Friday, 17 April 2009

Nuclear energy in Malaysia inevitable

This letter appeared in I have reproduced the entire letter below. You can also read it here.

Nuclear energy in Malaysia inevitable
Syed Munir Syed Qadri

I refer to the Malaysiakini report M'sia does not need nuclear energy which quoted the president of the Physicians for Peace and Social Responsibility (PPSC) Dr Ronald McCoy as saying that Malaysia does not need nuclear energy for power generation.He argued that nuclear is dangerous and is not cost-effective. I beg to differ. While I respect his views, I think Dr McCoy chose not to look at the positive attributes of nuclear energy. I am sure a man of his bountiful resources is well aware that many countries have been using nuclear energy for power generation for a long time.They have done this with maximum risk management. Nuclear energy is inevitable especially for a country like Malaysia which is rapidly industrialising. Its population growth continues to be on an upward trend. The demand for electricity in Malaysia is increasing by the day. Currently 60 percent of Malaysia's power is generated with the use of gas, while coal is used to produce another 30 percent. Hydroelectric dams throughout the country produce about 7 percent of the country's electricity.Coal and gas are depleting resources. Continuous exploration will eventually lead to their total depletion. While it can be argued that uranium is also a depleting resource, the amount used for power generation is extremely small. To produce 1,000 MW of electricity for one year, 20 million tonnes of coal are needed compared with only 30 tonnes of uranium. Accordingly, the waste produced by nuclear power is comparatively very much smaller.Furthermore, coal-producing countries are increasingly becoming conscious of their own energy security and may impose a ceiling on the exports of coal. In addition, as Malaysia is totally dependent on these countries to import the coal, they could have the tendency to hold us to a ransom. Quid pro quo demands would be made.McCoy also argued that most nuclear reactors were heavily subsidised and no one knew the real cost of constructing nuclear reactors. There is no documented proof to this claim. Uranium is bought on the market at sellers' price.I also disagree with McCoy that nuclear reactors can only last for two decades, thus the cost of constructing nuclear reactors is extremely high. I think the fact and figures that McCoy has been relying on are outdated and do not take into consideration recent breakthroughs in the development of nuclear energy. The truth is that nuclear technology enables existing plants to operate for more than 30 years. For example, in the US there are over 100 plants, with the last ones ordered in 1979 and completed in 1980s. New technology is said to allow nuclear reactors to operate longer for as long as 60 years.McCoy also raised the issue about safety, arguing that nuclear energy can be potentially disastrous as ‘Malaysia is a small and narrow country'. He added that a nuclear accident puts not only the entire country but also the Asean region at risk.South Korea, Japan and France are today benefitting from nuclear energy. China and the US have an abundance of coal but are deriving benefits from nuclear power.Asean countries are already planning to use nuclear energy for power generation. Our neighbours Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam are planning to build two nuclear plants each. Are we going to tell them not to? For these countries, nuclear is necessary for continuous survival.If Thailand and Indonesia build their own plants, the risk associated with it would be the same as Malaysia having its own plants.But the risk from nuclear is minimal. People throughout the world have been overcome by paranoia following the unfortunate accidents in Chernobyl in 1986 and Three Mile Island, US in 1979. But the fact is, there have been only two major nuclear power plant accidents.In Chernobyl, there were 46 casualties, and most of them were firemen. The deaths were associated with a radiation leak. However, the incident is not likely to recur as the plants like those used in Chernobyl have been or are being phased out. This is one of the conditions imposed by the European Union for Eastern European countries seeking EU membership.Malaysia has an extremely good track record in managing high-risk industries. It uses the highest standards in managing industries like the chemical industry, power production, oil and gas as well as aviation. Accidents have been kept to a bare minimum.I am sure Malaysians, if properly trained and incentivised, are capable of operating nuclear power plants safely and efficiently.As I sign off, I urge Dr McCoy and the likes to adopt an open view of technology and embrace them as they come. This includes nuclear technology. Like the wise man said ‘the only thing constant is change'. In order to face challenges of the 21st century, we have to accept and adapt to changes. It is said that mankind faces global warming and climate change challenges and nuclear is seen as a possible saviour. This would be another story.

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