Letter to New Straits Times
25 October 2008
New Straits Times
31 Jalan Riong
59100 Kuala Lumpur
The NST of 21 October 2008 carried a report by Farrah Naz Karim, which stated that a paper on nuclear energy, as an alternative source of power for Malaysia, would be tabled at a cabinet meeting later this year. In it, the Deputy Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation said that “it was important for the public to know that nuclear power was safe, environmentally friendly and more affordable in the long run.”
So, let us please look at the facts of nuclear power. Rising oil prices and climate change have given the nuclear industry an opportunity to promote nuclear energy as a viable alternative to fossil fuels. It depicts nuclear energy as the most effective way to solve climate change. This claim has no basis in fact. Nuclear energy is neither effective nor viable. It is not a sustainable energy source and it causes devastating problems that humankind is not able to handle.
So, how does nuclear energy generate electricity? Instead of burning fossil fuels to produce steam, which is then converted to electricity, nuclear energy uses nuclear fission to generate heat to boil water to produce steam.
In 1954, the head of the US Atomic Energy Commission predicted that nuclear power plants would provide electricity “too cheap to meter.” Twenty years later, the International Atomic Energy Agency forecast that there would be up to 4,450 nuclear reactors of 1,000 Megawatts in operation worldwide by the year 2000. Today, 44 countries operate about 450 nuclear reactors, which provide 15 percent of world electricity generation.
The world does need energy that is safe, clean, affordable, renewable, environmentally sound, and socially acceptable. Nuclear energy can boast none of these criteria. Since the impact of climate change, the nuclear industry has engaged in a huge PR campaign, based on spurious arguments. It has produced glossy folders to persuade the public and decision makers that nuclear power is the answer to the climate change problem. It has propagated several myths, namely that:
- Nuclear power does not emit greenhouse gases.
- There are no major problems associated with nuclear power.
- Nuclear power is economically viable.
- There is an adequate supply of uranium for the nuclear fission process.
- The fast breeder technology will eventually mature and provide unlimited nuclear fuel.
- There are no viable alternative solutions.
So, what are the facts? In the various stages of the nuclear process, nuclear energy indirectly does produce greenhouse gases, much less than electricity production from burning fossil fuels, but significantly more compared with electricity production from renewable, sustainable energy sources, such as sun or wind.
Nuclear power is associated with several major problems. Nuclear reactors generate lethal waste, which emits invisible radioactivity for thousands of years and for which there is absolutely no safe method of disposal. Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years. Devastating nuclear accidents through human error can cause widespread radioactive contamination and render uninhabitable large areas of land, as in the 1986 accident in Chernobyl, Ukraine. A terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant would be just as devastating. There is also a higher incidence of cancers in the workers of nuclear power plants and the people who live in the neighbourhood.
Nuclear power is not cheap. The costs of nuclear energy are huge, although this is often denied or hidden by the nuclear industry. The cost is rising and is likely to continue rising for the foreseeable future. In the 1970s, nuclear power cost half as much as electricity from burning coal. By 1990, nuclear power cost twice as much as electricity from burning coal.1 Today, nuclear power costs about $0.05 – $0.7/kWh, making it about 2 – 4 times more expensive than electricity from burning fossil fuels.
The real cost of nuclear energy remains murky when, as in some countries, it includes heavy subsidies paid by governments out of taxpayers’ money. In addition, there are the high costs of insuring for accident liability and decommissioning nuclear power plants.
The market itself provides evidence that nuclear power is not financially viable. Since the privatization of the energy markets in the UK, companies have not invested in nuclear energy, as it cannot exist in a competitive market without government subsidies.2 Even in France, where nuclear power accounts for 75% of total electricity production, it has been admitted that nuclear power is far more expensive than electricity from efficient fossil fuel burning power plants.3
The supply of nuclear fuel is limited. Based on current uranium reserves, it is reliably estimated that they will be depleted by 2038, if the Group of Eight major industrialized countries were to build just enough nuclear reactors every year to meet their commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 50% by 2050. But this time-line could be extended marginally if significant amounts of uranium were recovered from civil and military stockpiles, and by reprocessing spent nuclear fuel and enriching depleted uranium.
Fast breeder technology has been touted as another source of nuclear fuel but, after decades of research, fast breeders are a technical and economic failure. In addition, the technology, which uses plutonium for fuel, is dangerous as it can facilitate nuclear weapons proliferation. From 1964 to 1994, the United States experimented unsuccessfully with a few fast breeder reactors, but eventually shut them down. Japan has also failed with the technology. At present, only one or two fast breeder reactors are in operation.
Electricity production is only a small part of the climate change problem, accounting for just 9% of total greenhouse gas emissions. To solve climate change, we should also address and implement alternative options, such as energy conservation and efficiency, and renewable energy (solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, tidal, biomass, etc). Finally, we must make modern living sustainable.
It is imperative that the public and the government be apprised of the facts of nuclear power, including its insurmountable risks and high cost. The government and the media have a duty and responsibility to facilitate a full and transparent public debate on nuclear energy which, if embarked on, could have dire health, environmental, economic and security consequences for the country.
Dato’ Dr R S McCoy
Physicians for Peace and Social Responsibilty
17 Jalan Tanjung
- Slingerland, S., Bello, Q., Davidson, M., Loo, van K., Rooijers, F. & Sevenester, M. (2004). Working Document 94. The Hague: Rathenau Institute.
- Friends of the Earth (1998). Nuclear power is no solution to climate change: Exploring the myths, The Safe Energy Bulletin, 115, Climate Change Briefing.
- Makhijani, A. (2002). Nuclear Power: No Answer to Global Climate Change, Nukewatch Pathfinder, Autumn 2002, p 6.