The Malaysian people must call for all political parties to declare that they will unequivocally abandon all plans to build a nuclear power plant, asserts Ronald McCoy.
The New Sunday Times (24 February 2013) published an article by Dr Ahmad Ibrahim, Fellow of the Academy of Science Malaysia, 2013, in which he asked if Malaysia should opt for nuclear power for generating electricity, claiming that nuclear technology offers “many benefits for mankind”.
It is undeniable that greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion are one of the principal causes of global warming and climate change, which increasingly threaten planetary and human survival in the twenty-first century. It is therefore crucial to reduce dependency on fossil fuels for the generation of electricity. But nuclear energy is not a feasible alternative to fossil fuels. Renewable energy is.
The nuclear industry and proponents of nuclear power have used global warming as a false argument to promote nuclear power as climate-friendly. Although nuclear power plants produce much lower carbon emissions than coal- or gas-fired power stations, they are by no means entirely carbon-free. In fact, they generate substantial carbon emissions throughout their 40-year average lifespan, from the time they are being built, commissioned and operating to the time they are decommissioned.
The nuclear industry and its proponents also make the false claim that nuclear energy is cheap, clean and safe. If that were true, entrepreneurs would be falling over each other to build profitable nuclear power plants. Disinformation by the industry masks the true economics of nuclear power, which is dependent on enormous government subsidies to meet high insurance premiums against catastrophic accidents and enormously expensive construction and decommissioning costs.
Moody’s Corporate Finances (the ratings and risk firm) has estimated that nuclear energy’s capital cost per kilowatt was 275 per cent higher than that of wind energy and 150 per cent higher than solar energy. Numerous studies by Wall Street and independent energy analysts have estimated that electricity from renewable energy sources costs an average of 6 US cents (about 18 sen) per kilowatt-hour, whereas electricity from nuclear energy costs about 12-20 US cents (about 36-60 sen) per kilowatt-hour, excluding the cost of any nuclear accident.
Ahmad Ibrahim admits that “the nuclear option has its share of negatives” but says that we should not ignore nuclear power as “such negatives are manageable” and that “new generation reactors have much reduced safety risks”. Major nuclear accidents are uncommon, but when they do occur they can be devastating. From the beginning of nuclear power 60 years ago, governments have created a system that protects the profits of the nuclear industry by shielding it from paying the full costs of its failures, while those who are caught up in nuclear disasters suffer the serious consequences. The disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in March 2011 has proved that point.
Two years later, hundreds of thousands of Japanese from the Fukushima area are still exposed to long-term radioactive contamination. They have lost their homes, their jobs, their businesses, their farms, their communities, and their way of life. This happens because the nuclear industry and governments have designed a nuclear liability system that protects the industry and that forces taxpayers to pick up the bill for its mistakes and disasters.
Although the Fukushima accident was directly caused by the disruption of its power supply, which then led sequentially to failure of the cooling system, overheating and reactor explosions, the fundamental cause was institutional failure of the government, regulators, and the nuclear industry to anticipate earthquakes and tsunamis, and be in a position to respond effectively.
The nuclear disasters of Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 clearly show that there is no such thing as nuclear safety or a fail-safe nuclear reactor. Murphy’s Law dictates that human error and unpredictable events are unavoidable. If the Malaysian government dismisses the lessons of Fukushima and goes ahead with its nuclear option, Malaysians will have to contend with the reality of an unreliable maintenance culture, lax attitudes to safety regulations, and inadequately trained and poorly motivated staff.
Nuclear waste: no safe disposal
Apart from nuclear accidents, the most dangerous and unacceptable feature of nuclear power, above all is that there is no safe method of disposing of long-lasting radioactive nuclear waste. For instance, plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years. In other words, any quantity of plutonium waste from a nuclear reactor will only lose half its radioactivity in 24,000 years. Today, about 250,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel rods from 437 nuclear reactors in 31 countries are stored ‘temporarily’ in ponds or dry casks at reactor sites, where they await the day when nuclear technology will hopefully discover a method of ‘permanent’ storage for periods ranging up to a million years.
Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the state of Washington is the site of America’s complex of nuclear reactors which supplied the plutonium that produced America’s nuclear arsenal during the Cold War. A report last week confirmed that six of the 177 underground tanks storing 53 million US gallons (204,000 cubic metres) of high-level radioactive waste were leaking radioactive waste. After the first leak was detected in one tank, it was some time before the other five tanks were also found to be leaking, because “employees there did not adequately analyse data they had,” it is reported.
The responses of Governor Jay Inslee and the US Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, have a familiar ring: “There is no immediate or near-term health risk associated with these newly discovered leaks…this raises serious questions about the integrity of all 149 single-shell tanks with radioactive liquid and sludge…Secretary Chu has a long-standing personal commitment to the clean-up of Hanford…he has assured me he will do all he can to address the issue of the leaking tanks…he also assured me there will be immediate additional monitoring of the single-wall tanks.”
There is no social institution on the planet that has lasted more than 2,000 years. The reality is that, if medieval Man had used nuclear energy, today we in the 21st century would still be managing his nuclear waste. It is inconceivable that any right-thinking government would want to knowingly risk the future of its people and bequeath such a lethal, toxic legacy to future generations of Malaysians. As a Malaysian citizen, I make this protest. It is utterly unconscionable, unethical and immoral.
In 2010, the Malaysian government identified the deployment of nuclear energy for electricity generation as one of the Entry Point Projects in its Economic Transformation Programme. A year later, it set up the Malaysia Nuclear Power Corporation (MNPC) to lead, plan and complete the building of a twin-unit nuclear power plant, with a total capacity of 2 gigawatts, by 2021-2022. The final decision to ‘go nuclear’ is expected to be made in 2013 or early 2014. In fact, the MNPC has already identified seven possible sites for a nuclear power plant – two in Terengganu, two in Johor, two in Perak, and one in Kedah.
Abandon nuclear plans
Ahmad Ibrahim has also broached the subjects of thorium and nuclear fusion. Thorium is a radioactive element that can be used in a new generation of nuclear reactors as an alternative source of fuel for the generation of electricity. It has several advantages as a nuclear fuel, such as producing less of the long-lived radioactive products of plutonium and uranium, but there are still many technical problems to be resolved. Even if they are resolved, there are still many environmental concerns in the mining, handling and storage of radioactive waste.
Nuclear fusion is a reaction where two atomic nuclei come together to form a heavier nucleus, generating energy in the process. Nuclear fusion is the reverse of nuclear fission where an atom is split to generate energy. Still in the early stages of research, nuclear fusion has many advantages over nuclear fission and the potential to replace nuclear fission for generating cheap, safe and sustainable energy in the future.
The Malaysian government must deliberately rethink its plans for nuclear power and repudiate the disinformation spewed by the nuclear industry and local vested interests. It must instead invest in research and development of renewable energy sources and energy efficiency technologies, as many other countries are doing.
The Malaysian people must make nuclear power an election issue and call for all political parties in the government and in the opposition to apply the Precautionary Principle and declare that they will unequivocally abandon all plans to build a nuclear power plant, which would put the health and safety of present and future generations of Malaysians at serious risk.
Dr Ronald McCoy, is president of the Malaysian Physicians for Social Responsiblity and past co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. He retired as an obstetrician and gynaecologist and believes that the babies he delivered and everyone else deserve to live in a peaceful world, free of nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors.