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Rudolph Sutherland | Jamaica’s modern nuclear power plant option

Recently, Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced that Jamaica was looking to include small modular reactor or SMR nuclear power plants among Jamaica’s energy sources.

This was repeated by Energy Minister Daryl Vaz in a sectoral debate. Simultaneously, billionaire investor Michael Lee-Chin spoke of promoting such SMR plants in Canada, Jamaica, and around the world through the Canadian National Laboratories.

A year ago, China cut in a 200 MW Pebble Bed Modular Reactor and is building a 600 MW plant. In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission just certified NuScale Power’s VOYGR SMR small modular reactor, which uses up to a dozen 50 MW modules, with effect from February 23, 2023.

Nuclear power, despite past setbacks due to financial costs, radioactivity concerns and three major accidents, is back on the table.

Why is that, and why should Jamaica take notice?

Globally, fossil fuels are being phased out over climate-change concerns and the onward energy strategy stands on three pillars: wind, solar and nuclear. Where there is the resource, hydroelectricity or geothermal energy are possible, but these are often limited, site-specific resources.

Of the three main options, wind and solar photovoltaic power are fluctuating, and Jamaica has limited hydroelectric and geothermal potential. With the growing popularity of wind/solar energy sources, we can forget that the carbon-free energy source that can steadily provide the base load and can also carry load peaks is nuclear power, which is now cost competitive, proven, and available.

Jamaica’s peak electrical power load is about 800 MW, with base load of 400 MW. As of last September, in Jamaica, domestic electricity sold for almost US 33 cents/kWh, and industrial for nearly US 29 cents/kWh, some of the most expensive electricity in the world that puts a brake on our economy.

A year ago, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA listed levellised costs for electricity for new build plants, including: coal US 8.2 cents/kWh; natural gas US 4 cents; advanced nuclear US 8.8 cents; onshore wind US 4 cents; hydroelectric US 6.4 cents; and solar US 3.6 cents.

However, Jamaica has but little hydro potential, and the EIA notes how “hybrid solar PV generally [has] significant . . . daily variation, respectively, in availability”.

Wind, as our own Wigton plant shows, is similarly “resource constrained” and “intermittent” or “fluctuating”; not “dispatchable”. So that is why, even for Jamaica, modern nuclear energy, after decades of bad press, is firmly back on the table, especially, given the great advances in fourth-generation reactors. It s not 1976 or 1986 or even 2011 any more.

Perhaps the easiest type of nuclear power plant to understand is the pebble bed modular reactor. It uses a pile of ‘pebbles’, that is, ceramic nuclear fuel particles encased in carbon and with a silicon carbide outer shell. As the uranium atoms split in a fission chain reaction, they give off heat. This heats helium gas and transfers heat to spin a turbine-generator set, much like a windmill – producing electricity in the process.

The pebbles shield the fuel, and if they overheat, this naturally stops the reaction chain. Helium is an inert gas, eliminating risk of fire. It is also non-radioactive.

Another reactor is the molten salt, which can use nuclear waste as fuel. In the 1960s, researchers would simply turn off the reactor on weekends, allowing the salt to cool and solidify, then on Monday, they would turn it back on.

When the word nuclear comes up, however, many people think of atomic wars (August 6 and 9, 1945), and they may also remember the three high-profile disasters in 1979, 1986, and 2011, which have generated fear among us.

But many countries now consider nuclear as the best source for establishing a carbon-free and reliable world energy supply. Some countries like France, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Hungary already rely on nuclear to provide their energy.

Large nuclear power plants are extremely expensive, and it takes massive investment in billions of dollars and many years to build. That is partly why the fourth generation reactors are small, modular, built to standard models in factories, like cars or aeroplanes. And they are made to be passive safe, that is, the physics automatically shuts things down if the reactors overheat.

Yes, solar energy and wind energy have become more popular, but they have serious challenges to power the grid. However, SMRs are smart. There are no meltdowns, no waste-on-site “forever” issues, no massive carbon emissions. Some are designed to burn current nuclear waste for fuel.

SMRs can be built more quickly and safely in factories, and then they can be shipped to an installation site. They are small enough to be transported by trucks and in shipping containers.

As the term “modular” suggests, you can put as many units as you need into a small footprint plant – up to a dozen.

They are the future of nuclear power.

In fact, nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers have had the benefits of these small versions of reactor technologies for years. The US Navy, for example, has been using them for decades.

So a grid that uses SMRs to carry baseload and to support the intermittency of renewable energy resources like wind and solar looks very attractive. Including, for Jamaica.

It is not 1976, 1986 nor 2011 anymore!

Rudolph Earl Sutherland, PE, is a nuclear engineer who has worked in the nuclear power plant since 1975. He has worked with Bechtel Power Corporation/Savannah River Nuclear Solutions and was assigned to the Three Mile Island nuclear power disaster analysis

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