Byron Blake | Critical assessment of nuclear energy in Jamaica’s future
In an article published in the Sunday Gleaner of July 30, titled ‘The Potential of Nuclear Energy as Part of the Future Energy Mix in Jamaica’, Oshane Hamilton explored the viability of integrating nuclear energy into Jamaica’s energy landscape. While his exposition on this nuclear prospect may be persuasive at first glance, a more critical evaluation is warranted.
Hamilton’s central argument for nuclear energy in Jamaica is predicated on the promise of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), an emerging design stage technology. Approximately 85 per cent of the article is dedicated to extolling the merits of nuclear power as a low-greenhouse-gas-emissions, highly available energy source, and emphasising the advantages of SMRs over conventional nuclear power plants.
Positioned as an apt solution for a small island nation, SMRs are presented as a “burgeoning technology”. But, that burgeoning is all “on paper”, as it is still at the design stage. In that regard, it is important to note Hamilton’s concession in his article’s closing lines that the deployment and validation of SMRs are yet to be realised.
One key advantage highlighted by Hamilton is the small spatial footprint of SMRs. However, the article falls short of clarifying the required number of units to establish a substantial power-generating facility. Procuring upwards of 35 acres of suitable, flat, remote, and uninhabited land, and possibly several pieces, in Jamaica, could be a formidable challenge, given the island’s limited available space and topography.
The article seems to dismiss concerns about nuclear plant safety by arguing that SMRs are safer than conventional nuclear plants, which, in turn, are supposedly safer than alternative energy sources. But, to be safer than the alternative does not make a technology safe. Further, this perspective sidesteps the perpetual challenge of nuclear waste disposal and management, radiation hazards, and the long-term implications. One significant apprehension in Jamaica and the Caribbean pertains to nuclear material usage and the required safe disposal of waste. Considering the region’s high dependence on tourism and the Caribbean Sea’s extensive traffic, coupled with the presence of geographical parts of nuclear-armed states, a nuclear-free stance has been advocated and rigorously pursued.
We do well to remind ourselves that, while illogical, parts of the US, France, and UK are within the Caribbean. These realities have underpinned historical efforts to establish the Caribbean as a nuclear-free zone and the region’s consistent protests against the trans-shipment of nuclear waste through the Caribbean Sea. The unbroken collaboration within the Caribbean underlines the importance of thorough consultation before any action to alter this stance.
A notable deficiency in Hamilton’s article lies in its treatment of renewable energy sources. In the brief segment addressing renewables, he acknowledges Jamaica’s abundant renewable resources, which could substantially diminish reliance on costly, environmentally detrimental fossil fuels. However, the subsequent section titled ‘Problems with Renewable Energy’ focuses disproportionately on the limitations of solar and wind power. While it is true that these sources are subject to natural variability, entail high initial costs, and require extensive land, a comparative analysis should encompass both financial and economic costs and benefits. It is crucial to recognise that the costs of these technologies have been falling, economic costs escalate with global climate change, and many of the financial costs are localised, thus reducing foreign currency demands. Moreover, innovative placement of wind turbines at sea or in remote areas, as well as efficient land use in solar project spaces, have demonstrably enhanced their overall viability.
Curiously, Hamilton’s article omits any mention of biomass-based energy, which holds, perhaps, the greatest potential in the Caribbean’s humid tropical environment. Biomass offers the added advantage of capturing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and sequestering them, while serving numerous other agricultural, economic, and environmental purposes. It is, for example, a means of enhancing the rediscovered importance of agriculture in national development.
In conclusion, the article has a discernible inclination to validate a preconceived notion. The exploration moved quickly to the advancement of viability. The rigour in interrogating an unproven technology and the consequent cautions are absent. The case of potential alternatives, in particular the alternative for which Jamaica is best endowed, is superficial. These shortcomings notwithstanding, Oshane Hamilton’s piece could serve as a valuable catalyst for serious deliberation on a subject with far-reaching policy implications for both Jamaica and the wider Caribbean. It is hoped that the opportunity will spark substantial discourse among stakeholders and policymakers before commitments are given and investments made which will bind Jamaican citizens and taxpayers.
Byron Blake is former assistant secretary general of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), based in Kingston, Jamaica. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org