Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Is the nuclear option the right one for Malaysia?

IN the past few months Malaysian policymakers have announced an ambitious plan to pursue nuclear energy.

In June, for example, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak declared that Malaysia would be developing a nuclear reactor with the Korea Electric Power Corporation. Malaysia's largest power supplier, Tenaga Nasional Bhd (TNB), intends to build and operate the country's first 1,000-megawatt (MW) nuclear power plant by 2025 at a cost of US$1 to US$4 billion (RM4 to RM10 billion), depending on the design.Deputy Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Fadillah Yusof praised the plan, and commented that "over time, nuclear energy is the cheapest, and environmentally-friendly with no pollutants produced".

Others have argued against the plant on the grounds that it would create an unnecessary weapons proliferation risk, that it would be prone to Chernobyl-like accidents, and that it generates extremely hazardous waste.Ronald McCoy, president of the Physicians for Peace and Social Responsibility, quipped that if prehistoric humans had started out with nuclear energy, we would still be managing their waste today.

While the debate over Malaysia's nuclear plans will undoubtedly continue, readers ought to consider three arguments against nuclear power that have not yet been advanced:

- Nuclear power has significant greenhouse gas emissions associated with its lifecycle.

- It poses a direct threat to human health even without accidents.

- It is the most expensive alternative, compared to energy-efficient and renewable resources.

First, the nuclear lifecycle consists of many activities that emit substantial amounts of greenhouse gas into our atmosphere, such as uranium mining and milling and spent fuel conditioning.When these are calculated along with the emissions associated with plant construction, operation, and decommissioning, the typical reactor emits about 66 grammes of carbon dioxide equivalent for every kWh of electricity it produces.This may not sound like much, but it demonstrates that nuclear energy is in no way "carbon free" or "emissions free". It also proves that nuclear power is worse from a climate perspective than every single source of renewable electricity, as well as small-scale distributed generators that rely on fossil fuels.

The emissions from the nuclear lifecycle do not only poison the climate, they also raise the potential cost of future nuclear power plants. If the proposed 1,000MW plant in Malaysia operated at a 90 per cent capacity factor, it would belch 522,323 metric tons of associated carbon dioxide per year.If that carbon were taxed at US$30 a ton, a likely possibility given the upcoming Copenhagen conference on climate change, such emissions would translate into an extra price tag of US$15.7 million every year.

Second, nuclear reactors that "operate perfectly" are still correlated with higher risks of cancer and unexplained deaths. Reactors create more than 100 dangerously radioactive chemicals, including Strontium-90, Iodine-131 and Cesium-137, the same toxins found in the fallout from nuclear weapons. Some of these contaminants, such as Strontium-90, have even been found in the teeth of babies living near nuclear facilities.

New evidence from the United States, home to 104 operating nuclear reactors at 65 sites, has documented elevated rates of leukaemia and brain cancers at nuclear power plants. Joseph Mangano from the Radiation and Public Health Project and his colleagues estimate that roughly 18,000 fewer infant deaths and 6,000 fewer childhood cancers will occur over a period of 20 years if all reactors in the United States were closed -- or that each nuclear plant was associated with 175 deaths and 58 cancers.

Third, nuclear power is in no way cost-competitive with alternatives such as renewable energy and energy efficiency. The cheapest option as a whole tends to be energy efficiency and demand-side management, which save electricity at a cost of about two to three cents per kWh.The cheapest sources of electricity supply for markets in the US and European Union today are wind turbines and landfill gas capture.

A global study of wind, biomass, geothermal and hydroelectric power plants conducted by the UN found that they produce electricity for about five to seven cents per kWh when subsidies were excluded. They do so without the need for uranium (a depletable fuel), without risking meltdowns, and without producing hazardous waste.Nuclear plants, when subsidies are excluded, produce power at about 10 to 40 cents per kWh.

It's easy to do the math, but even if readers are not persuaded, consider how governments and investors in other parts of the world have been making their decisions. Renewable energy investment globally surpassed US$120 billion last year, a fourfold increase from 2004.Over the same period, solar energy has grown by 600 per cent and wind energy by 250 per cent. From 2007 to 2008, both the US and EU added more renewable capacity than conventional coal, gas, oil and nuclear capacity.

Investors and planners in Europe and the US chose renewables over new nuclear power plants last year. The private capital market is not investing in nuclear, and without financing, the only purchases of new nuclear equipment are occurring in Asia made by central planners with a draw on the public purse.The lesson seems to be that in today's market, governments can have only about as many nuclear plants as they can force taxpayers to purchase.

Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes once said: "It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts."

Advocates of nuclear energy in Malaysia must consider all the data before they make a commitment to new reactors. Ignoring serious risks relating to greenhouse gases, childhood cancer and high operating costs will not make them go away.
The writer, an expert in energy policy, is an assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore

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