Going nuclear would be sheer short-sightedness for a country blessed with abundant renewable sources of clean power, writes Ken Yeong.
Before the Malaysian government takes the country down the path towards nuclear energy, every citizen must decide if nuclear power is the right choice for the nation.
For some, the threat of climate change and peak oil has produced a false choice between either going nuclear or suffering unabated global warming.
But Malaysia, and indeed, the rest of the world, has an increasing number of truly clean and renewable energy options to choose from, such as solar, wind, tidal and wave.
The Malaysian government appears to have embraced the idea that the country needs to go nuclear to meet its growing energy needs and is looking into bringing a nuclear power plant online by 2021.
Little emphasis appears to have been given to green technologies in the government’s recently unveiled Economic Transformation Programme (ETP). Amid the slew of projects involving US$444 billion worth of investments – all supposed to propel the country forward economically – it is easy to miss the significance of the nuclear energy project.
Kudos to the government for recognising that we need to diversify the nation’s energy mix and decentralise power generation. This is achievable and affordable with the green technologies of solar, wind, tidal and wave.
But nuclear energy, which is neither renewable nor clean, is not only potentially catastrophic to human lives, but also exacts a far higher cost economically, socially and environmentally than the green technologies – factors that led the UK Sustainable Development Commission to emphatically reject nuclear power as a solution to the UK’s energy and climate change mitigation efforts in 2006.
Why the rush into nuclear now? Malaysia has more than 50 per cent in reserve margin or excess power at the moment. In fact, today’s total installed generation capacity of close to 22,000MW is more than the country’s projected demand in 2020.
Perhaps the apparent haste to embrace nuclear energy is because a nuclear plant takes 10-15 years to build and the government is keen to plan ahead so the country’s future energy needs are met.
Planning and foresight are to be applauded.
But even the largest solar installations like Concentrating Solar Thermal (CST) plants only require two to five years to complete, making it a far nimbler option, especially in terms of taking advantage of the widely expected reduction in the cost of producing solar energy.
And should the need arise, Malaysia can use its vast amount of palm biomass as an interim measure while it brings green technologies on stream.
Let us consider the green alternatives to nuclear.
Based on research by Universiti Malaysia Perlis (UniMAP) and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), supported by data from the German Aerospace Centre, at today’s limited efficiency of just 20 per cent – efficiency which is set to rise – solar photo-voltaic (PV) technology would require less than 0.1 per cent of Malaysia’s land surface to power the entire nation now.
CST power is widely expected to come to cost parity with fossil fuel power generation by 2020.
Conservative estimates in studies done for the US Department of Energy and by consulting firm McKinsey expect the Levelised Cost of Electricity (LEC) to be around RM0.17-RM0.36/kWh in 2020, with an optimistic scenario of as low as RM0.11/kWh.
These figures are supported by award-winning and peer-recognised research conducted by the University of Melbourne Energy Research Institute, which expects a range of RM0.15-RM0.24/kWh for CST with molten salt storage for “better-than-baseload” performance.
This is on par with or cheaper than the current cost of electricity of RM0.315/kWh once government subsidies are factored in.
The LEC for nuclear power is estimated at around RM0.321-RM0.414/kWh according to the US Department of Energy and financial consultants Lazard, and it is expected to increase.
(The LEC factors all costs involved throughout the lifespan of a power plant per unit of total power generated. It must be noted that the LEC for nuclear is highly variable due to large risks and uncertainties as demonstrated by the most recent example in Finland’s Olkiluoto plant where costs have exceeded the original figure by 65 per cent.)
Tidal, wave and wind
Malaysia is also blessed with a long coastline that is exposed to the South China Sea, offering excellent potential for tidal, wave and marine current energy as confirmed by UKM and University Teknologi Malaysia (UTM).
There is a strong consensus in the energy industry and among analysts that green technologies such as solar, wind, tidal and wave will become considerably cheaper in the near future as economies of scale of manufacturing is achieved and the technologies mature.
Today, wind power has already reached cost parity with fossil fuel power in places like Germany and California, where subsidies have encouraged falling manufacturing and installation costs.
The opposite is true for fossil fuels and nuclear power as reserves dwindle.
The price tag for Malaysia’s first nuclear power plant is estimated to be a staggering RM21.3 billion, not counting the heavy cost of decommissioning nuclear plants, which slaps on another nine to 15 per cent of the original price tag just for dismantling and which requires a few decades. These billions would be better invested in truly clean power technologies that have a bright future.
More jobs can be created with a renewable energy sector due to its decentralised nature and promising growth as demonstrated in recent years and in projections for the near future.
Malaysia could invest these billions to attract green power manufacturing and R&D.
McKinsey observed that Western technologies are now superior to those from China or India, but are more expensive. There is then an urgent need for Western companies to find cheaper locations for manufacturing with strong intellectual property laws.
Given Malaysia’s relatively educated workforce and comparatively low cost of labour, it is not hard to see that the country can become a regional green energy hub and pull in the investments in one of the fastest growing sectors in the world, generating the desired socio-economic multiplier effect for the nation’s economy.
Additionally, clean renewable energy can earn Malaysia considerable revenue from Kyoto’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) – which excludes nuclear energy.
Security and safety
Green power technologies also ensure energy security because it does not rely on fuel imports. Although there is an emerging shortage of rare earths used in green technologies, this is not expected to worsen as new mines are currently being explored and commercialised.
With nuclear energy, on the other hand, Malaysia will likely forever be dependent on other nations to provide fuel and technology for any nuclear power plant. It would be naïve to harbour hopes of becoming anything more than a nuclear consumer, with international non-proliferation policies guaranteeing huge barriers to home-grown development – think Iran.
The European Free Alliance’s 2007 report entitled Residual Risk says “many nuclear safety related events occur year after year, all over the world, in all types of nuclear plants … and there are very serious events that go either entirely unnoticed by the broader public or remain significantly under-evaluated when it comes to their potential risk”.
A Third World Network article states: “There have also been many accidents that did not escalate purely out of chance, often involving the intervention of human operators rather than any technical safety feature. Such interventions cannot be taken for granted.”
Malaysians are rightly concerned about the safety of nuclear reactors on their shores, a matter that has the potential to have a massive impact not just on the country’s treasury and economy, but the environment and the health of its people for generations to come.
Citizens can also scarcely be confident in the security forces’ ability to provide high-level security needed for a nuclear plant after the recent theft of aircraft jet engines from a military base.
And what about the storage and disposal of nuclear waste?
A recent investigation by The Star newspaper unveiled that residents of Bukit Merah and Papan in the state of Perak have yet to see the end of the toxic waste produced some 28 years ago by a rare earths mining company, indicating the authorities’ inability to adequately handle highly-toxic waste.
It is also widely known that nuclear power is associated with a range of negative consequences that cannot be calculated purely in monetary terms.
Nuclear’s dark potential as a weapon of mass-destruction and its chequered past and potentially even more deadly future is not the sort of legacy we will be proud to leave for our children.
In today’s world of climate change and rapidly advancing green power technologies with their retreating costs, going nuclear would be sheer short-sightedness for a country blessed with abundant renewable sources of clean power.
The Economic Transformation Programme is supposed to be about investing for tomorrow and catalysing growth for the future – goals that truly clean and renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, tidal and wave can achieve.
Nuclear may be far cleaner than coal and gas, but that’s looking into the past, not the future.
Ken Yeong is eager for humanity to reclaim its role of stewards of the earth and usher in a new era of sustainable progress. He’s currently in Melbourne hoping to pursue a postgraduate degree in environment.