PRIME Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad recently lamented our traumatic experiences with radioactive materials (amang) during his special address at the recent Conference of Power and Electricity Supply Industry 2018 (CEPSI 2018).
He said that until today, scientists still haven’t delivered an acceptable solution for the radioactive waste problem and then stressed that nuclear power should never be an option for Malaysia.
This feels like we are unwittingly turning the clock back to the 80s. This is because nuclear power is now widely acknowledged as the only proven solution for carbon-free base load electricity generation. Nuclear power was so popular in the last decade that there was even a brief period of global nuclear renaissance when climate change felt inevitable and the hike in crude oil prices seemed unending. Unfortunately, the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011 put a spanner in the works. Nevertheless, 436 nuclear power reactors are still in operation in 31 countries around the globe. In addition, 55 new reactors are currently under construction. Even Japan, which closed down or suspended the operations of all of its nuclear power plants after the Fukushima disaster, has restarted a few plants to meet domestic electricity demands.
Germany, on the other hand, decided in 2000 to shut down all of its nuclear power stations. It now imports electricity from (ironically) nuclear-powered France while sweating over a creeping increment of carbon index due to higher reliance on fossil fuels.
All these demonstrate the importance of nuclear power in advancing national interest while helping mitigate the effects of climate change.
As such, the decision to completely forgo nuclear power without seriously studying its implications on preventing the worst consequences of climate change is uncharacteristic of the famously thorough Dr Mahathir.
This is because there are actually proven solutions to the radioactive waste problems. The first approach is by closing the nuclear fuel cycle loop (recycling of nuclear spent fuels), which France has been doing for decades and what Bill Gates’ TerraPower is working on.
The second option is to store the high-level radioactive wastes in a very long-term underground repository like in Finland, Sweden and France. This radioactive waste repository is like a treatment facility where the activated nuclear materials are physically stored and constantly monitored.
Unlike chemical waste which remains the same forever, radioactive waste decays according to its various half-lives. With time, its radioactivity abates and becomes manageable.
Nature has even demonstrated the success of this approach. At Oklo in Gabon, there were 16 self-sustaining nuclear fission reactors approximately 1.7 billion years ago.
These natural nuclear reactors are thought to have run for a few hundred thousand years, producing an average thermal power of less than 100 kW. These sites are today deemed safe for human activity.
With regard to our amang nightmare, one must note that the controversial Asian Rare Earth factory commenced its operation in 1982 when there was actually no proper legal and regulatory framework in place to regulate the siting, licensing and operation of the factory. We now have the Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) as the nuclear watchdog as well as Act 304, which empowers AELB to function.
Nevertheless, AELB and Act 304 are by no means perfect. AELB needs to be improved holistically to be able to properly regulate nuclear power plants while Act 304 must be amended to be in line with international standards and best practices.
Nuclear power is admittedly neither popular nor easy. But nuclear power, in tandem with renewable energy and long-term power storage, offers a comprehensive solution for a greener future.
As the threat of climate change feels very real, we should not recklessly abandon nuclear power just because we have had traumatic experiences with radioactive wastes.
Nuclear power should remain an option for Malaysia.
DR MOHD SYUKRI YAHYA
Bandar Baru Bangi, Selangor