Are you pro-nuke or anti-nuke?

Posted on January 29, 2011. Filed under: Energy |

-The Star-

SEVEN decades of charged-up fears and vehement polemic over civil nuclear energy in countless parts of the world has landed in our backyard following the Government’s plan to harness nuclear energy to meet future energy needs. If executed to plan, we will have a nuclear plant in the country by 2025, maybe even earlier, by 2021, if the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) gets its wish.

Malaysians who were lulled into thinking that this was a plan far and away from being executed must have received a rude awakening recently when it was announced that a Malaysia Nuclear Power Corp has been set up to study tapping nuclear energy to meet future energy demand. (Wasn’t there already a Nuclear Power Development Steering Committee headed by the Energy, Green Technology and Water Ministry set up in June last year tasked with doing exactly the same thing?)

The option, intimidating and all, has drawn the “not-in-my-backyard” mentality from concerned citizenry.

Let’s cut out all the ballyhoo and get some basics straight before I go further.

* First. WHY?

Fossil fuels such as gas and coal, which fire up 90% of our electricity now, are finite. So, they’ll someday run out. These fuel prices are also volatile, which leaves the utility and end users vulnerable to the vagaries of market prices (note: for now, end users are protected for as long as the Government lacks the will to introduce an electricity tariff that’s tied to market prices of fuel).

* Second. HOW do we tackle this dilemma? WHAT are the options?

Renewable energy (such as hydro, wind, solar, biomass, biofuel) is one way to go, but the world stage is littered with examples that no matter how much you build and install renewable supplies, it simply can’t match up to the capacity needed.

* Third. WHEN? Industry participants as well as the national utility TNB have pointed out that the critical point would be after 2020 as locally-churned natural gas, which powers up 64% of our juice now, could run out by 2019. Importing gas is an option but the headache of volatile prices will still persist.

Simply put, there are several factors that make a strong case to plug nuclear into our grid, unless some brainbox can find a safer and less-controversial alternative we can warm up to.

Many countries, some 50 according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, have already taken the radical step to consider introducing nuclear power. Some others are powering it up China wants to ramp up its nuclear capacity five-fold and Russia two-fold by 2020.

France’s 58 nuclear plants meet 80% of its energy demand, the UK gets 25% of its electricity from nuclear energy while the United States has over 100 nuclear plants generating 20% of its energy capacity.

What pro-nukes won’t tell you is that there are some countries who are doing the exact opposite. For one, Germany, in 2000 had decided to shut down 19 of its nuclear power stations, which meets one third of its power needs, by 2021. That move has since been extended, but one thing for sure building new nuclear power stations is not on the cards for the Germans.

Back home, in a poll conducted by The Star last year titled: “Would you consider the building of a nuclear power plant as the best option to cater for Malaysia’s energy needs in the future” which drew 18,472 responses, interestingly, 56% said “Yes” while 32% said “No” and 12% said they “Need more information on the proposal.”

Could there be more sympathetic listeners to the power dilemma faced by the country than we think?

Nuclear energy is frowned upon for two reasons possible contamination due to high radiation level and the issue of hazardous waste disposal. The risks involve the environment, social, security and economics.

For those reasons, plants need to be carefully constructed to contain radiation and well thought-out emergency measures need to be in place. For Malaysians, apart from these weighty issues, there appears to be another added layer of concern the lack of confidence on whether the administration, the utility and contractors can meet the high safety, storage and security measures if a nuclear power station were to be built in our home base.

Lest you forget, the Chernobyl disaster, which caused fatalities, was attributed to human failings (badly maintained reactor). Pro-nukes will tell you that far more people die digging coal out of the ground. What they don’t tell you is that the risks associated with a nuclear plant can last many generations.

The World Nuclear Association, in a report dated September 2010, pointed out that there have been two major accidents in the history of civil nuclear power Third Mile Island, US, in 1979 (it was contained so no deaths) and Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986 (led to 56 deaths as it involved an intense fire without provision for containment).

But here’s the point it is keen to make “These are the only major accidents to have occurred in some 14,000 cumulative reactor-years of commercial operation in 32 countries. The risks from Western nuclear power plants, in terms of the consequences of an accident or terrorist attack, are minimal compared with other commonly accepted risks,” concluded the association.

Based on data, the association also points out that there has been more accidents in coal-fired power generation than nuclear reactors over the past 40 years in the United States and UK. “All show that nuclear is a distinctly safer way to produce electricity,” it said.

Still, who would dare give a guarantee that nuclear power plants are 100% secure?

Malaysians are being told that to guarantee steady future energy supply, we need to consider nuclear energy. That was the same rationale used back in early 90s following the nationwide blackout, which led to the creation of fat cats in the form of Independent Power Producers. The plan met one objective steady power supply but it came at a cost the utility’s pocketbooks. The patchy progress of the multi-billion ringgit Bakun dam mooted decades ago, deferred several times, weighed down by massive cost overrun and tweaked umpteen times should also serve another lesson on the importance of clear planning with protective provisions.

But, like it or not, nuclear energy is part of the agenda. The Economic Transformation Programme, released last October, explicitly states that.

Meanwhile, there is barely a coherent, energy policy to guide the country’s future energy needs and consumption. Malaysia needs a whole portfolio of energy measures. It also needs an electricity tariff formula to guide the rates TNB sells its power to end users.

How can we build a RM21bil nuclear power station that takes 10 years to build that can last up to 50 years, when we have yet to cross these fundamental hurdles?

l Business editor Anita Gabriel wonders if the billions of dollars planned for nuclear energy would be better off ploughed into sustainable energy technologies and energy efficiency efforts

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