Efforts at building local human capital continues as such expertise cannot be developed overnight, or fast-tracked, if the country wants its nuclear efforts to be sustainable.
LIKE the rest of its regional peers such as the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Vietnam, Malaysia has been drawn to the benefits of nuclear energy for the past few decades.
Under the leadership of Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, Malaysia announced in June 2009 that it would seriously look at nuclear power as one of the options to diversify the country’s sources of energy, which is heavily reliant on fossil fuels like coal (mostly imported) and natural gas (partly imported in the form of liquefied natural gas or LNG).
Following this, the country immediately embarked on a drive to send promising students to further their studies in countries that are already nuclear-powered, such as Britain, France, Japan, the United States, and South Korea.
However, plans to put in place two 1,000MW (megawatt) nuclear power plants were placed on the backburner following the Fukushima Daiichi incident that was caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011.
The disaster had also resulted in Malaysia postponing its nuclear plans to beyond 2030, from initial plans to commission its first and second plants in 2021 and 2022 respectively, as outlined under the Economic Transformation Programme.
Deciding on the next step
Recently, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) declared that Malaysia was ready to decide on whether to proceed with embracing (or rejecting) nuclear fission as a source of energy.
IAEA’s conclusion is contained in the final report of an Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review (INIR) for Phase 1, an outcome following extensive assessments conducted by an IAEA mission to Malaysia last October.
Following the presentation of the report in early March, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri said Malaysia will remain focused on the information dissemination programme relating to nuclear power generation for the time being.
“The country will not be in a hurry to make any decision to introduce nuclear energy into its energy mix.
“Emphasis needs to be given on nuclear power education first as it is important to educate and train our people about nuclear,” she said after touring several of China’s nuclear science facilities in April.
Even though plans for nuclear power would seem to be on the back burner for a while, efforts at building local human capital continues as such expertise cannot be developed overnight, or fast-tracked, if the country wants its nuclear efforts to be sustainable.
It is not just nuclear engineers who are needed for Malaysia to make solid progress on the road to fulfil its aim to adopt nuclear energy as a means of reducing the country’s carbon footprint, while lessening the risk of fuel price shocks should global oil prices rebound significantly.
Apart from nuclear engineers, the expertise of technical personnel is required to conduct a national nuclear power programme, and they consist mainly of electrical and mechanical engineers, as well as health physicists.
For example, the current pro-chancellor of Universiti Tenaga Nasional (Uniten), Tan Sri Dr Ahmad Tajuddin Ali, 69, is one of the country’s “nuclear pioneers”.
After graduating with first class honours in mechanical engineering from King’s College, University of London in 1973, he obtained his doctorate in nuclear engineering from London’s Queen Mary College in 1977.
In anticipation of Malaysia going nuclear one day, he carried out post-doctoral research in nuclear engineering at Oregon State University (1977-1978) and Pennsylvania State University (1978), both in the United States.
It was around the same period that Dr Mohd Zamzam Jaafar, 64, chief executive officer of the Malaysia Nuclear Power Corpora-tion (MNPC), was sent abroad for training.
MNPC is a company set up under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Department in January 2011 to spearhead the implementation of nuclear energy in the country,
Dr Mohd Zamzam graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree and went on to obtain a PhD in nuclear engineering, also from London University.
He headed Tenaga Nasional Bhd’s nuclear energy unit from June 2008 until February 2011, after which he was appointed to head MNPC.
Dr Zamzam’s peer, Assoc Prof Dr Abdul Aziz Mohamed, 64, currently heads Uniten’s nuclear engineering and energy group, which comes under the varsity’s College of Engineering.
With a degree in nuclear physics from UKM, he pursued a Master’s in Materials/Nuclear Technology from Surrey University (1980) and a PhD in Marine/Advanced Materials from Cranfield University (1998), in the UK.
However, the discovery of sizable oil and gas fields off Terengganu in the mid-1970s meant that Malaysia took its time to evaluate nuclear power, which also suffered a major PR setback when the Chernobyl incident happened in 1986.
Going nuclear was again looked at seriously at the turn of the millennium as our oil and gas fields started to dwindle.
While Malaysia has a large pool of talent in civil, mechanical, electrical and electronic engineering, a pool of specially-trained workers must also be made available for nuclear power.
“In terms of personnel, around 20% should be ‘nuclear-trained’. The rest are ‘normal’ electrical, mechanical, and chemical engineers, other than security, finance, and administration staff. Depending on the precise reactor design chosen, 20% of 800 is 160 workers. For two units, you need 320 nuclear-trained personnel.
“These are not nuclear engineers, but workers well-versed with safety protocol and control room operations. The staff working in the plant control room are not necessarily nuclear engineers,” said Dr Mohd Zamzam.
Experience elsewhere suggests that a typical 1,000MW nuclear reactor needs around 700 workers, including both on-site and off-site, to keep it running.
Meeting the demand for nuclear education and training works best when there is an amicable partnership among universities, government, and industry.
In this regard, Malaysian universities have a long history of teaching nuclear science, a field that is wider than just utilising the nuclear fission process for electricity generation.
Even prior to 2009, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia was already playing an important role in creating a nuclear-ready workforce, and to date, remains the only university here that offers undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in nuclear science.
UKM’s Faculty of Science and Technology (School of Applied Physics) has been offering undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in nuclear science since 1978.
Its Bachelor of Science (Nuclear Science) consists of 20 units of university courses, 95 units of compulsory or core courses, as well as seven units of elective courses, bringing the total to 122 units.
The head of UKM’s nuclear programme is Assoc Prof Dr Faizal Mohamed, 38, who also sits on MNPC’s committee for capacity building for nuclear safety evaluation, other than being in the Atomic Energy Licensing Board’s subcommittee on nuclear safety (under the Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry).
“UKM is proud to play its part in contributing to the pool of skilled workers in the field of nuclear science,” said Dr Faizal, whose interests are in biomedical physics, radiobiology, nanotechnology, nuclear techniques, nuclear safety & security, as well as probabilistic safety assessment.
UKM is currently hosting 40 undergraduates per academic session for its nuclear science programme, and about 20 to 40 postgraduate students in the same area per academic session.
To date, UKM has produced more than 1,764 graduates and 157 postgraduate students in nuclear science, and most of them have had no problems in landing jobs.
According to Uniten’s Dr Abdul Aziz, a newcomer to nuclear power could import nearly all of its first batch of nuclear-ready workers, like what the United Arab Emirates is doing now as it gets ready to commission its Barakah nuclear power plant next year, its first unit.
“However, importing all skilled workers is a luxury that not many countries could afford,” said Dr Abdul Aziz, who is also president of the Malaysian Nuclear Society, a non-governmental organisation set up in 1989 to promote the peaceful use of nuclear technology.
Qualified manpower is the basis for the safe and reliable operations of nuclear power, he added.
“Any country embarking on a nuclear power programme has the basic responsibility of planning and implementing its manpower development programme, which must begin at an early stage.
“This is because of the rather long lead times involved in developing highly qualified manpower,” Dr Abdul Aziz added.
Sending the best
Dr Mohd Zamzam is concerned about those who graduate as nuclear engineers from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), since the country is not expected to commence its nuclear programme yet.
UTM is the first university here offering a Bachelor of Nuclear Engineering programme. Its first batch of 32 students was received in September 2012 (graduated last year), while there are 30 in the second batch.
“Malaysian nuclear engineers must think of themselves as world beaters, trailblazers, global players, and proceed to join some companies outside of Malaysia, at least until we are ready,” he said.
At least four of the 30 final year nuclear engineering students from UTM’s Nuclear Engineering Programme will be moving on to postgraduate studies in related fields outside of Malaysia.
One of them, Chin Kim Wei, 23, said he chose nuclear engineering as it was something new in the country, and he found that to be more challenging. He is attracted by a Monbukagakusho (MEXT) scholarship from Japan for his master’s and doctorate programme after he graduates from UTM this month.
Likewise, his classmate, Muhammad Zulhelmi Mahadi, 23, will likely take up the offer to do his master’s at China’s Tsinghua University.
For Dr Khaidzir Hamzah, 56, head of UTM’s nuclear engineering programme, his challenge is to ensure that its nuclear curriculum is nimble enough to cope with changing circumstances.
“On one hand, we prepare students in the design, construction, maintenance, consultancy, education, and training to safely operate a nuclear power plant.
“Ultimately, we would like them to be adaptable enough to work in a variety of nuclear-related fields, and not just in a nuclear power plant.
“There is a ready market for a generation of nuclear engineers to contribute to the development of non-destructive detection and monitoring systems for materials and industrial processes,” added Dr Khaidzir.
For Dr Mohd Zamzam, there is ample time for the country to build up its nuclear expertise as the development timeline for nuclear power is rather lengthy.
“I am not unduly worried about the HR part for our nuclear development. We send our best young people for postgraduate studies, and this is the way to do it,” he said in response to the impending retirement of a cohort of Malaysian experts who are in their mid sixties, such as himself and Dr Abdul Aziz.
“In any case, those we had sent for masters and PhDs are already back in the country, and they are in their thirties. MNPC will be increasingly helmed by those in their forties over the next few years. We want younger people to be part of the country’s nuclear story, as per the aspirations of TN50.”
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