I REFER to the report “Expert: There is rising resistance to nuke option” (The Star, March 15) where Prof Ramesh Thakur warned of “rising public opposition towards nuclear energy due to its many risks.” He emphasised that the Malaysian Government “must weigh all the potential risks, including the possibility of a nuclear accident, smuggling and theft of nuclear components.”
It was noted that the final report of the Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review (INIR) Mission Phase 1 would soon be tabled for discussion by Cabinet, and claimed that Malaysia is thoroughly prepared to make an informed decision about introducing nuclear power.
But there are many convincing reasons why nuclear energy is not a viable option for Malaysia. The global nuclear industry has continually failed to contain escalating costs and delays in the construction of nuclear power plants. There will always be the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation and nuclear terrorism.
Nuclear power plants are prone to accidents but fortunately major accidents are not common. However, when they do occur, they can be catastrophic, as we have experienced in Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima.
The most serious danger is that there is no permanent method of safely disposing of nuclear waste which will remain radioactive and deadly for thousands of years.
Historically, a Russian nuclear power plant was the first to be connected to an electricity grid in Obinsk in 1954. Nuclear power plants soon mushroomed across the developed world, based on the deceptive slogan that nuclear-generated electricity was “too cheap to meter”. But global nuclear power capacity has stagnated ever since the catastrophic nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl in 1986 and the realisation that nuclear power is not cheap, clean or safe.
Today, only 24 countries operate 388 nuclear power plants, compared with 438 nuclear reactors in 2002, producing less than 2% of the world’s total electricity. Only 14 countries have plans to build new reactors.
Cheap nuclear power is a myth. Forbes magazine has called it “the biggest managerial disaster in history.” As recently as May 2009, two financial reports in the business section of the New York Times highlighted the incredible economics of building a nuclear power plant. The reports revealed two fiascos involving the construction of a new reactor in Olkiluoto in Finland by the French company, Areva, and the virtual collapse of the once touted global flagship, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited. Both companies were overtaken by cost overruns amounting to billions of dollars caused by decades-long delays in completing construction schedules.
The nuclear industry’s history of financial disasters is lamentable. It includes the loss of more than US$1tril in subsidies, abandoned projects and other public misadventures. Amory Lovins, an energy expert, has called it “the greatest failure of any enterprise in the industrial history of the world.”
The most critical feature of nuclear power is its production of deadly nuclear waste which remains radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years and for which there is no safe, permanent method of disposal.
For example, uranium and plutonium isotopes have virtually unending radioactive half-lives: uranium-238 – 4.51 billion years; uranium-235 – 731 million years; and plutonium-239 – 24,000 years.
The nuclear industry’s claims about long-term management and safe disposal of nuclear waste only exist in theory. Today, the world’s growing accumulation of radioactive nuclear waste continues to pile up in open casks in nuclear power plants. Since the beginning of the nuclear age, not one country has been able to build a safe and functioning geological repository anywhere in the world. Until that happens, governments have no moral or environmental authority to build new nuclear power plants.
On June 21, 2009, the then Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia said the Government would not consider the production of nuclear-generated electricity before exploring alternative renewable energy resources such as biomass, solar, wind and hydro power. So what is the Government’s justification for resorting to nuclear power when national electricity reserves are still substantial?
Malaysia would do well to emulate and learn from Denmark, where new technologies have made energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy feasible. Denmark derives most of its renewable energy from biomass and a fifth of its electricity from five thousand wind turbines. Denmark has no hydroelectric or nuclear power and has secured a high level of growth without an increase in greenhouse gas
emissions. It has achieved this through a strong political focus on energy policy and a unique cooperative relationship between researchers, business people and politicians.
Denmark’s ethos of social solidarity, transparency, accountability and common purpose shines an environmental beacon of light for Malaysia.
In many ways, the proposed nuclear power project defines the relationship between the Government and the people of Malaysia. In most countries, it would be an issue of great national importance that would merit wide consultation, free discussion and open debate, as the stakes are extremely high, particularly for future generations.
The issue of nuclear energy is too important to be decided by partisan politics and business interests. It must not be turned into a money-spinner for some politically-connected company or a career-builder for those connected to the nuclear industry. It is not good enough to “engage” with the public by holding politically predetermined seminars and conferences where pro-nuclear groups with vested interests tout the false benefits of nuclear energy to an unsuspecting public.
The energy path to a sustainable future lies elsewhere. Firstly, we must invest in and harness the vast array of renewable energy sources available, such as solar power, hydro power, biomass, wind power, wave power, tidal energy, and geothermal energy.
Secondly, we must develop policies and technologies in energy efficiency, such as reducing energy use in buildings, increasing automobile efficiencies, expanding mass public transport, designing compact communities, and creating practices of industrial ecology that recycle materials and energy.
Thirdly, we must redefine development in terms of human well-being and sustainable living patterns, not unfettered consumption and economic growth.
Finally, we must not be deceived by the false propaganda of the nuclear industry. We must reject nuclear energy and avoid the grievous dangers of nuclear devastation and lethal radioactivity that will last for thousands of years. It would be immoral and unethical to leave future generations with such a legacy.
DR R.S. MCCOY