Learn from Japan, focus on safer energy supply

Posted on March 14, 2011. Filed under: Energy, Environmental Policy |

-Free Malaysia Today-

March 14, 2011

Under Malaysia’s atomic energy law, nuclear plant operators are not liable for any damage resulting from natural disasters, says MP Charles Santiago.

COMMENT

By Charles Santiago

Minister of Energy, Green Technology and Water Peter Chin yesterday indicated that Malaysia’s plan to build two nuclear power plants will proceed despite the nuclear emergency and meltdown in Japan.

He suggested that the “government will not do it secretly without informing the public”.

The minister’s response comes two days after what is considered as the worst nuclear emergency involving a nuclear power plant since the Chernobyl disaster 25 years ago.

The tragedy surrounding the March 11 tsunami in Japan also signals a warning about the dangers of nuclear energy. Following the earthquake and tsunami, several Japanese nuclear power plants are in a state of emergency.

The New York Times reported that partial meltdowns had occurred at two crippled reactors and indicated possibilities of a second explosion. Four more reactors are facing serious cooling problems.

Japan declared a nuclear emergency when one reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant Fukushima Daiichi 1, has experienced a partial meltdown and explosion.

Fukushima is one of the 25 largest nuclear power stations in the world.

The ongoing crisis at the Fukushima 1 nuclear power plant in Futuba suggests that nuclear plants pose a tremendous risk to the public and environment, even with safety protocols and management expertise designed to handle natural disasters.

Japan has had nearly 60 years of experience with nuclear power, yet there has still been a history of accidents.

In 1999, there was a major accident at Tokaimura where a nuclear fuel-enrichment facility had an out-of-control reaction, leading to radiation leakage affecting hundreds of people and crippling the local agriculture industry.

If a country with as much expertise and experience as Japan can suffer nuclear accidents, then Malaysia should not go nuclear as the risks and costs of failure are too great.

Flood-related disasters

The problem with nuclear power, compared to all other sources of electricity, is that if and when things do go wrong, the consequences are far, far worse. No problem can occur at a solar power plant that can lead to 200,000 residents having to flee for safety beyond a 10 km radius. This is what happened this weekend in Japan as Fukushima went out of control.

The Japanese government has ordered the largest mobilization of their Self-Defense Forces since World War II to assist in the relief effort.

In the Fukushima case, ironically, the earthquake knocked out the station’s own electricity supply, leaving the pumps unable to supply coolant to the reactor. The backup diesel generator was also knocked out by the waters of the tsunami.

A nuclear reactor is like a giant pressurised water boiler. It requires vast quantities of water to cool the reactor, which is why nuclear plants are usually next to rivers or the sea.

However, this leaves them vulnerable to water-related disasters such as tsunamis, floods and storm surges, or even droughts. Location near water also means that any pollution can quickly spread to other areas.

Malaysia sees more than its fair share of flood-related disasters. Any nuclear plant built locally could well suffer a similar problem.

The misfortune at the Fukushima plant has resulted in radiation levels 1,000-times the normal level in the control room and eight times over normal immediately outside.

Experts have already expressed concern that there is a possibility of a hydrogen explosion following further meltdown, and the culture of secrecy prevalent in the local political system – a culture the Barisan Nasional government shares – may make it hard to figure out what has gone wrong.

Japan has already suffered the scandal of the 1995 Monju plant leak that was covered up by the government-linked agency managing it.

Economic cost

Radioactive poisoning of the local population and environment is but one problem. The other is the economic cost of such disasters. Not only could a power plant worth billions be rendered so contaminated as to be useless, a surrounding 20 km area could also be left unfit for human use.

Furthermore, under Malaysia’s atomic energy law, nuclear plant operators are not liable for any damage resulting from natural disasters.

Japan embarked on nuclear energy because they lacked domestic fossil fuel alternatives, and because their industrialisation took place well before renewable energies such as solar power were widely available.

Malaysia has no such excuse as we have oil, gas, biomass, hydro resources, and abundant sunshine; not to mention that we are now set to be the world’s number three producer of solar cells.

April 26 marks the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. This anniversary and the events in Japan should be a reminder that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Malaysia should exercise wisdom, forgo nuclear, and pursue safer, cleaner and healthier forms of energy supply.

Thus, I call upon minister Peter Chin to abandon all ideas to continue with the nuclear adventure.

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