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Rethink going nuclear

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If a temperate country like Germany can be the first country to launch a successful feed-in tariff system based on renewable solar energy, there is no reason why Malaysia can’t do it, says Hilary Chiew.

So Malaysia is planning for a nuclear power plant as an alternative source of energy, given that the country’s oil and gas supplies are expected to dry up soon.

Advocates for the country’s first nuclear reactor capable of powering houses and businesses by 2025 are saying that it is necessary, safe and good for the climate.

Worldwide, proponents for a nuclear renaissance have seized on the climate change scourge to push their agenda further. But their carbon-neutral argument has since long been debunked.

However, that hasn’t stopped this misinformation from being propagated here. Their counterparts in Malaysia have argued likewise.

Since the government’s announcement in May of its plan to go nuke, opponents of nuclear energy have put forward their arguments convincingly. Safety has been their paramount concern, and rightly so given the deadly impact on health and environment in the event of accidents.

Responses from the government have been less than reassuring, especially as Energy, Green Technology and Water Minister Peter Chin has from the onset declared “no point engaging (with stakeholders)” and that the government would only discuss the to-be-selected site with local communities.

Nevertheless, he paradoxically said “there must be a sincere debate on energy security”.

I totally agree with the minister. And I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt that he has yet to familiarise himself with the Renewable Energy Policy, which his ministry has drafted and is expected to turn into a law.

In fact, the ensuing public outcry highlighted by both mainstream and alternative media has also got Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak to “rethink” public consultation on this matter as shown on his 1Malaysia blog.

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As consumers of energy and Malaysians grow in awareness of the environment viz-a-viz climate change, it is only appropriate that the government engage the public in a meaningful manner.

RE-al commitment

Malaysia has already recognised renewable energy (RE) as a potential source to diversify its energy mix since the Eighth Malaysia Plan. The same vision was repeated in the following five-year development blueprint, albeit, scaled down.

Policy on renewables remains on paper with little attention given to serious research and development; hence the excuse that RE is expensive and unreliable. How often have we heard that solar energy is still in its infancy and not economically viable?

In 2006, in a joint report with Greenpeace, the European Photovoltaic Industry Association concluded that PV technology has advanced by leaps and bounds thanks to competition and serious investment that take the cue from a strong political framework in countries like Germany. As a result, solar power has become a serious contender in the electricity market — able to provide low-cost, clean, carbon emission-free energy. It predicted that two billion households worldwide could be powered by solar energy by 2025.

Ironically, some of those PV panels are coming from two world-class PV production plants in Malaysia.

So, when Malaysia derives electricity for the first time from a nuclear reactor, the rest of the world, including developing countries like China, are already embracing a cleaner and sustainable energy source.

Solar energy is the true renewable unlike nuclear which, although it does not emit carbon dioxide, leaves behind a toxic legacy and not to mention that uranium, the feedstock for nuclear reactor, is a finite raw material.

Policy incoherence

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But do we really need the energy from nuclear as we are actually enjoying a surplus according to figures provided by Chin himself? He said current electricity consumption is 14,000 megawatt (MW) but we have an installed capacity of 23,000 MW. That gives Malaysia an extremely comfortable margin as the government’s target is only 20 per cent.

How about the energy that is expected to be generated from renewable sources that are already in the government’s plan?

In the run-up to the United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen last year, Malaysia boldly announced its 40 per cent emissions intensity reduction, which means that it will strive to reduce carbon emissions for every unit of gross domestic production. Subsequently, the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry drew up its plan to achieve that goal through energy efficiency, taking into account the pending RE programmes.

There will be incentives for industries to beef up their energy efficiencies, households to participate in the feed-in tariff system (where buildings installed with PV panels capture and convert the solar energy and relay the electricity to the grid) as well as a waste segregation scheme to prevent the built-up of methane in landfills. (Methane is a potent greenhouse gas arising from decomposition of organic materials such as kitchen waste, which makes up more than 50 per cent of the typical household waste stream that currently find its way to the landfills.)

Until now, Malaysia seems to be moving in the right path in realising the prime minister’s vision of transforming Malaysia into a global green revolution leader.

With surplus energy, a renewable energy policy that will contribute significantly to the nation’s energy supplies in the near future coupled with enormous potential for growth and the conceivable reduction of energy consumption in public, private, commercial and industrial buildings – one needs to ask if there is room for a nuclear power plant.

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Perverse incentive

It’s good to know that the government is finally coming to grips with market pricing to reflect the actual costs of fossil fuels in the 10th Malaysia Plan that was launched recently. As we all know, oil and gas are heavily subsidised by public coffers.

While criticism had been levelled at the general public who resists any hike in petroleum or diesel prices (in the absence of an efficient public transport system), what is less talked about is the huge chunk of taxpayers’ money channelled to subsidise natural gas used by the many independent power producers (IPPs).

The power generated by these IPPs is contributing to the surplus energy and they are reaping huge profits from the lop-sided power purchase agreement at the expense of Tenaga Nasional Bhd (TNB), the country’s main power distributor. (An Energy Commission’s analysis in 2006 showed that the power sector was paying RM6.40 per MBTU [million British Thermal Unit] when the market price was RM26.43.)

Perhaps if TNB can cut its losses from paying exorbitant power (which it doesn’t need anyway) generated by the IPPs, it can fund serious research into solar, wind and biogas. And the government can divert the subsidies for IPPs to instead incentivise the installation of PV panels on individual rooftops.

After all, if a temperate country like Germany can be the first country to launch a successful feed-in tariff system, there is no reason why Malaysia can’t do it.

Hilary Chiew is a socio-environmental researcher and freelance writer based in Kuala Lumpur.


This article first appeared at http://freemalaysiatoday.com/fmt-english/opinion/comment/7359-rethink-going-nuclear

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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