Nuclear in Malaysia: Shortsightedness in a greening global economy

By Ken Yeong

Every Malaysian must decide if nuclear power is the right choice for our nation. The keyword here is choice because there is now an increasing number of truly clean and renewable energy in solar, wind, tidal, wave, etc. For some, however, the threat of climate change and peak oil has forced a false dilemma of either nuclear or unabated global warming.

The recent UK Sustainable Development Commission answered a clear ‘No’ to nuclear as a solution to our energy and climate crisis. Nuclear is neither renewable nor clean. Nuclear is not only potentially catastrophic to human lives, but is also now economically, socially and environmentally inferior to the new technologies mentioned.

In fact, if we take the example of solar in Concentrating Solar Thermal (CST) plants, this is widely expected to come to cost parity with fossil fuel power generation by 2020 or earlier. Conservative estimates by studies done for the US Department of Energy and by McKinsey expect the Levelised Cost of Electricity (LEC) at around RM0.17-RM0.36/kWh in 2020, with an optimistic scenario of as low as RM0.11/kWh. These figures are supported by an award-winning and peer- recognised research conducted by the University of Melbourne Energy Research Institute, which expects the range at RM0.15-RM0.24/kWh for CST with molten salt storage for better-than- baseload performance. LEC factors in all costs involved throughout the lifespan of a power plant per unit of total power generated.

This is on par with or cheaper than our current cost of electricity of RM0.315/kWh once government subsidies are taken into account. The LEC for nuclear is estimated at around RM0.321/kWh to RM0.414/kWh, and expected to increase. 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 Olkiluoto plant.

There is a strong consensus in the industry and among analysts that technologies like solar, wind, tidal, wave will become considerably cheaper in the near future as economies of scale of manufacturing is achieved and the technology matures. Today, wind power has already reached cost parity with fossil fuel power in some countries.

However, the opposite is true for fossil fuel including nuclear as reserves dwindle.

Kudos to the Malaysian government for recognising that we need to diversify our energy mix and decentralise power generation. This is both achievable and affordable with solar, wind, tidal and wave. These green technologies also ensure energy security for our nation without having to rely on fuel imports. Nuclear is neither sustainable nor offers any of the above.

Theoretically, based on research by UniMAP and UKM, which is supported by the German Aerospace Centre data, and today’s panel efficiency of 20%, less than 0.1% of our land surface is required to power the entire nation today with solar PV (photo-voltaic) technology. We have a long coastline that exposed to the open South China Sea, offering good potential for tidal, wave and marine current energy as confirmed by UKM and UTM.

Why does Malaysia have to rush into nuclear now? Is it because a nuclear plant takes 10-15 years to build and we need to meet energy demands in 2020? The solution to this is easily met by solar, as even the largest solar installations like CST plants only require two to five years to complete. Surely, we can wait until 2020 when solar becomes as cheap as today prices, if not cheaper.

Currently, we have more than 50% reserve margin or excess power. Today Total Installed Generation Capacity of close to 22,000MW is over and above the projected demand in 2020. We can also utilise the vast amount of palm biomass as an intermediate measure before 2020.

Every Malaysian can see that we do not need to rush into nuclear now.

The price tag for nuclear is a staggering RM21.3 billion. If this is needed to get us to the ETP targets, it is clear this amount is far better invested in truly clean power technologies that hold a very bright future. More jobs can be created with a renewable energy sector. Malaysia could invest this amount to attract green power manufacturing and R&D. Western technologies are now superior to those from China or India, but are more expensive. There is then an urgent need to find cheaper locations of manufacturing, and this is where Malaysia has the advantage of a relatively educated workforce yet low cost of labour. It is not hard to see that we can become a green energy hub in the region, and not just for solar. Green energy investments have become one of the fastest growing sectors in the world today and we could ride on this green wave. Clean renewable energy can also earn us considerable revenue from Kyoto Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which excludes nuclear. Hence, the potential for the desired socio-economic multiplier effect with truly clean power is undeniable.

The same cannot be said for nuclear as we would be fools to harbour hopes of becoming anything more than a nuclear consumer. International non-proliferation policies will guarantee the barriers to homegrown nuclear development. Think Iran.

The list of negatives for nuclear is long and real. The European Free Alliance 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 in all reactor designs 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 from all walks of life are gravely concerned about the safety of nuclear on our shores, but where is the public consultation as outlined in ETP? The government must do the right thing and get the Malaysian people’s approval.

What about the storage of the nuclear waste? The Malaysian public does not have the confidence in our police and defence to provide such high-level security especially since the recent theft of the army jet engines. Thus, having a nuclear plant in our own backyard actually introduces a security threat!

Has the government taken into account the heavy costs of decommissioning nuclear plants? Not only does this require a few decades, another 9-15% of the original price tag is a must just for dismantling.

It is widely known that nuclear is associated with a range of negative externalities that cannot be monetised, including the unfulfilled moral obligation of leaving behind a better world than we inherited for our children. Nuclear’s dark potential as a weapon of mass-destruction and its checkered past and future is not the sort of legacy we will be proud of.

In today’s world of climate change and rapidly advancing green power technologies and retreating costs, nuclear is sheer shortsightedness for a country blessed with abundant renewable sources of clean power. The ETP is about investing for tomorrow, catalysing growth for the future and this means truly clean and renewable power in solar, wind, tidal, wave, etc, that will last for generations to come. Nuclear is without doubt far cleaner than coal and gas, but that’s looking into the past, not the future.

This article was contributed by a reader.