Our former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad had expressed his objection of nuclear energy in Malaysia and had brought up the issue of dumping of radioactive waste in Perak. However the former PM is reportedly not aware where the waste was buried. His ignorance is indeed unfortunate because as a leader, Dr Mahathir should have known the location of the hotspot, especially since it is still regarded unsafe.
The long term storage facility of the radioactive waste is located in the Kledang Range, Perak. The waste was produced from the Asian Rare Earth (ARE) factory in Bukit Merah New Village near Ipoh. The ARE factory began operations in 1982 to extract yttrium (a rare earth) from monazite (obtained from amang, a tin mining by-product). The waste which is radioactive is the property of the Perak State Government.
A long struggle for environmental health and justice ensued as the Bukit Merah Village community was affected by radiation from improper waste disposal. Cases of childhood leukemia, cancer, miscarriages, lead poisoning were higher here compared to the expected incidence in Malaysia. The ARE factory was finally closed down in the 1990s but its toxic legacy remains in the form of the radioactive waste.
With such a bad track record and its tremendous impact to the environment, public health and safety we are very concerned that the Malaysian government is even pondering to build a nuclear power plant in the country.
Following are some of the reasons why we should not opt for nuclear power which is an expensive, polluting, dangerous source of energy:
Nuclear reactors have serious environmental and public health impacts. Radioactive air and water pollution is released through the routine operation of all nuclear reactors. A wide range of radioactive isotopes are released with varying radioactive and chemical properties – some toxic, some not, some more radioactive than others, some lasting minutes, some lasting billions of years.
A study in Mainz, Germany shows the risk of getting cancer, particularly leukemia, is increasing for children growing up in the neighborhood of a nuclear power station. The result showed a significantly higher risk to get cancer if the children lived within a circle of less than 5 km around a nuclear power plant. There were 77 cases of cancer (60% more than expected in normal statistical values) and 37 cases of leukemia (117% more than expected).
The nuclear chain begins with uranium mining, a polluting activity that devastates large areas. Uranium ore can contain as little as 500 grammes recoverable uranium per million grammes of earth. Enormous amounts of rock have to be dug up, crushed and chemically processed to extract the uranium. The remaining wastes or ‘tailings’, still contain large amounts of radioactivity and are often stored in poor condition, resulting in the contamination of surface and groundwater.
Radioactive wastes are produced continually in reactors. High-level nuclear waste (also called irradiated or “spent” fuel) is more radioactive than when the fuel rods were loaded into the reactor. This waste is so lethal that standing near it without shielding causes fatality within minutes. This waste is hazardous for years and no technology exists to keep it isolated for long.
Irradiated fuel rods are stored in storage pools inside reactor buildings. If someone accidentally drained the water from the pool, the “spent fuel” would spontaneously burst into flame and burn out of control for days, releasing clouds of highly-radioactive material all the while. Besides this, in case of leakage, what is going to happen to the radioactively contaminated water? Where will the massive volume of water outflow?
Another type of waste is low-level radioactive waste which is all other radioactive waste from reactors. Large amounts of this waste has to be buried and over the years may leak and contaminate groundwater.
Reactor accidents and leaks
Of all electricity generation technologies, nuclear power is one which is capable of catastrophic accidents. Does Malaysia have the capacity to deal with a catastrophic event such as a reactor meltdown or leak? Is the public willing to accept this risk when cheaper and safer energy alternatives are available?
Although the probability of a nuclear explosion is minor, there is a significant risk of core meltdown and for steam and chemical explosions. This would lead to a release of a large fraction of its radioactive inventory. For example in 1979 a combination of technical faults and operator errors led to loss of coolant and a partial meltdown of the core of the nuclear power station at Three Mile Island in the USA where limited quantity of radiation was released.
The worst accident at a nuclear power station was at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986. A combination of operator errors, inadequate safety procedures and poor reactor design led to explosions of steam and hydrogen that released vast quantities of radioactive materials over the Ukraine, Belarus and much of Europe. Millions of people in the Northern hemisphere have suffered and will continue to suffer from the Chernobyl catastrophe due to exposure to radiation.
The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has reported that at least 27 of America’s 104 licensed reactors are now leaking radioactive tritium. The worst case is reported to be Entergy’s Vermont Yankee. High levels of contamination have been found in test wells around the reactor, and experts believe the Connecticut River is at serious risk.
Water use harms aquatic life
Reactors require huge amounts of cooling water, which is why they are often located near rivers, lakes or oceans. The initial devastation of marine life and ecosystems stems from the powerful intake of water into the nuclear reactor. Marine life, ranging from fish larvae to microscopic planktonic organisms vital to the ocean ecosystem, is sucked irresistibly into the reactor cooling system. Some of these animals are killed when trapped against filters, grates, and other structures. An equally huge volume of wastewater is discharged at temperatures hotter than the water into which it flows and this would also be detrimental to aquatic life.
Nuclear power is the most expensive form of power and could not exist without massive subsidies. As it is so expensive to build, the price of the electricity they produce would be exorbitant too. Besides this, a great deal of money has to be spent and accumulate large amounts of interest before there is any revenue. Would this cost ultimately be transferred to consumers through a price hike?
Nuclear energy would also be heavily subsidised but most of these subsidies are hidden. For instance the nuclear industry does not pay the full cost of insuring against a catastrophic accident such as in Chernobyl. Another subsidy for the industry is when the federal government normally pick ups the tab when accidents or leakages occur.
Green house gas emissions
Nuclear energy proponents state that green house gas emissions can be reduced. Nuclear reactors, which produce energy based on the fissioning of uranium atoms, do not directly emit greenhouse gases (GHGs). Nevertheless each step of the nuclear fuel cycle, right from uranium ore mining and processing, to fuel fabrication and reactor construction, from spent fuel reprocessing to eventual decommissioning and waste storage, involves emissions, including GHG.
Nuclear energy is not necessary. We must improve energy efficiency and reduce high carbon activities in areas such as transport. Energy experts at the Rocky Mountain Institute and elsewhere estimate that a dollar invested in increased efficiency could save up to seven times as much energy as one invested in nuclear plants can produce, while producing 10 times as many permanent jobs.
Worldwide, people have realized that there are safer, cheaper, renewable alternatives to nuclear. Combining energy efficiency measures and renewable energy development would eliminate any justification for nuclear power. Thus we strongly urge the Malaysian government to cancel its plan of developing nuclear power plant.
Letter to the Editor, 20th May 2010