Going nuclear: Convincing the public

by Gan Pei Ling /30 June 2010 © The Nut Graph

MALAYSIA’s first nuclear power plant is expected to be up and running by 2021.That’s just one decade away. Public concerns have already been expressed about the astronomical start-up costs, safety, and radioactive waste management of having such a nuclear plant. In response, Energy, Green Technology, and Water Minister Datuk Seri Peter Chin told Parliament on 7 June 2010 that the government would be conducting road shows to educate the public.

(Pic by merlin1075 / sxc.hu)

Additionally, Tenaga Nasional Bhd (TNB) has begun branding nuclear energy as “green” energy. It seems the government is bent on going nuclear so that we don’t lose out to our neighbours. For certain, there is big business involved. South KoreaFrance, and other foreign nuclear industries are already eyeing to tap into Malaysia’s new multibillion-ringgit nuclear market.

Still, the government must allay serious and legitimate fears about nuclear power. It cannot expect that there will not be public protests unless these fears are convincingly addressed.

Not alone

Malaysia is not alone in wanting to pursue nuclear power. Asean countries began flirting with the idea of harnessing nuclear energy for electricity generation around the 1960s.

The Philippines was the first to build a nuclear power plant in 1976. However, the project became a white elephant after the plant was found to be unsafe as it was constructed near major earthquake fault lines.

Since then, other Asean countries have announced plans to go nuclear due to rising fossil fuel prices. In 2007, Myanmar signed a deal with Russia to build its first research reactor, while Thailand declared that its first nuclear power plant would be operational by 2020. In late June 2010, Vietnam announced it would be building eight nuclear power plants in the next 20 years.

Others like Cambodia and Singapore have also indicated keen interest.

Show us the plan

Since the Malaysian government is so determined to play catch-up with our neighbours, here are some steps it can take to convince the Malaysian public that nuclear is indeed a safe, clean, and affordable energy option.

1. Where’s Malaysia’s radioactive waste management plan?

The government has identified potential sites in Pahang, Johor and Terengganu to build the plant. But it has yet to make public what it plans to do with the radioactive waste generated.

(Pic by flaivoloka / sxc.hu)

Will we be shipping our radioactive waste to France to be reprocessed or are we storing it in our own country? If we are shipping it half a globe away to be reprocessed, what measures are the government taking against terrorist attacks? Plutonium, which will be among the radioactive waste generated, is commonly used to make atomic bombs.

If we are storing it in Malaysia, where will it be stored? I imagine Pakatan Rakyat-led states would be among the first to say no. Will other states be willing to offer their states as a dumping ground? After all, even for the Broga incinerator project, there was so much public protest that in the end, the project was cancelled.

2. What’s Malaysia’s emergency plans?

For all they want, the nuclear industry can boost their safety record after the tragedies of Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986. But the truth is, the industry has continued to be plagued by other accidents and radioactive leaks during the past few decades.

What will the Malaysian government do in the event of a radioactive leak, fire, floods, or in the worst case scenario, a nuclear meltdown? What are the emergency plans that will be put in place? Show us you are prepared to deal with potential natural and human-caused disasters.

3. Give us financial security.

The nuclear industry is also notorious for cost overruns and construction delays. The latest example would be the new generation reactor in Finland, which was supposed to be completed last year. Its price tag has increased almost 50% to €4.2 billion due to safety issues in its design.

What steps are the government taking to ensure that Malaysia’s nuclear reactor will not go down the same path as Finland’s reactor? Who will foot the bill if we do? Surely the government does not expect to use taxpayers’ money to bail out the project if it goes beyond its original budget of between RM6 billion and RM13 billion. Perhaps the current ministers, TNB’s directors, and any other party that is so determined to push for nuclear energy to satisfy Malaysians’ “surging energy demand” can offer to fork out their own money.

The truth is…

Radioactive waste from nuclear energy will likely outlive human civilisation. That’s why, without a viable waste management plan, it is irresponsible to set up nuclear reactors. Even developed countries like Germany, which depend significantly on nuclear for its energy, have yet to figure out where to store their waste permanently.

Indeed, high-level waste generated from a reactor has to be stored in steel containers that must also last beyond human life. If the government were to be entrepreneurial, it could of course sell eternity ad spaces on these steel containers for a nifty sum. That would help reduce the government’s deficit for certain. But it would still not address the legitimate fears people have about nuclear waste.

Susilo Bambang (Source: presidensby.info)

And lest the government forget how critical public support is, Indonesia had to postpone its plan to build nuclear power plants indefinitely, partly due to public protest. Its president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, said on 19 June 2010 that the country would instead focus on developing renewable energy such as geothermal, wind, solar and biofuels.

For now, the Malaysian government doesn’t actually have a plan that addresses the safety issues of nuclear energy. And for so long as it doesn’t, it cannot hope that road shows alone will convince the public.


Gan Pei Ling believes in renewable, instead of, nuclear energy. She is a member of NukeOff, a Malaysian youth group that questions the government rationale of going nuclear. Her column, As If Earth Matters, will be a fortnightly offering on The Nut Graph.

Related post: The nuclear waste dilemma