Better a nuclear-free Malaysia

Posted on March 17, 2011. Filed under: Energy |

The Sun By Yap Mun Chin

THE IMAGES streaming out of Japan since Friday have held the world transfixed over the awesome power of nature. For the first time, we witnessed not only the aftermath of a natural disaster but the act of it unfolding. In fascinated horror, people around the world saw houses crumble like cardboard, cars and ships thrown about like toys.

While the devastation wrought by the tsunami was terrible, it may only be the tip of the iceberg as Japan now faces the possibility of a nuclear disaster at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

Japanese officials are keen to assure the world that there is low risk of a meltdown and explosion of radioactive substances in the manner of the Chernobyl accident of 1986. However, news reports present a situation that is still in flux. According to one report, the use of sea water to cool one of the reactors is an “unusual solution” which hints at the seriousness of the problem. As early as Saturday, officials have admitted some release of radioactive particles into the atmosphere at levels which are said to be still within safety limits. Yet, the evacuation zone around the plant has been increased to 20km and some 80,000 people are being moved out of the area. Offshore, the US has also confirmed that it has moved one of its aircraft carriers from the area after detecting low-level radiation 160km away. Only time will reveal the full ramifications of the disaster as these particles work themselves into the food chain.

This development has given renewed life to debates about the safety of nuclear power. Across Europe, leaders of nuclear power producing countries rush to reassure their populace that safety checks are in place. In the Philippines, one of the country’s top proponents of nuclear energy issued a statement to reverse his stand. “In the light of Fukushima, I would like to say that now is the right time for the whole world’s nuclear power industry to be in a period of introspection,” said former Philippine MP Mark Cojuangco. As an MP, Cojuangco had lobbied for the reactivation of a Marcos-era nuclear power plant some 100km north of Manila as an answer to the country’s power shortages.

The example in the Philippines should prompt similar re-examination by nuclear energy proponents in Malaysia. Even before Energy, Green Technology and Water Minister Peter Chin announced that Malaysia will have its first nuclear energy plant by 2021, a series of justifications have been rolled out to assure the public of the benefits of nuclear energy. In 2009, director-general of the Malaysian Nuclear Agency Dr Daud Mohamad was quoted as saying that the use of nuclear energy to generate electricity is safe and can increase the nation’s long-term energy security. Nuclear power is preferable, in his opinion, because it is cheaper than alternative sources. Daud was echoed by Malaysian Atomic Energy Licensing Board chairman Prof Emeritus Dr Noramly who said that Malaysia is ready to operate its own nuclear power plant as it has enough qualified manpower including “masters and PhD holders …(who) have the expertise and experience to run a nuclear power plant”.

In the light of the developments in Japan, these arguments fall short of what is needed to assure the public of the safety of nuclear energy. At the end of the day, it is not about having skilled manpower or technology. Japan is one of the most technologically advanced and efficient countries in the world and it has not been successful in averting the threat of nuclear disaster. The problems at Fukushima are not due to human failure but to the destructive forces of nature for which no one can fully insure against.

Proponents of nuclear energy usage may argue that Malaysia is safe against such developments as we are not a disaster-prone country but history reveals otherwise. The northern states in the peninsula were severely affected by the 2004 Asian Tsunami while the coast of Sabah was well within the tsunami alert range last week. In 2004, tremors measuring 4.8 on the Richter scale were felt in Sarawak as a result of an undersea earthquake which occurred in the South China Sea. In 2009, high-rise buildings in the Klang Valley were evacuated as a result of tremors. We may not suffer direct hits but it is foolhardy to assume that we are insulated against them.

Nuclear energy may appear cheaper but it could be the long-term cost of its usage has not been factored in. Any money that we save cannot buy back our health and that of future generations. Taxpayers deserve to have their billions invested in renewable energy sources rather than a nuclear power plant.

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