by Gan Pei Ling / 24 February 2012 © Selangor Times
Regardless of public fears and concerns, when rather than if Malaysia goes nuclear seems to be already the case.
In May 2010, Malaysia had announced plans to build two 1GW nuclear power plants. Five potential sites were identified in Johor, Pahang and Terengganu.
But due to public opposition, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak was careful to stress in June 2011 that nothing was set in stone and nuclear energy remains an “option” for the country.
Public fear has centred on the dire consequences of a potential nuclear meltdown in Malaysia such as the scale of Fukushima (2011), Chernobyl (1986) and Three Mile Island (1979).
The ongoing Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which started last March, had displaced thousands of people and is expected to cost the Japanese government up to US$257 billion (RM670billion) in clean-up and compensation costs.
Countries like Germany and Switzerland had since renounced nuclear energy and would gradually phase out their nuclear plants but major powers like China and India have merely deferred their plans to build new reactors.
Closer to home, Asean countries have been flirting with the idea to go nuclear since the 1960s. The Philippines was the first to build one in 1976 but the project turned into a white elephant after the plant was found to be constructed near major earthquake fault lines.
Tenaga Nasional Bhd chief executive officer Datuk Seri Che Khalib Mohamad Noh, during a forum at the Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations in Kuala Lumpur last Thursday, argued that nuclear energy was an attractive option.
Che Khalib said Peninsular Malaysia was currently highly reliant on fossil fuel sources, particularly local natural gas (45 percent) and imported coal (44 percent), to generate power.
He noted that the country consumed 15,475MW of power at its peak last year and the peak demand is projected to increase 60 percent to 24,770MW by 2030.
But our local gas fields are depleting, he said. TNB has not built any new gas plants since 2003.
Instead, it is expanding and commissioning more coal plants as we become increasingly reliant on coal imported from Australia, Indonesia and South Africa to produce power.
“Nuclear energy can reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and (mitigate) global warming,” said Che Khalib, adding that the cost of importing coal would increase in future.
He appealed to the 200-odd audience to set aside their prejudices against nuclear power and re-evaluate the energy option objectively.
However, Indian anti-nuclear activist Praful Bidwai said it was a myth that nuclear power can help to resolve the climate crisis as scientists have warned that global carbon emission must start falling between 2015 and 2020.
“(Nuclear power) is too slow to deploy and too expensive. In comparison, renewable energy sources like solar and wind are safer, cheaper and can be deployed quickly,” said the author of The Politics of Climate Change and Global Crisis: Mortgaging Our Future.
But Che Khalib argued that the combination of solar, biomass, hydro and other renewable energy sources was insufficient to cater to Malaysia’s rising power demand as a developing country.
He said nuclear power should be part of the country’s energy mix: “Renewable energy sources have their limitations: solar farms require huge amount of land and the installation cost is high, the wind in our country isn’t as strong compared to European countries.
“We’ve also almost fully utilised the hydro potential in Peninsular Malaysia…(We need) nuclear plants to provide us base load power (continuous, non-fluctuating, energy supply),” he said.
Nuclear: Cheap or expensive?
The construction of the two nuclear plants, expected to cost RM21.3 billion, has been identified as one of the Entry Point Projects in Putrajaya’s Economic Transformation Programme.
Set up in January 2011, the Malaysia Nuclear Power Corporation (MNPC) has completed its preliminary feasibility study on nuclear power last July.
“(But) there is no final decision by the cabinet yet. The government will decide in 2013 or early 2014,” said MNPC chief executive officer Dr Mohd Zamzam Jaafar.
He said the government wanted to ensure public acceptance of the project.
In addition, Malaysia would have to ratify relevant international treaties, put in place national regulations as well as obtain approvals for the plant sites, including from the local communities.
If everything goes according to plan, the first of the twin units should be up and running in 2021.
Despite the costly capital expenditure, both Zamzam and Che Khalib claimed that nuclear energy was cheap in the long run compared to fossil fuels and renewable energy sources.
While we would have to import uranium, Zamzam said its price was low and has remained stable for the past decade.
However, Australian environmental expert Dr Mark Diesendorf dismissed the claim that nuclear power was cheap compared to renewable sources of energy
The University of New South Wales Institute of Environmental Studies deputy director pointed out the nuclear industry often played down its costs by assuming a low-interest rate loan, ignoring huge government subsidies and insurance costs.
“Without government subsidies, no country would have nuclear energy. It’s not financially viable in a free market,” he said.
Indian activist Bidwai also highlighted that the nuclear industry was notorious for cost overruns and construction delays.
A new generation reactor in Finland, which was supposed to be completed in 2009, has been delayed due to safety issues. Its original price tag of Euro 2.5 billion (RM100billion) is escalating by the year.
“When you factor in the decommissioning and waste storage costs, nuclear power’s capital costs become astronomical. The industry has only survived (over the past few decades) because of state support,” said Bidwai.
What about nuclear meltdown and radioactive waste?
Bidwai added that while the probability of nuclear accidents occurring was low, they are “inevitable” and its consequences catastrophic.
Chernobyl, the world’s worst nuclear disaster before Fukushima, resulted in the death of 30 workers and fire fighters, and exposed thousands to radiation and cancer-related deaths.
Despite that, Che Khalib argued that Malaysia’s nuclear reactors will be safe and operated in adherence to stringent international standards set by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Describing the Fukushima nuclear disaster as an “act of God”, Che Khalib highlighted that nuclear reactors usually have several safety features to prevent catastrophic accidents.
“I’m not a nuclear expert…But I was told (by the experts) that in an aircraft, they’ve 3.5 times (of safety features), if one fails, another would kick in. For nuclear reactors, it’s up to seven times,” he said.
“If you don’t trust local engineers, then stop flying. Our aircrafts are maintained by Malaysian engineers,” he said in response to doubts raised by the audience on the country’s poor maintenance record.
Besides safety concerns of reactors is the contentious issue of disposal of radioactive waste generated from nuclear plants.
Even the TNB chief admitted that “there’s no solution yet to dispose of the waste (permanently)”.
Radioactive waste Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,100 years. In other words, hundreds of thousands of years would have to pass before the element becomes non-radioactive.
Scientists have yet to find a way to safely dispose of this waste that is likely to outlive human civilisations.
Most of the world’s nuclear waste, some 300,000 tonnes, are temporarily sealed and stored next to their reactors.
“Yes, we know there’s no solution yet, but we could contain the problem for the time being…in 100 years’ time, there could be a solution…at least we could defer the problem (now). That’s what we’re good at, anyway,” quipped Che Khalib.
His remark drew a cheeky response from Bidwai.
“Building a nuclear plant without (a permanent waste management plan) is like building a house without a toilet, hoping you’ll never need it,” said the founder-member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace in India.
Should Malaysia continue to press forward? Is it ethical for us to harness nuclear energy to fulfil our current needs and leave future generations to find a way to deal with our waste?
Like other countries mulling to go nuclear, these are the questions that need to be answered.
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