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NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS – Don’t we really have other Options?

“If our nation wants to reduce global warming, air pollution and energy instability, we should invest only in the best energy options. Nuclear energy isn’t one of them.” Mark Z. Jacobson, Stanford University’s Director of Atmosphere and Energy Program, once published “A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables by 2030” in Scientific American 2009. During then, nations were in the state of utterly disbelief if told to scrap nuclear plants from their energy mix. However today, even just after half a decade, the global landscape of renewable energy and nuclear power has changed tremendously. Denmark, with a pioneering wind-power program, is above 40 percent renewable power on its electric grid, and aiming for 50 percent by 2020 and subsequently 100 percent by 2050. The Germans, known for its nuclear program, is responding the Fukushima’s incident by phasing out its nuclear sector by 2022. They are also aiming for 80 percent renewables in their electricity supply by 2050 too, with its 30 percent achieved as per 2014. In high times of pro-nuclear arguments as advocated via the documentary “Pandora’s Promise” and yet, a catastrophic nuclear plant meltdown and decreasing nuclear operating capacity globally, it is time for us to come clean with our argument cards opened with unbiased evidence for the better of human progress.

MALAYSIA’S ENERGY JOURNEY

Malaysia’s framework for energy development in terms of energy diversification, efficient utilisation and emphasis on sustainable environmental can be seen via several milestones. The 1979’s National Energy Policy was formulated to ensure stability in supply and utilisation, 1980’s National Depletion Policy was to safeguard the depleting crude oil and natural gas reserves, 1981’s Four Fuel Diversification Policy emphasized natural gas to become the major fuel in electricity generation, and 2000’s Fifth Fuel Policy which made renewable energy as the fifth fuel during the Eight Malaysia Plan (8MP 2001-2005). Subsequently, we saw the establishment of National Green Tech Policy during 2009 and SEDA in 2011. It can be seen that the electricity generation quadrupled from 1992 to 2012.

Figure 1 Illustrating Malaysia’s Electricity Generation Mix 1992-2012. Source: National Energy Balance 2012

THE JOURNEY TO NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS

In the pursuit to ensure that energy supply in Malaysia is sufficient and cost effective and to safeguard our regional competitiveness in trade and industry as per our aspiration of high income nation by 2020, it is projected the two nuclear power plants (NPP) of 1000MW each are projected to be built, with the first unit to be commissioned in 2021. Under the Economic Transformation Program formulated in 2010, this falls under Entry Point Project 11 with the estimated cost of RM21.3 billion. The idea of Nuclear energy started with the formation of Nuclear Power Development Steering Committee (JPPKN) and three working committees in 2009 with the allocation of RM25 million between 2010-2012. Subsequently, Malaysia Nuclear Power Corporation (MNPC) was formed in early 2011 as the acting Nuclear Energy Programme Implementing Organisation (NEPIO) as recommended by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The corporation, which is administered by the Prime Minister’s Department, has completed a preliminary feasibility study and site selection & ranking in July 2011 by short listing 5 potential sites.

Figure 2- illustrating the detailed timeline on the NPP deployment during NKEA OGE Laboratory 2010
Figure 2- illustrating the detailed timeline on the NPP deployment during NKEA OGE Laboratory 2010

It is presumed that MNPC is tight-lipped on its full feasibility study progress and site investigation although it is clearly behind as per the timeline on nuclear power deployment presented back in 2010 then. While some optimism has been fuelling the pro nuclear agenda, the equivalent resistance on the idea or approach of NPP is led by various NGOs. Anak Malaysia Anti Nuklear (AMAN), a grass root movement with its Chairman Dato’ Dr. Ronald McCoy has highlighted the 7 potential NPP sites and criticized that the decision to resort to NPP as an alternative to fossil fuel is a fundamentally flawed decision. Stating that the NPP is geared by ongoing dissemination of false information by the nuclear industry with no genuine transparency nor public consultation, AMAN believes that NPP is not safe, not clean, not cheap, and not needed.

NOT SAFE – MORE THAN JUST RADIOACTIVE

It is very convenient for the government to promise that the NPP would be subject to international safeguards, scrutiny and verification by the IAEA and that Malaysian law enforcement agencies and regulatory bodies would not fail to ensure the safety and security of the plant. Fukushima is the wake-up call for all thirty countries operating NPP and for those governments still planning to build NPP, such as Malaysia, with its questiaonable safety and maintenance culture and unreliable regulatory attitudes. Chernobyl and Fukushima have made it clear that any NPP is a ticking time bomb, as human error and unpredictable events are a real risk. Even now after 4 years, Japan, the most advance nation in NPP is struggling and has no idea on treating the ever increasing contaminated radioactive water that is used to cool the fuel rods.

Figure 3- Dato’ Dr Ronald McCoy (Most Left) Chairman of AMAN, during the Anti Nuclear Forum 2015.
Figure 3- Dato’ Dr Ronald McCoy (Most Left) Chairman of AMAN, during the Anti Nuclear Forum 2015.

Global nuclear capacity has stagnated for 20 years, particular after the Fukushima incident. The number of operating nuclear reactors has fallen significantly since 2002. Today, only 31 countries are operating 388 nuclear reactors, compared with 438 in 2002. The share of nuclear power in the world has declined from 17.6 per cent in 1996 to 10.8 per cent in 2013. Only 14 countries have plans to build new reactors. Moreover, the Malaysian development plan to build NPP will be an absurd paradox as Malaysia has always supported the abolition of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons and nuclear power are Siamese twins. Sharing much of the infrastructure, there is ample evidence of close links between civil nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons, such as uranium enrichment, reprocessing of spent fuel or the extraction of plutonium. In November 2011, the IAEA Board of Governors criticized Iran for possibilities of undertaken research and experiments geared to developing a nuclear weapons capability, after falling short of reliable reports on the processing methodology in Iran. Afterall, how do we ensure energy security when nuclear fuel is finite and being imported which subjects Malaysia’s energy security to various externalities beyond its control?

NOT CLEAN, NOT ETHICAL, NOT RESPONSIBLE

One of the misleading statements often used by pro-nuclear activist is that NPP is a “Green Technology” that has zero carbon emission, which ties in very well with Malaysia’s voluntary reduction of 40% GDP carbon emission intensity by 2020 as per 2005 levels. If we take into account the whole nuclear fuel cycle, a nuclear power plant indirectly emits between 376,000 and 1,300,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. Compared to Renewable Energy (RE), electricity produced from NPP actually releases 4 to 5 times more carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced. This is due to the mining and enrichment phase which both require significant energy consumption and the radioactive waste management across ten thousand years or more.

Figure 4- 7 identified potential locations of Nuclear Power Plants at Peninsular.
Figure 4- 7 identified potential locations of Nuclear Power Plants at Peninsular.

NPP is no doubt an inherently and irredeemably an interminable threat to human health and safety. The acceptance of nuclear power by the Malaysian government could be translated as a terribly misguided development policy which the government and people of Malaysia will greatly regret for generations to come. If we revisit 1972 Stockholm Declaration, Principle 1 on environmental rights, it says

“Man has the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being, and he bears a solemn responsibly to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations.”

Doesn’t this reflect that the decision of NPP is also a direct violation in accordance environmental rights? What more religious principles?

Figure 5 showing the inefficient life cycle energy input of NPP (Source from Dutch Independent Nuclear Report http://www.stormsmith.nl/)
Figure 5 showing the inefficient life cycle energy input of NPP (Source from Dutch Independent Nuclear Report http://www.stormsmith.nl/)

NOT CHEAP – LOOKING AT THE TOTALITY COST

The Malaysian government and vested interests have erroneously underestimated the long term economic cost of nuclear power. Misleading estimates, based on unverifiable bottom-line results, are ‘justified’ by analysis with hidden assumptions favourable to the nuclear industry and accounting methods that lacks transparency. Generally, the capital costs of nuclear power have more than double over the past decade, and that is yet to add on the huge costs of nuclear waste management and decommissioning. The ratings and risk firm, Moody’s Corporate Finances, recently estimated that nuclear energy’s capital cost per kilowatt is higher than wind and solar energy by 275% and 150% respectively. Numerous Wall Street studies have estimated that electricity from RE sources costs an average of 6 US cents per kWh, while NPP electricity costs about 12 to 20 US cents per kWh, excluding the cost of any catastrophic nuclear accident (in which Fukushima is currently incurring an estimated economic loss of USD 200-500 billion.)

With this, it is doubtful that the NPP budgetary estimation of RM21.3 billion remains truthful. One should also be aware in terms of life-cycle energy inputs, NPP has the highest energy payback period (6.5 to 14 years) in comparison with RE such as solar (1.5 year) and wind turbine ( <1 year). The nuclear fuel itself – uranium mining, extraction, fuel enrichment, plant construction, operation and maintenance, processing and storing radioactive waste, decommissioning and cleaning up, requires an enormous supply of energy. Yet, RE technology such as solar, hydro and wind are all driven by natural forces.

Even so, the success of energy efficiency programs is well testified globally. This includes the Sustainability Achieved Via Energy Efficiency (SAVE) program, which was part of ETP’s EPP9, that encouraged end users to purchase EE Products via voucher rebates. The RM50.2 million initiative by the government in 2011 has an estimation energy savings of 179.68GWh and electricity bill savings of RM39.17 million from July 2011 till August 2012 alone. It is said that with RM 1 billion of allocation towards Energy Efficiency across the span of 10 years, we are able to conserve 3,000 MW of power demand, equivalent to 3 NPPs which would come at a much higher cost!

NOT NEEDED – OVER PREDICTING FUTURE ENERGY DEMAND

Why do we opt for NPP when there are cheaper and better alternatives and low hanging fruits that are not being considered in the first place? In an advisory report on Sustainable Energy Options for Electric Power Generation in Peninsular Malaysia to 2030 by Akademi Sains Malaysia (public viewing available), it is argued that NPP is not needed until at least 2025. Even a need beyond 2025 is debatable in view of the potential contribution of EE (Energy Efficiency) and RE (Renewable Energy) to the nations power generation. There is a serious need to re-examine the predicted energy usage. The current maximum demand of electricity in Peninsular is about 15,400MW, and is predicted to grow to an estimated 20,700MW in 2020. Meanwhile current total electricity generation capacity stands at approximately 21,800MW, which has an excessive margin of 40%.

However, about 4,200  GW  of  independent power producers (IPP)  plants  will  be  decommissioned and 7,300 MW will be commissioned  from  2015  to 2020, besides  renegotiating  possibility  of  extending  the  IPP  licenses  beyond  the  current expiry  dates.  In  addition,  the  Renewable  Energy  Act  with  its  associated  FiT  regime  is expected to add 2,100 MW – 3,200 MW by year 2020. On top of that, the ETP under Entry Point Project 9 for EE envisages a demand reduction of 10-15% on a business-as-usual growth. Assuming conservative  achievement  of  EE  and  RE  at  70%  of  their  target  lower-ends,  demand  and generating capacity are estimated to be 19,300 MW and 26,300 MW respectively, by 2020, as reported by ASM’s advisory sustainable energy report.

With that, the reserve margin stands at 36% which is well above a recommended 25% target. If EE and RE achievements are better than the conservative 70% assumption, then the decision for 2,000MW of NPP in the early 2020s is obviously negative. Even so, RE technology is developing at an unprecedented scale. A research recently at UNSW has set world record in achieving 40% solar energy efficiency in comparison with 20% of that of the first photovoltaic system in 1989. Shouldn’t we look at all possibilities of promoting energy conservation measures, energy efficiency, renewable energy, then only resorting to the last option of NPP?

Figure 6- IEA Energy Efficiency Market Report showing the “first fuel” , avoided energy use from energy efficiency from 11 IEA member countries.
Figure 6- IEA Energy Efficiency Market Report showing the “first fuel” , avoided energy use from energy efficiency from 11 IEA member countries.

ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTION – WHY NOT EE?

A recent Energy Efficiency Market Report released by the International Energy Agency shows that the energy savings from efficiency measures taken over the longer term exceed the output from any other single fuel source in a subset of 11 IEA member countries. This reflects perfectly on an analogy such that why do we keep on pouring water into the bucket (energy supply) when we should plug the holes first (demand side/ EE management)? Wouldn’t it be cheaper to plug the holes instead of struggling to fill up the bucket with expensive water?

Figure 7- Analogy of prioritizing energy conservation & efficiency over new source of supply.
Figure 7- Analogy of prioritizing energy conservation & efficiency over new source of supply.

LONG OVERDUE NATIONAL ENERGY EFFICIENCY FRAMEWORK

The right question to be asked is what is our country’s current progress on Energy Efficiency? The much infuriating 4 years wait for our country’s National Energy Efficiency Management Plan (NEEMP) was disappointingly greeted when the drafted National Energy Efficiency Action Plan (NEEAP) was opened for public feedback in January 2014. Deemed to be disappointing by majority of the stakeholders, the 47 pages draft plan is nothing more than a post graduate thesis peer review that is arbitrary written with insufficient details on funding mechanism, legislative methodology and detail timeline of implementation. Moreover, the ambition of 9% reduction in electricity target was reduced to 6% despite dozens of technical workshops and also feedback from APEC and Japanese Energy Economist all at the expense of taxpayer’s money. There is nothing more ridicule than concluding the need for NPP when we have obviously not fully explored the options for RE and EE yet.

GOING FORWARD

The global nuclear industry faces a bleak future. It has so far survived on false promises, untested premises, entrenched thinking and democratic deficits. We have the expertise to run successful EE programs, together with all the sunshine, mini-hydro and wind that possibly be needed. The barriers to greater commercialization of all these things are no longer technological; they are political and institutional. All that is needed to switch to cheaper, cleaner ways of providing energy is to lift the political and institutional barriers. With nuclear plants on the playing cards, it’s crucial time for both government and opposition to reveal and debate openly about energy and environment policies, while witnessed and engaged by all level of societies so an informed decision can be made for Malaysia’s energy future. But, one thing remains clear, ethically speaking, is there anyone around for hundreds or thousands of years to hold accountability for the radioactive waste that will be passed down to our future generation on this only one planet?

*The Author thanks AMAN Anak Malaysia Anti Nuklear for the resources.*