a goal that every part of the world should be provided with electricity by 2030. Fifty per cent of that quotation will be covered by renewable energy. But that is not going to happen. Because for a start, for countries to get their electricity totally it's going to take US$ 80 billion per annum and nobody is going to give that money.
?: When concerning energy justice, are there any international laws or protocols introduced by the UN or any other International Organisation that ensures energy justice and highlight the importance of it? As of yet in Sri Lanka, where do we stand on the matter?
A: There is no specific treaty or any international agreement dealing with energy justice. But there is a climate change treaty – 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – that tried to address the matter of carbon dioxide emissions. This agreement has been signed by every country in the world including Sri Lanka. What it says is that all countries have a right to sustainable development. If your country has a right to sustainable development there is a duty on other countries to enable that development. And that same treaty says there is a principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR) meaning that in the context of any kind of environmental problem or any issue like energy, every country should take charge of its own case. But the primary burden for doing that rested on developed countries. They have to help us.
So in terms of energy justice in Sri Lanka, the country can make a case that there are people who belong to the category of 'energy poor' – those who do not access to the aforementioned energy aspects. How does that actually translate into specific action is a very difficult question because these principles are of that we have to make the case in international organisations. And we ourselves can create laws that say we need to address these matters and we need to attract large amounts of international assistance, on the basis that they are willing to do that. So it's a simple matter of tapping into the existing legal framework, try and get some relief for the energy poor community.
?: So in terms of Sri Lanka, what you are saying is we need to have our own laws?
A: We can have our own laws. One thing we can do is say we need a law that addresses these energy access matters, create institutions by that law whose job is to go and convince developed countries that they have a legal obligation to help us out. Not otherwise. Other ways private organisations can help us, which I have proposed a solution where an American beer company will setup a plant here in local soil which exports the product back to the US side where there is a market for beer of Asian origin. In this proposal, seventy five per cent of the profits will go to providing water filters for people who don't have good drinking water.
It's currently called 'Beer for Water'. This is corporate social responsibility. There are so many other ideas such as this – ideas which can be started here. We just have to look attractive to them for them to invest in. There might be opportunities for other companies to come and do other stuff like creating solar bulbs. So we have got to have both, the public sector, government to government aid mechanisms, the United Nations and the private sector involvement in addressing these problems.
?: Recently the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) submitted a report to the Utilities Commission on the 20-year plan with a major focus on coal power. What is your take on that?
A: I'm not sure about this. I've seen two sets of statistics on the matter, one is saying that at the moment coal power and hydro electric power is 47 per cent of our energy and then the remaining is the power generated by diesel. The other set of statistics say that both percentages are equal – 22 per cent. Before saying that coal is the way to go, we need a comprehensive energy review of all the possible sources of energy that Sri Lanka can tap into. I have suggested that all this wind power in the Puttalam area can be utilized in generating energy. Why are we still using petroleum when we can use our own wind? Wind and solar or even geothermal energy has a problem which is that you have to store it. So I'm not saying that there is a singular magic bullet solution to this. But we have to consider also tidal power, indigenous sources of energy that are part of the natural resources of the country. I think there should be a comprehensive energy review that would enable you to make an informed decision as to which way you should go – including nuclear power. Look at everything under the sun, everything that is available and make sure that you do it thoroughly. I think it makes sense to work with energies that are already there than to do otherwise.
?: You mentioned nuclear power. Is it a path we should explore?
A: I think we should look at that. There are discussions on fourth generation nuclear generators that eat their own waste with no high level nuclear waste. I don't know how expensive that is but then again I don't think we should leave that out. We should look at it and see whether we have potential for nuclear, such as in countries like India, Korea and etc. Nuclear amounts to 17 per cent of energy globally. I don't think we should set our mind on one thing. We should look at every possible detail and form a decision that is in the best interest of our own country.
There are problems in nuclear energy which is the waste. And it is very expensive to setup. But once you get it going, it's very cheap. Kilowatt hours are cheaper than coal and clean as well with no carbon dioxide emissions. And then there's this story that nuclear power is dangerous, which is untrue. Coal power is more dangerous. People have become frightened because of these things and due to incidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima.
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