BY DR MOHD SYUKRI YAHYA
NUCLEAR POWER was Malaysia’s last energy option during Tun Dr Mahathir’s first tenure as prime minister. The policy was rescinded by his two successors, who studied nuclear as a possible part of our energy mix in the peninsula. However, now that Dr Mahathir is back at the helm, nuclear power is again out of any energy policy consideration. Dr Mahathir even declared during his address at the Conference of the Electric Power Supply Industry (CEPSI 2018) that Malaysia would instead explore full use of domestic coal reserves for baseload power generation.
His stand against nuclear power is not surprising. In a number of his blog posts, Dr Mahathir lamented our traumatic experiences with radioactive materials (amang) during the Asian Rare Earth (ARE) Bukit Merah controversy. He claimed that until today, scientists still haven’t delivered an acceptable solution to the radioactive waste problem. Be it in office or out, he stresses that nuclear power should never be an option for Malaysia.
It, however, feels like we are unwittingly turning the clock back to the 1980s. When he opts for coal, a number of world’s prominent persons – such as Bill Gates and former Greenpeace Canada president Patrick Moores – embrace nuclear power. This is because nuclear power is now widely acknowledged as the only proven solution for a carbon-free baseload electricity generation.
Nuclear power was so unexpectedly popular in the last decade that there was even a brief period of global nuclear renaissance when climate change felt inevitable and the hike in crude oil prices seemed unending. Unfortunately, Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011 put a spanner in the works.
Nevertheless, 436 nuclear power reactors are still in operation in 31 countries and 55 new reactors are currently under construction. Even Japan, which experienced Fukushima first hand, is gradually restarting its nuclear power plants to meet domestic electricity demands. Germany, on the other hand, shut down its nuclear power stations post-Fukushima.
It now imports electricity from (ironically) nuclear-powered France while sweating over a creeping increment of carbon index due to higher reliance on fossil fuels. All these demonstrate the importance of nuclear power in advancing national interest while helping mitigate the effects of climate change. As such, the decision to completely forgo nuclear power without seriously studying its implications on preventing the worst consequences of climate change is uncharacteristic of the famously thorough Dr Mahathir.
It is especially worrying when we opt for coal in the midst of a global war against climate change. While coal is cheap and abundant, making it the most widely used source of energy for power generation, one cannot but notice smog arising from chimneys of coal-fired power plants.
The slightly visible smog pollutes surrounding air and water, adversely affecting the health of the neighbouring communities. In addition, ash from coal burning is also typically dumped into ponds. These ash-ponds are somewhat radioactive, of slightly higher dosages than that of nuclear power plants.
Furthermore, exposure to coal at storage yards and in-plant silos also possibly contaminates the food chain. What is more worrying though is that the burning of coal emits enormous amounts of greenhouse gaseous to the atmosphere. Even the “clean coal” technology, according to the guidelines of International Finance Corporation and the World Bank, is not really clean as it still emits poisonous greenhouse gaseous, albeit at a reduced amount.
Since we are fast approaching the breaking point of greenhouse gaseous at 425 parts per million, we should accept only zero carbon emission instead of just a mere reduction.
In response, the industry proposes the carbon capture and storage (CCS) method to thoroughly capture and contain poisonous particulates and chemical compounds from coal burning.
While CCS is technically viable on paper, it is still at a demonstration stage. However, the coal CCS flagship project in Kemper County, Missouri, recently proved to be impractical as its carbon capture technique has been declared too costly and problematic.
On the other hand, nuclear industry offers proven solutions to radioactive waste problems.
The first approach is by closing the fuel cycle loop (recycling of nuclear spent fuels), which France has done for decades and what Gates’s TerraPower is working on. The second option is by storing the high-level radioactive wastes in a long-term underground repository like in Finland, Sweden and France.
This radioactive-waste repository is like a treatment facility where the activated nuclear materials are physically stored and constantly monitored. Unlike chemical waste which remains the same forever, radioactive waste decays according to its various half-lives. With time, its radioactivity abates and becomes manageable.
Nature had actually demonstrated the success of this approach. At Oklo in Gabon, there were 16 self-sustaining nuclear fission reactors approximately 1.7 billion years ago. These natural nuclear reactors are thought to have run for a few hundred thousand years, producing an average thermal power of less than 100 kW. These sites are today deemed safe for human activity.
With regards to our amang nightmare, one must note that the controversial ARE factory commenced its operation in 1982 when there was actually no proper legal and regulatory framework in place to regulate the siting, licensing, and operation of the factory.
We now have the Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) as the nuclear watchdog as well as Act 304 which empowers the AELB to function. We have also had safely handled radioactive wastes from our nuclear research reactor in Bangi without incident for decades, as well as those from Lynas rare earths separation plant.
This is a testament to our capability in managing the activated nuclear materials. Nevertheless, AELB and Act 304 are by no means perfect. AELB needs to be improved holistically to be able to properly regulate nuclear power plants and Act 304 must also be amended to be in line with international standards and best practices.
Nuclear power is neither popular nor easy. But nuclear power, in tandem with renewable energy and long-term power storage, offers a solution for a greener future. As the threat of climate change feels very real, we should not recklessly abandon nuclear power just because we have substantial domestic coal reserves and have had traumatic experiences with radioactive wastes. Nuclear power should, therefore, remain an option for Malaysia.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own, based upon personal understanding of publically-available facts, and do not represent my employers’ (UNITEN and TNB) views in any way.