A Nuclear Free Malaysia

A NUCLEAR–FREE MALAYSIA

Ronald McCoy

Introduction

If current trends continue, by the end of the twenty-first century, it is likely that the world’s population and the world’s demand for energy will have doubled. Even if there are major improvements in energy efficiency technologies and renewable energy supply, there will still be an overriding need to control population growth, reduce consumption and energy demand, and fundamentally transform the global economy into a low-carbon, ecologically sustainable system, that will totally discredit the god of economic growth.

Despite the machinations of the fossil-fuel-industrial-political complex, it is now undeniable that greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion are the principal cause of global warming and climate change, which increasingly threaten planetary and human survival in the twenty-first century. This has spurred governments to find ways to reduce carbon emissions without undermining their economies, although many are still hesitant and will have to be dragged screaming to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen this December.

The Malaysian government is absolutely right to be concerned about climate change and to take measures to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate global warming, but opting for nuclear energy is not the right answer to climate change and energy supply security.

Our last speaker, Dr Mark Diesendorf, has presented convincing evidence and argued that nuclear energy is not a viable option for Malaysia. He has highlighted the numerous negative features of nuclear energy – the risks of nuclear weapons proliferation, nuclear terrorism and reactor accidents; the inability of the nuclear industry to safely dispose of high-level nuclear waste and to contain escalating costs and delays in construction of nuclear power plants; and finite global uranium reserves.

At present, with Malaysia’s consistent record in nuclear disarmament initiatives, there is no danger that Malaysia will develop nuclear weapons, even if it does opt for nuclear energy. But one cannot be certain about future political and social changes in the country and region, which may lead to weapons proliferation in the future.

No case for nuclear energy

So, what is the government’s case for introducing nuclear-generated electricity, when national electricity reserves are still substantial and nuclear energy is not cheap, clean or safe. We in civil society believe that Tenaga Nasional Berhad (the National Power Company) has initiated plans to commission its first nuclear power plant by 2025. Surely, TNB and the government have no grounds to assume that it is a done deal. On 21st June 2009, then Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak said that the government was willing to consider the use of nuclear energy, but not before exploring alternative renewable energy resources, such as biomass, solar, wind and hydro power. There is still no clarity that the government has formulated a national green energy policy. Any attempt to paint nuclear power as green technology will indicate environmental colour-

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blindness. The 2006 report of the International Energy Agency has indicated that greenhouse gases can be reduced, without making a Faustian bargain with the nuclear industry.

As citizens, we are extremely concerned that there has not been a national debate over such a critical issue as nuclear energy, which has the potential to wreak havoc and destruction. We must adhere to the Precautionary Principle and heed Murphy’s Law. I have been hearing the argument that accidents are part of everyday life and that a plane crash cannot justify abandoning air travel. It is facetious to compare a plane crash with a nuclear accident, just as it is naïve to consult with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has a vested interest in promoting nuclear energy.

Realities of nuclear energy

Good intentions on the part of the government and TNB are not enough. Proponents of nuclear energy must avoid generating disinformation about its virtues. Instead, they must face up to the realities of nuclear energy and answer serious questions:

  • What is the urgency in embarking on a nuclear energy project in Malaysia?
  • What are the realities of nuclear power economics and time-frames for nuclear reactor deployment, relative to other means of reducing carbon emissions and generating electricity?
  • What quantum of subsidies will be required to make nuclear energy economically feasible?
  • What are the health, environmental, and security dangers associated with a reactor accident or a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant?
  • Will it be possible to prevent the diversion of nuclear materials to nuclear weapons production or to a terrorist group?
  • How do we cope with the depletion of global reserves of uranium?
  • Most importantly, how do we manage the safe disposal of lethal radioactive waste that will remain radioactive for thousands of years?
  • Is it wise to embark on nuclear energy when there are alternative renewable energy sources and energy efficiency technologies?
  • Is it not time for the Malaysian government to join with other governments in committing itself to holistically addressing climate change and opting for sustainable energy?

By far, the most objectionable feature of nuclear energy is the production of high-level nuclear waste that remains radioactive for several hundred thousands of years. The long-term management of waste only exists in theory. The world’s growing accumulation of nuclear waste continues to pile up in casks, along nuclear power plants in 31 countries, not one of which has yet been able to build a safe, functioning, geological repository anywhere in the world. The nuclear industry might have a case if and when it can provide a fail-safe method of waste disposal.

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The half-lives of uranium and plutonium isotopes are virtually unending:

* U-238 : 4.51 billion years

* U-235 : 731 million years

* Pu-239 : 24,400 years

Such radioactive longevity goes far beyond the time horizons of any human institution, including governments and nation states. In other words, we will have to contend with life-threatening nuclear dangers from nuclear waste forever. This totally disqualifies nuclear energy as a feasible form of energy. In the long-term, nuclear energy must be phased out, not given a new lease of life.

If medieval man had resorted to nuclear energy, today we would still be burdened with managing his nuclear waste. This is not a legacy we should leave future generations of Malaysians. It would be morally wrong to embark on nuclear energy and subject them to nuclear dangers, when climate mitigation can be achieved through developing energy efficiency technologies and harnessing renewable energy.

Energy efficiency and renewable energy

Malaysia would do well to emulate Denmark, where a range of new technologies have made energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy feasible. Denmark, which derives most of its renewable energy from burning biomass, including biodegradable waste, aims to increase the proportion of renewable energy to 20 per cent in 2011 and to 30 per cent in 2020. It also derives a fifth of its electricity from its five thousand wind turbines, another renewable energy source.

Denmark has taken on the greatest share of the burden of achieving the total emissions target for the European Union under the Kyoto Protocol. Its energy policy focuses on research, energy saving, and decreasing dependence on fossil fuels. As early as 1990, Denmark set concrete targets, aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 8% between 2008 and 2012.

Denmark serves as an example of how a country can secure a high level of growth, without a corresponding increase in energy consumption or greenhouse gas emissions. Although Denmark does not have any hydroelectric power or nuclear power, it tops the world in having the most energy-efficient and climate-friendly economy.

Denmark has achieved this by having a strong political focus on energy policy. A large part of its success in the field of renewable energy and sustainable energy technologies is based on a unique cooperative relationship between researchers, businessmen and politicians. Danish industry also has a long tradition of embedding the principle of sustainability into the development of its products.

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Denmark’s focus on climate, which has impelled traditional industrial companies towards sustainable technology, is virtually a national endeavour. The best example of this is probably the development of wind turbines from pioneer projects, located in small machine shops, into a billion-dollar international industry. Wind turbines represent one of the most realistic possibilities for a renewable alternative to fossil fuels.

Both the Danish government and business sectors have shown a strong commitment to saving energy, as well as developing and implementing energy-efficient measures, such as insulating houses. The rules for new buildings promote energy efficient construction. By 2020, regulations for energy consumption in new buildings will be tightened by a further seventy-five per cent. The Malaysian government should encourage and reward architects who design energy efficient houses and buildings which are well ventilated and require little or no cooling.

Other energy-saving initiatives in Denmark range from carbon dioxide-neutral fuels in public transport to intelligent electricity meters, which give consumers greater control over electricity bills. Denmark has designed an electricity supply system that is capable of competitively handling wind turbines, which periodically swing from supplying more than 100 percent of energy requirements to no energy at other times. In 2009, Denmark has emerged as a dynamic, working laboratory, which combines new energy technologies with old fashioned common sense in its relationship with the environment. Malaysia should emulate Denmark’s dynamic and innovative approach in mitigating global warming.

A nuclear-free Malaysia

So, how do we remain a nuclear-free Malaysia? I have singled out Denmark, not only for its vigour and commitment to the environmental cause, but also for its ethos of social solidarity, transparency, accountability and common purpose. Denmark could be a beacon of light for Malaysia which is on the verge of making a momentous decision on energy. The wrong decision could have the most serious consequences. Nuclear technology is not to be trifled with. It’s not as inconsequential as purchasing a submarine that the country does not need. The worst it could do is to sink.

This conference was organised in order to inform public opinion and clarify the many serious issues associated with nuclear energy, so that decision-makers will learn about the realities of nuclear energy, understand that carbon emissions can be reduced significantly without resorting to nuclear energy, and discover that nuclear energy does not deserve to be considered as the last option in the country’s energy supply mix.

Deliberative, participatory democracy and public involvement in decision-making are not robust concepts or practices in Malaysia, ruled for more than fifty years by the same

authoritarian government, which has not only not nurtured public debate, but also punished dissent. My concept of decision-making and decision-makers will not coincide

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with the government’s concept. Who are the decision-makers? Are they the politicians the electorate elects to office? Or are they the voters who vote the politicians in?

In many ways, the question of nuclear energy defines the relationship between the government and civil society. In many countries, nuclear energy would be an issue of great national importance, that would merit wide consultation, free discussion and open debate at all levels of society. The time is late, but it is not too late for Malaysians to claim back their country from those who would usurp their right to choose. The issue of

nuclear energy must be above partisan politics and business interests. It must not be turned into a money-spinner for some politically-connected company or a career-builder for those connected to the nuclear industry.

If the people of Malaysia seriously want a nuclear-free Malaysia, then they must be prepared to clearly voice their views and stand by their convictions. The stakes are extremely high, particularly for future generations.

The prime minister has recently talked about “engaging” with the people. This has not happened, certainly not with regard to nuclear energy. It is not good enough to hold predetermined seminars and meetings among pro-nuclear groups with vested interests, including analysts, industrialists, and business people, or superficial interviews broadcast on television or published in newspapers.

I hope this conference will succeed in ringing alarm bells and making it clear that nuclear energy is not the answer to climate change or energy supply security. It would be foolish to try to resolve one problem by replacing it with another problem. .

Let us also not gloss over the huge economic cost of nuclear energy, which is difficult to determine. The nuclear industry does not follow transparent methods of accounting. Costs, such as accident insurance, waste disposal and decommissioning, are often buried in opaque government subsidies or conjured into debt legacies for future generations. Cost is rightly a problem with any public project, but the high cost of building a nuclear reactor would not become a key issue, if nuclear energy were the only option for mitigating climate change and addressing energy security. But it is not the only option.

Instead of a huge investment in nuclear power, it would be more productive for Malaysia to commit its limited resources to research and development of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies. As recent as 29 May 2009, two financial reports in the Business Section of the New York Times highlighted the incredible economics of building a nuclear power plant. The reports revealed two fiascos: the construction of a new reactor in Olkiluoto, Finland, by the French company, Areva, and the virtual collapse of the once touted global flagship, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited. Both companies were overtaken by cost overruns amounting to billions of dollars and by long delays in completing construction schedules, extending into decades, not years.

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This bodes ill for the nuclear industry, whether in France, Canada or South Korea, which is rumoured to be the country favoured by the government and TNB to build a reactor. After more than 50 years in business, the nuclear industry cannot get private funding or liability insurance, cannot deal with its radioactive waste, and now cannot demonstrate its ability to build new reactors within a contractual time-frame and budget.

The energy path to a sustainable future lies elsewhere. First, we must harness the massive potential of solar radiation, bioenergy, hydropower, wind energy, wave power, tidal

energy and geothermal energy, by investing in and advancing research and development in renewable energy.

Second, we must develop policies and technologies in energy efficiency, such as reducing energy use in buildings, increasing automobile efficiencies, expanding mass public transport, designing compact communities, and creating practices of industrial ecology that recycle materials and energy.

Third, we must redefine development in terms of human well-being and sustainable living patterns, not unfettered consumption and economic growth.

Malaysia must reject nuclear energy and not be deceived by trends in other countries. Nuclear energy will subject future generations to the grievous dangers of nuclear devastation and radioactivity that will last for thousands of years. This is tantamount to unintentional genocide on a grand scale in slow motion. Malaysia must not take such a path. It would be immoral and unethical to leave future generations with such a legacy.

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PPSR/CETDEM Conference on Nuclear Energy: Does Malaysia Need Nuclear Energy?

10 October 2009

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