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Sunday June 15, 2008
By RASHVINJEET S. BEDI
Are we ready for nuclear power as the alternative source of energy? Should we not start weaning our dependence on fossil fuel in view of world oil prices possibly reaching US$200 per barrel?
THE smoke detector is a standard application in buildings today. Likewise, food irradiation, a process to destroy micro-organisms, bacteria, viruses, or insects, has become part of the food process chain.
But what they have in common – the use of nuclear technology – is less known.
But in the mind of the layman, the word nuclear carries a negative connotation and is associated with safety breaches in the use of nuclear power, radiation and weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
The fact is nuclear energy is one of the cleanest and most efficient sources of energy, compared to others like coal and natural gas in the production of electricity – and a very attractive alternative in the context of skyrocketing fossil fuel prices.
The Deputy Science, Technology and Innovations Minister Fadillah Yusof recently told parliament that a paper on the use of nuclear energy in the country was being prepared with the Energy, Water and Communications Ministry.
The paper would look into all aspects including environmental protection and security, in determining the possibility of using nuclear energy in the future.
But former nuclear science lecturer Dr Che Rosli Che Mat, who supports nuclear energy as the future alternative, is aware that the Malaysian public will take some convincing because of the negative perception.
“Because of what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” explains Dr Che Rosli, referring to the nuclear bombings on the Japanese cities by the Americans during World War 2, which killed about 200,000 people.
Then there is the often-mentioned Chernobyl incident in Russia where a reactor exploded and the consequent fires that lasted for 10 days led to huge amounts of radioactive materials being released into the environment and a radioactive cloud spreading over much of Europe.
Dr Che Rosli, the Hulu Langat MP who posed the question about the Government's stand on nuclear energy, hopes there will be good response to the Cabinet paper because nuclear power could be a major alternative.
According to the 2005 energy balance, Malaysia’s electricity was generated from natural gas (62.3%), coal (28.1%), hydroelectric (6.7%) and others (2.9%)
“It takes a long time to develop, so we have to start now,” he adds.
There are 439 nuclear power plants in the world, producing about 17% of the world’s energy needs. Countries such as America, Japan, England, India, Pakistan and South Korea use nuclear power. France, meanwhile, is almost 100% nuclear as it cuts down its dependence on foreign fuel sources.
Countries in the Middle East have spoken on their desires to go into nuclear energy while Malaysia's neighbours have made concrete plans to build nuclear reactors in the next decade.
Indonesia has plans to build four 4000MW nuclear reactors by 2016, Vietnam two 2000MW reactors by 2018 and Thailand two similar reactors by 2021.
Visiting scientist at Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), Mohd Peter Davis echoes Dr Che Rosli's views.
“Today, Malaysia imports its coal while oil and gas are fast running out. All too soon we will be importing these fossil fuels at US$130 to US$200 per barrel which will cripple the economy,” he says.
Deputy director of the Malaysian Nuclear Agency Dr Nahrul Khair Alang Md Rashid says as more people are joining the middle class, more energy would be needed.
“Maybe the energy situation has not reached a critical stage yet and we are able to fulfil our energy needs with conventional sources. In 20 years’ time, we cannot rely on them because of price increases and, more importantly, the supply security,” says Dr Nahrul.
He admits that setting up a nuclear reactor is expensive but it is cost efficient in the longer run. He gives the analogy of petrol and diesel cars.
“It is much more expensive to buy a diesel car than a petrol car, but it is much cheaper to run the former.”
A nuclear reactor has a lifespan of 60 years, producing uninterrupted power, with the refuelling of uranium once every 18 months.
Besides the long-term cost benefits, production of nuclear energyis kinder to the environment as no greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide are produced.
Statistics from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) show that nuclear reaction for the purpose of generating electricity produces about 5gC (Carbon)/KwH. Gas and coal produce 100-220gC/KwH and 200-350gC/KwH respectively.
The burning of coal also produces sulphur dioxide, which, if combined with rainwater, produces acid rain.
“The nuclear reaction only produces heat,” says Dr Nahrul, adding that the process is contained within the reactor for safety purposes.
Azman Zainal Abidin, head of the Malaysian Energy Centre (PTM) Policy Management and Research Division, says that other alternative sources of energy especially photovoltaic cells, which tap solar power, and the use of biomass (waste) takes precedence for now.
“Nuclear is a possibility in the long run, but as of now, it is not a priority,” he says.
Davis, however, says these alternatives are impractical. “Where's a city that runs on alternative energy?
“Where are the colossal numbers of solar panels required to provide electricity for our homes, cars and industry going to be located - on top of the rainforests? What will drive the giant windmills? The average wind speed in Malaysia is less than 2kph,” he says.
“From what I understand, solar cells are not cheap. If they can be purchased cheaply, then it might be more feasible,” says Dr Che Rosli.
Dr Nahrul says that the alternatives are not viable as industrial energy sources, citing the technological progress of these sources.
“Maybe they are good for small-scale applications such as parking meters or street lamps. At this point in time, nuclear seems to be the most viable option although I'm not saying all energy requirements can be fulfilled by it alone.”
Setting up a nuclear reactor would take about 15 years as aspects such as safety and security will have to be taken into account.
The construction of the reactor would take five to seven years, and the rest to set up the steam supply system.
To generate electricity, water is boiled to produce steam, which then moves the turbines to produce electricity. While the system to generate electricity is generally the same, the energy source in this instance is changed from fossil fuels to nuclear.
Davis says that a 300MW nuclear reactor, which could power the whole of Klang Valley, would require at least 200 nuclear scientists, engineers and highly skilled workers and provide cheap electricity for 60 years.
But before we can embark on any nuclear programme, certain myths about nuclear will have to be dispelled first, especially among the public.
In Malaysia, nuclear technology is used in the medical, environment, manufacturing, biotech and agricultural fields.
Dr Nahrul says that the use of nuclear technology in these applications is picking up. The Malaysian Nuclear Agency has been around since 1972 and employs about 800 staff.
Davis says the fear of nuclear energy can only be overcome by education, including scientific submissions debunking the myths about nuclear energy, such as the Chernobyl incident.
“Chernobyl was not a nuclear power plant. It was an experimental Russian nuclear reactor that disregarded all the safety requirements that were mandatory in other nuclear countries. In the worst nuclear accident in the United States - at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in 1979 - no one was injured,” says Davis.
Nuclear power plants, now into their fourth generation are the safest technology ever invented by humans.
“Today, with a fourth generation nuclear power plant, such as South Africa’s PBMR which is ideal for new agricultural cities in developing countries and for greening the deserts, it is physically impossible to suffer a meltdown.
“The reactor cannot ‘go critical’. As the reactor temperature increases, the nuclear reaction slows down and then stops,” says Davis, adding that the Malaysian nuclear report should include the almost perfect 40-year safety and environmental impact records from all the nuclear-powered countries and compare these with the coal, oil and gas industries.
Another argument is the danger from long lasting radioactive waste, which Davis labels as a myth.
“There is no such thing as nuclear ‘waste’ in a modern nuclear industry; 97% is reprocessed and recycled through nuclear plants and the remaining 3% of high-level radioactive products is the source of valuable medical and industrial isotopes,” he says. In a September 2006 American survey, 68% of those who lived near an operating plant supported the building of a new nuclear reactor at the existing site, he adds.
What about atomic bombs then?
A nuclear power plant cannot explode under any circumstances; it is not a nuclear bomb, says Davis.
“There is a fundamental difference. Understanding this overcomes a lot of the fears about nuclear power,” he says.
For the purpose of fuel, natural uranium ore is dug out of the ground and contains only 0.7% uranium-235, which has to be enriched to 5%, a very difficult and hi-tech process, to turn it into uranium fuel for nuclear power plants.
To make a nuclear bomb, however, the uranium-235 needs to be enriched to 95%, an exercise that takes enormous national resources. He says building the first nuclear bomb during World War 2 required half of America's electricity production in a year, just to enrich the uranium.
“We are talking about the peaceful use of nuclear power to replace coal, oil and gas. Modern nuclear power plants can safely produce cheap and abundant quantities of electricity, fresh water from seawater and hydrogen for cars, trucks and planes,” says Davis.
In any case, a nuclear programme should not be hastily implemented.
“It will take 15 years to implement; it cannot be rushed. In the meantime, we should do a national stocktaking of Malaysia’s oil and gas reserves, the price to extract them, and come up with a sensible national plan so that we are not at the mercy US$200 per barrel world oil prices.
“Let us become self-sufficient in oil and gas until nuclear power starts to come on stream in 15 years' time,” says Davis.
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