Nuclear energy: A viable energy option for Malaysia?

by Mitrabinda Singh 

In an article entitled ‘Is Nuclear Energy an Option for Malaysia?’ published in The Star on 16 February 2012, former chief of Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB) Datuk Seri Che Khalib Mohamad Noh remarked that the demand for electricity in Malaysia has exceeded supply and it would be difficult in the future for the country to generate enough electricity without looking at new energy options.

According to Datuk Seri Che Khalib, this is happening because of our over-dependence on fossil fuels such as coal. He said that Malaysia has no coal reserves of its own, and thus, has to import the commodity from countries such as Indonesia, Australia and South Africa. Furthermore, deposits of locally-produced fossil fuels such as oil are dwindling and may soon be exhausted.

Datuk Seri Che Khalib added that, as a result, nuclear energy could be an option to meet Malaysia’s growing energy demand.

Meanwhile, this article highlights the need to examine thoroughly the option of using nuclear energy as an alternative energy source.

Presently, nuclear energy is generated through the process of ‘fission’ which divides one heavy atomic core (like uranium or plutonium) in two or more light cores, which leads to generation of a huge amount of energy. In simple terms, nuclear power uses sustained nuclear fission to boil fresh water, producing steam that turns large turbines to generate electricity.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an international organisation that promotes the peaceful use of nuclear technology, reports that in 2012, nuclear power plants provide about 13.5% of the world’s electricity. France, Slovakia and Belgium generate most of their electricity using nuclear power plants. According to the IAEA, the United States is the world’s largest producer of nuclear energy, accounting for about 30% of the worldwide nuclear generation of electricity and 19.3% of the country’s total electrical output.

Prior to the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, Japan was generating 18.1% of its electricity from nuclear power plants. However, the disaster has renewed debate on the use of nuclear reactors to generate energy. Some argue that nuclear power is a sustainable energy source that reduces carbon emissions and is a viable strategy to slow the rate of global climate change. It is also a means to keep energy prices stable during times of greatly fluctuating electricity prices.

Opponents of nuclear power, however, argue that there is still no viable solution to the disposal of radioactive waste, and that the radioactive material is usually stockpiled on-site. They contend that serious nuclear and radiation accidents can occur, as clearly illustrated by Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986) and the Fukushima Daiichi (2011) nuclear disasters.

They further point out that the cost of decommissioning a nuclear power plant (after its 30-40 year life span in older plants and 40-60 year life span in newer plants) is estimated at USD1 billion. The decommissioning process takes about 50 years – plenty of time to incur additional costs. In addition, power plants have already been and will continue to be targets for terrorist and military attacks.

The opponents of nuclear power also note that, while nuclear power generation itself may emit carbon dioxide, the ‘nuclear power fuel chain’ – the mining, milling, transport, fuel fabrication, enrichment, reactor construction and plant decommissioning – all involve use of fossil fuels and will thus emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

As a result of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, many countries are reviewing their nuclear energy policies. The French nuclear watchdog group, the Nuclear Safety Authority, has published a report stating that the country’s nuclear power plants are safe but vulnerable to natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods.

While the above facts and concerns remain, Zwaan (2002) suggested that the world should work fast to develop both renewable energy and nuclear energy simultaneously. He cautioned that abandoning any no-carbon energy, including fission, while knowing the risks from climate change, would be unwise. He also mentioned that nuclear energy cannot be a panacea for the problem of global warming.

Presently, efforts are being made to make the process of fission more powerful and safe with the development of fourth generation fission. France’s AREVA Group, in collaboration with Germany, is developing fourth generation fission for industry application. Another effort by International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is developing an alternative nuclear process called Fusion to Create Energy.

This analysis of the threats and opportunities relating to the use of nuclear energy could help countries decide whether or not to opt for nuclear energy. Every country has its own economic, political, social and environmental agendas which require considerable analysis before deciding on such a complex issue.

Mitrabinda Singh is a Marketing and Management lecturer at Curtin Sarawak’s School of Business. She teaches about environmental issues in business and her ongoing doctoral research is focused on environmental management systems in small and medium-sized enterprises. Mintrabinda can be contacted at +60 85 443 843 or by e-mail to mitrabinda@curtin.edu.my.

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