Seeking a nuclear-free zone for our region

4

To mark the recent launch of the Earth Charter in Malaysia, the Save Malaysia, Stop Lynas campaign warns of the dangers of going down the nuclear energy route.

A huge explosion at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan following a major earthquake and tsunami

Just days after the explosion of the Fukushima nuclear power plant in March this year, Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin confirmed that Malaysia would still go ahead with the building of two nuclear power plants.

Should we not be capturing the values and tenets of the Earth Charter to guide us in our energy path?

Malaysia is a tiny country with a relatively dense and growing population. We are blessed with an immense wealth of nature – our mega-diverse ancient tropical rainforests, palm fringed beautiful coast lines dotted with traditional villages interspersed with cosmopolitan modern cities of rich and diverse cultures; warm tropical sea awash with marine creatures teeming with fish; majestic mountains, flowing rivers, wetlands, mangroves and coral reefs – these ecosystems have sustained lives, nourished us with fresh air, clean water and plentiful supply of exotic and nutritious food.

The Fukushima nuclear disaster is a timely wake-up call that humanity does not always have the upper hand in every situation. The Fukushima disaster was eventually scaled up to the maximum level of 7. It is now widely considered to be the worst ever nuclear disaster in the world, surpassing the Chernobyl disaster in Russia in 1986.

At present, high-level radioactive waste has kept piling up near the Fukushima plant with no clear indications of its final disposal destination despite the use of technology from France, the USA and Japan.

Dr Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist went as far as to say that the radiation from the Fukushima disaster will eventually affect the whole world and will impact all of humanity. He warns against complacency,

.. the situation at Fukushima may seem relatively stable now… in the same way that you are stable if you hang by your fingernails off a cliff, and your fingernails begin to break one by one.

According to the New Scientist magazine, Tepco said last week that Fukushima-Daiichi may still be leaking as much as 500 tonnes of contaminated water into the sea every day!

Despite Japan’s technological brilliance and sophistication, in the end a crude solution of cooling the disaster stricken nuclear plant with sea water was deployed. This is not the kind of disaster response we would expect of an industry which has always been so arrogantly promoting itself to be the most advanced and high-tech – and supposedly safe.

Fukushima is now the largest delivery of radiation into the ocean ever seen. Highly radioactive contaminated water is still being dumped into the sea, polluting the Pacific Ocean and spreading the radiation further to other countries.

The full impact and the extent of the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns may never be known and the clean-up exercise is estimated to take between 30 to 100 years as the problems from the nuclear meltdown continues to surface.

Whilst the world was touched by the courage of the Japanese workers who risked their lives to tackle the nuclear meltdown, Professor Kenichi Matsumoto the special advisor to Japan’s prime minister and cabinet was appalled by the government and the company’s response to the disaster. He painted a picture of cover-ups, incompetence and communication breakdown.

In time of disaster transparency is essential to rapid response and safety, and to facilitate best possible actions and co-operation in the face of adversity. Yet there have been many nuclear accidents that have not made the news in the mainstream media. Worldwide, there have been at least 20 nuclear and radiation accidents that have cost lives – in both advanced industrialised nations and in developing nations.

The attempted cover-ups of the Fukushima disaster by the Japanese Government and Tepco mirror the Chernobyl disaster. Back in 1986, the Soviet Union also attempted to hide the full extent of the catastrophe.

Nuclear power has always been controversial. It is mainly due to the aggressive push of the well-resourced nuclear industry, backed up by overzealous governments, that many of the world’s nuclear power plants have been constructed.

Often times, these nuclear power plants were built against a back drop of public opposition. So when a nuclear disaster strikes, the government and the industry, which have acted against public interest, will do anything to play down the extent and the impact of the problem to avoid getting the blunt end of public outrage and the ultimate pain of political and economic backlashes.

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Russian nuclear safety expert Iouli Andreev told Reuters news agency (15 March 2011) that corporations and the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have wilfully ignored lessons from the world’s worst nuclear accident 25 years ago to protect the industry’s expansion.

Andreev was in charge of the Chernobyl clean up and is now a nuclear safety expert based in Vienna, where the IAEA is based.

The IAEA should share blame for standards, Andreev said, arguing it was too close to corporations building and running plants. And he dismissed an emergency incident team set up by the Vienna-based agency as “only a think-tank not a working force”:

This is only a fake organisation because every organisation which depends on the nuclear industry — and the IAEA depends on the nuclear industry — cannot perform properly.

It always will try to hide the reality.

The New York Times recently published an opinion piece by a professor from Southern California asserting that,

the result of failures in the safety culture…. Japan’s nuclear regulatory agency, for instance, was never really independent of a nuclear industry. The plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), had a long history of disregarding safety concerns and a woefully weak safety culture that was allowed to operate with minimal government oversight.

US nuclear engineer and industry expert Arnie Gunderson went further to suggest from his own experience and analysis that the same cosy relationship and influence of the nuclear industry over a regulatory body is not unique to Japan but that the USA too, has a similar track record.

Consequently, proper regulation of nuclear power has been co-opted worldwide by industry’s refusal to implement the cost to assure nuclear safety.

The Fukushima disaster has changed the energy policy of some countries. In May 2011, some 20000 people turned out for Switzerland’s largest anti-nuclear power demonstration in 25 years. A few days later, the Swiss Cabinet banned the building of new nuclear power reactors whilst the country’s five existing reactors would be allowed to continue to operate, but would not be replaced at the end of their life span.

In September 2011, German engineering giant Siemens announced it would withdraw entirely from the nuclear industry, as a response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The company would focus its work in the renewable energy sector instead.

Germany has 17 reactors, providing 23 per cent of the power in the country, making it the sixth largest nuclear electricity producer in the world. The eight oldest reactors were taken off the grid within days of the Fukushima disaster and will not return to operation. In record time, what was once the most pro-nuclear German government in decades prepared comprehensive legislation to phase out the remaining nine reactors by 2022 at the latest, starting in 2015.

The Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, stated, “I don’t see nuclear energy as part of our future. We are blessed with abundant sources of renewable energy, of clean energy, of solar, wind, tide, hot rocks. That’s our future, not nuclear…”

According to billionaire investor Warren Buffett the “United States was poised to move ahead with nuclear plans here, but the events in Japan derailed that”.

Nancy Folbre, an economics professor, has said that the biggest positive result of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster could be renewed public support for the commercialisation of renewable energy technologies.

Given the shift from nuclear power of many of the world’s leading economies, it is especially worrying that Malaysia has instead decided to go against the tide to push ahead with our nuclear power proposal.

Of utmost concern is that this nuclear proposal will be done in the context of a worsening governance situation in Malaysia. Malaysia’s Corruption Perception Index for 2010 has plunged to a score of 4.4, downgrading the country to a “serious corruption score”.

Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert with the Australian Defence Force Academy told Associated Press that corrupt officials in licensing and supervisory agencies could undermine the best of IAEA guidelines and oversight.

“There could be a dropping of standards, and that affects all aspects of the nuclear industry, from buying the material, to processing applications to building and running the plant,” he explained.

Permanent storage of radioactive waste, which can remain toxic for tens of thousands of years, will become a long-standing problem. A similar problem exists when a nuclear plant that is no longer safe needs to be closed and shut down. There is as yet no safe and permanent way to tackle these problems.

Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin was perhaps too quick to give his confidence to Malaysia’ own nuclear regulator, the Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) claiming that “it will implement what is best” of the nuclear plants.

The AELB has come under some public scrutiny of late – first for approving the controversial hazardous Lynas rare earth refinery plant in secrecy based on incomplete impact assessment reports. This is despite AELB’s past blunder of allowing the Asian Rare Earth refinery to summarily dispose of its hazardous waste with dire health consequences and serious environmental pollution problems.

In the Peer Review Report of the Lynas project, the IAEA recommended that the Malaysian Government ensure the AELB has sufficient level of professional competence and independence to be able to regulate the project. ()

If the AELB’s professional competency is inadequate, Malaysia should have ditched the nuclear power proposal as the best precautionary action.

Furthermore, nuclear power plants require massive investment and are incredibly expensive to build. Malaysia will have to go into a massive debt to build them. Frequent cost blow-outs and substantial back-end costs associated with nuclear power plants will only add to the debt burden of our country. Incurring further debt in this period of economic crisis of confidence will further set back real economic growth. By borrowing to finance an expensive nuclear power project, Malaysia will have to hold back public spending, investment and job creation. This will have dire consequences for our economy, not forgetting the long-term debt servicing burden which citizens will be faced with ultimately.

Aside from the human toll a worst-case scenario nuclear reactor meltdown would cause, taxpayers could also be stuck paying hundreds of billions in damages. More of often than not, the industry would only bear a tiny fraction of that cost even if it is entirely at fault.

Having a nuclear power plant will leave Malaysia with a legacy of radioactive waste, the ever-present fear of a nuclear accident, and the destabilising effects of nuclear weapon proliferation, not forgetting the threats to the security of the entire region.

We in Malaysia will have to decide for ourselves – should we be taking the risks knowing that when a nuclear disaster strikes, the impact will be devastating?

If Japan with its disciplined workforce and technological brilliance is unable yet to handle the Fukushima disaster, how will Malaysia fare in a similar situation?

It can wipe out an entire economy and destroy everything we have strived and work so hard for.

Victims of Fukushima are the latest human guinea pigs for the nuclear industry and poor government energy policy. Do we in Malaysia want to be the next?

If the competent and technologically brilliant Japanese can’t build a completely safe reactor, who can?

The choice is ours.

Pursuing a more ecologically friendly renewable energy pathway is very much consistent with the basic tenets and the fundamental principles of sustainability, safety and peace promoted by the Earth Charter.

In 2011, Deutsche Bank analysts concluded that “the global impact of the Fukushima accident is a fundamental shift in public perception with regard to how a nation prioritizes and values its population’s health, safety, security, and natural environment when determining its current and future energy pathways”. As a consequence, “renewable energy will be a clear long-term winner in most energy systems, a conclusion supported by many voter surveys conducted over the past few weeks.”

Malaysians should take a step further. We must join together with citizens of our neighbouring states to bring forth a sustainable global society by seeking a nuclear-free zone for our region. It is only through this kind of action that we can create a society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace.

Thanks for dropping by! The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

Our voluntary writers work hard to keep these articles free for all to read. But we do need funds to support our struggle for Justice, Freedom and Solidarity. To maintain our editorial independence, we do not carry any advertisements; nor do we accept funding from dubious sources. If everyone reading this was to make a donation, our fundraising target for the year would be achieved within a week. So please consider making a donation to Persatuan Aliran Kesedaran Negara, CIMB Bank account number 8004240948.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
4 Comments
Newest
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
viker
viker
16 Nov 2011 5.54pm

I agree completely with Rosie’s statement as regards Lynas. I was just pointing out that there is an alternative nuclear power station technology coming which Malaysia – whoever is in power – should be aware of and strive for. The Lynas ‘issue’ is a cynical construct of a certain female MP who sees it as a handy (non-racial) way to a) keep her job and b) increase her margin. Scaremongering is an ancient black art.

Rosie
Rosie
15 Nov 2011 4.53pm

These people are confused. Nuclear power plants are very different from the Lynas chemical processing facility which processes soil that has a slightly elevated level of radioactivity.

The Lynas plant has less radiation than agricultural fertilizer. Should they rename themselves to Save Malaysia, Stop using fertilizer?

najib manaukau
15 Nov 2011 7.46am

This is a typical example of what Malaysia is, it will pick up where other nations are backing away from very very bad experiences !
The decision to build one is no because of need but it is because of greed by the deceitful Umno morons. Otherwise they will not have the opportunity to enrich themselves with mega projects regardless of the nation’s needs for these mega projects. Do you need further proof of their greeds ?
There is no end for all these attempts and ill intensions and the only way out of all these is to vote all the deceitful and corrupted Umno morons out of Putrajaya in the coming GE. That is why Malaysia is still in the third world and about to become the next Greece or Italy !

viker
viker
15 Nov 2011 1.16am

The uranium fuel cycle is the problem. The Thorium LFTR reactors will be the safe melt-down and explosion free solution. Non-plutonium waste storage for only 200 yrs instead of 20,000 yrs!!. Of course nothing is said about them when people talk of ‘nuclear’.