Malaysia needs to get nuke clear

  • Business
  • Saturday, 19 Mar 2011

I AGREE. Right after, or worst during, a major catastrophe is not the best time for spectator governments to be making major domestic policy decisions.

Of course, that did nothing to quell the fiery debate over the good and ugly of nuclear-powered electricity following the nuclear emergency that unfolded in Japan over the week. (My heart, my prayers go out to the Japanese.)

New life was breathed into the old debate: Is nuclear the best sustainable and emission-free energy source? And even as such polemic rages on and the masses struggle to come to grips with the events in Japan, fuelling their worst fears over nuclear power, one simple fact, it appears has escaped the drumming of anti-nuke lobbyists nuclear currently powers up to 16% of the world's electricity.

How will these countries meet their immediate power needs if these plants were shut down or phased out over a short period?

In Malaysia, the efforts of the staunch nuclear advocates have no doubt suffered a major setback. The good news there's very little to undo. Only because, so little has been done. Unless of course you include an “indicative” roadmap of the Economic Transformation Programme, which sets out a plan to generate nuclear power by 2021, and the recent setting up of the Nuclear Power Corp as significant.

Still, the fear among Malaysians was palpable. Will the Malaysian Government bulldoze through the nuclear agenda given the high demand for safety provisions, even as its people watch in extreme horror First World Japan struggle to desperately contain the potential deadly radiation leak?

Over the week, local ministers were bombarded with questions on the administration's stance on nuclear energy. It was a fairly predictable question that warranted logical and calculated response but instead, the responses were frail, meek and barely satisfying.

And so, if ruffled Malaysians were looking for a punching bag moment, they found one, quite easily, in Energy, Green Technology and Water Minister Datuk Seri Peter Chin. “The proposal to construct nuclear power plants for electricity has not been decided yet by the Cabinet,” he had said in response.

Right. We knew that already.

In the United States, when prompted by reporters at a White House briefing on the US' nuclear plans, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Greg Jaczko said: “At this time, we don't have any information that would cause us to do anything different.”

Minimal yes, but evasive no.

So, is the plan to introduce nuclear energy in Malaysia being seriously thought over by policymakers, in light of the catastrophe taking place in Japan? If Japan, with its highly-trumpeted nuclear technology prowess has not escaped the potential disaster posed by nuclear power, then where does it leave Third World Malaysia and an administration and utility company that's ill-equipped in that arena?

Is someone, anyone (yoo hoo?), reassessing the country's nuclear aspirations following the cascading events of system failures, partial meltdowns and hydrogen explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan?

Truth is, even if the Fukushima crisis does not end up as tragic as Chernobyl, this near-disaster serves as a reminder that there is really no such thing as a fail-proof system. Most alternative energy sources come with some downside and most involve threats to the wallet or environment. But nuclear fission has an added dimension it can cost lives.

It's a global challenge, this urgency to address the fuel mix cycle. Two impetuses have been driving this rally the impending scarcity of traditional fossil fuels and climate change woes.

Has Malaysia seriously considered and exhausted other renewable sources of energy? Meanwhile, could it buy more time by tapping more home-produced gas to meet its power needs? Therein lies the elephant in the room in the country's power sector and this one involves two national companies.

Petroliam Nasional Bhd's gas supply to the power sector is currently capped (the rest is largely exported) and is subsidised by the oil company. Perhaps, it's time both Tenaga Nasional Bhd and Petronas came together again and finally settle for a fair price at which Petronas can sell the gas to the latter.

Malaysia is ranked 14th in the world in terms of gas reserves. As of January 2008, the country's natural gas reserves stood at 88 trillion standard cu ft the bulk or 48% are in Sarawak, 38% in the peninsula and 14% in Sabah. Depending on the rate of usage, it has been said that these reserves can last up to 36 years.

It would be a shame if the country couldn't use its own natural resources to buy more time to figure out other renewable options just because the parties are haggling over the price.

● Business editor Anita Gabriel has a confession to make: she's not completely against civil nuclear energy. She's just not in favour of Malaysia taking this route. And if you need to divert your attention to another crisis, you shouldn't miss watching the documentary The Inside Job.

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