by Ronald McCoy
A speech last week by Dato’ Mah Siew Keong, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, at an event organised by the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (ASLI) was reported in Malaysiakini. The minister urged critics of nuclear energy to keep an “open mind”, as the government had decided to table the Atomic Energy Regulatory Bill in parliament later this year.
According to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, to be open-minded is to be willing to listen to, think about or accept different ideas. It is the opposite of narrow-minded which is to be unwilling to listen to new ideas or to the opinions of others.
The report left me open-mouthed. The dictionary defines ‘open-mouthed’ as having your mouth open because you are surprised or shocked. When I got to the part where the minister claimed that the nuclear debate revolves around three groups - those who are vocally for it, those who know absolutely nothing about it or those who believe in it as long as it is not in their backyard -- my mouth opened wider, the same way it does when I cringe in the dentist’s chair.
Perhaps it slipped the minister’s mind that there is a fourth group who have carefully thought about nuclear issues over a long period, thoroughly researched the subject of nuclear energy -- its economics and finances, its hazards and disasters, its false promises and untested premises, its misinformation and mythology -- and have come to the rational conclusion that nuclear energy is not cheap, clean or safe and therefore not an option for any country, particularly a country with democratic deficits, a fettered judicial system, a suppressed media, and disreputable regulatory and law enforcement agencies.
Nuclear energy carries inherent health, security and environmental risks. It is not known to be reliable, affordable, viable, socially acceptable or environmentally sound. The global consensus is that nuclear energy has failed the ‘market test’. Forbes magazine has called it “the biggest
managerial disaster in history.” Amory Lovins, an energy expert, has called it “the greatest failure of any enterprise in the industrial history of the world,’ with a litany of financial disasters, including a loss of more than US$1 trillion in subsidies, abandoned projects and other public misadventures.
For the sake of open-mindedness and respect for the customary dental stance, I would strongly urge the minister and his cohorts in Malaysia, the Malaysia Nuclear Power Corporation, to study the recently published World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2014 (WNISR 2014). In 139 pages, it analyses the rapid changes in nuclear economics, the technology revolution in the power sector, and the impact of renewable energy on the financial viability and status of nuclear power. The report predicts that the use of renewable energy will increase rapidly, that investment in renewable energy sources will be dominant, and that investment in solar and wind power will exceed investment in fossil fuels or nuclear power.
Cheap nuclear energy is a myth. Misleading claims that it is cheap are often based on unverifiable bottom-line results or ‘justified’ by analyses with hidden assumptions that are highly favourable to the nuclear industry. The total economic cost of nuclear energy is difficult to determine, as the industry’s accounting methods lack transparency. Costs for accident insurance, waste disposal and decommissioning are often buried in enormously generous government subsidies or conjured into debt legacies for future generations.
The nuclear industry is in decline worldwide. Today only 31 countries are operating a total of 388 nuclear reactors, compared with 438 in 2002. Several nuclear reactor projects have been indefinitely delayed or cancelled. The share of nuclear power in the world’s power production 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. Sixty-seven reactors are currently classified as “under construction.” Forty-nine of them have met with significant delays, ranging from several months to several years. Eight of them have been “under construction” for more than 20 years, including one in the United States which began in 1972. France, Finland and China are working on “next generation” reactors which they claim have “higher efficiency and advanced safety systems,” but they are bogged down in delays and cost overruns.
The cost of constructing a reactor largely determines the final cost of nuclear electricity, particularly when numerous construction delays and cost overruns impact budgets significantly. Estimates of investment costs have risen in the past decade from US$1,000 to around US$8,000 per installed kilowatt.
According to the French Court of Accounts, the cost of generating nuclear power increased by 21 per cent between 2010 and 2013. Germany, Sweden and the United States are closing down reactors because projected income does not cover operating costs. Debt levels remain very high amongst European nuclear power companies. The two largest French groups (EDF and GDF-Suez) and the two largest German utilities (E.ON and RWE) equally share a total of more than US$173 billion in debt. Since 2008, Europe’s top ten utilities have lost half of their US$1.4 trillion share value.
There is conclusive evidence that electricity generated from nuclear power is far more costly than electricity from fossil fuels or renewables. The ratings and risk firm, Moody’s Corporate Finances, recently 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. It predicts that nuclear costs will rise further, while the cost of renewable energy sources will be substantially reduced.
Accidents are inevitable in nuclear power plants. Between 1952 and 2009, there were 99 minor nuclear accidents worldwide, each with the potential to develop into a major disaster. Major nuclear reactor accidents are not common, but when they do occur they can be catastrophic, as in Chernobyl and Fukushima.
The meltdown of three nuclear reactors in Fukushima in March 2011 has brought Japan to its knees, reinforced worldwide fears of nuclear accidents, and highlighted the nuclear industry’s failure to prevent accidents and near misses. A Greenpeace report, Lessons from Fukushima, has revealed that the Fukushima accident was caused mainly by the institutional failures of the Japanese nuclear industry, its regulators and the Japanese government. There was failure to acknowledge and anticipate nuclear risks and to enforce appropriate nuclear safety standards. After the accident, there was failure to protect the public in a dire emergency situation and later to provide appropriate compensation for the victims.
Since the disaster three years ago, serious challenges remain. Radiation readings inside the buildings continue to make direct human intervention almost impossible. Massive amounts of water, about 360 tons per day, are still being pumped into the destroyed reactors to cool fuel rods. This constantly increasing volume of contaminated radioactive water is stored in tanks which have started to leak. Experts say that the Japanese government will soon be left with no choice but to release radioactive water into the ocean.
Thousands of Japanese are still exposed to radiation, while the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company flounder in their efforts to contain the disaster. Their daily lives have been disrupted and they have lost their homes, their jobs, their businesses, their farms, their communities, and their way of life. More than 130,000 people in Fukushima have been evacuated. and another 137,000 people are living in temporary housing. About 1,700 deaths have been officially recorded.
The truth is that no one in the world really knows how to deal with the Fukushima accident. It is a wake-up call for all thirty countries operating nuclear power plants and for those governments still planning to build nuclear reactors, such as Malaysia with its defective safety and maintenance culture and unreliable regulatory attitudes. Chernobyl and Fukushima have made it clear that there is no such thing as nuclear safety or a fail-safe nuclear reactor. Human error and unpredictable events are unavoidable. Murphy’s Law is inexorable: If anything can go wrong, in time it will go wrong. A major nuclear accident in Malaysia could render large areas of land uninhabitable for thousands of years.
Interminable radioactive nuclear waste
Nuclear waste remains radioactive for thousands of years, making nuclear power inherently and irredeemably hazardous. There is still absolutely no way to safely and permanently dispose of the waste. This is the most dangerous and unacceptable feature of nuclear power plants. In other words, the promotion of nuclear energy by the Malaysian government is tantamount to the promotion of interminable, lethal, radioactive nuclear waste.
The nuclear industry’s so-called solutions to radioactive waste only exist in theory, such as the theoretical Generation IV Integral Fast Reactor for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel or alternatively the burying of nuclear waste in deep geological repositories. None of these so-called ‘solutions’
exists anywhere in the world. Nuclear power plants continue to store their radioactive waste temporarily under water in pools, located alongside reactors.
For example, plutonium has a half-life of 24,400 years. In other words, it will take 24,400 years (or 244 centuries) for the radioactivity of any given quantity of plutonium to be reduced by half. And it will take another 24,400 years for the remaining radioactivity in the plutonium to be reduced by another half. In practical terms, there will be no end to its radioactivity.
If medieval man had resorted to nuclear power, we in the 21st century today would still be burdened with the management of his waste, assuming it had not terminated life on the planet. If the Malaysian government opts for nuclear energy, it will knowingly bequeath unmanageable lethal nuclear waste to future generations. If we don’t stop this move, we will all be guilty of premeditated genocide, especially when there is an alternative sustainable energy source -- renewable energy.
In 2013, renewable energy emerged as a safe, flexible, easily deployed energy source, with a lower carbon footprint than nuclear power. Many governments have recognised that fact and have sensibly started to develop and rely on renewable energy.
Spain has generated more power from wind than any other source -- wind power represents 21 per cent of total power and exceeds nuclear power. It is the first time that wind has become the largest electricity source over an entire year in any country. Excluding large hydro-power, Spain, Brazil, China, Germany, India and Japan produce more power from renewables than from nuclear power.
The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests that reducing carbon emissions will require a reduction in the use of fossil fuels and an increase in low-carbon energy sources. Renewable energy accounted for just over half of the new electricity-generating capacity added
globally in 2012, led by growth in wind, hydro and solar power. The IPCC envisages the gradual phase-out of nuclear power, within the framework of meeting carbon emissions reduction targets.
Global investment in renewable energy -- excluding large hydro -- amounted to US$214 billion in 2013, four times the 2004 total of US$52 billion. Since 2000, there has been a 25 per cent annual growth rate for wind and 43 per cent for solar PV, while nuclear power declined by 0.4 per cent.
Variable renewable energy sources (VRE), like solar and wind, are weather dependent and not fully predictable. By predicting ahead, traditional base load is likely to disappear completely in several countries at certain times of the year. The concept of a centralised base-load capacity is being reexamined in many countries with the likelihood that it will be replaced with a new, flexible, decentralised energy system, with smart distributed grids, renewable energy sources, and high levels of efficiency. There is no place for nuclear energy in such a new system.
In June 2009, the Malaysian government singled out nuclear energy as one of the options for electricity generation, in order to reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuels, to meet future energy demands, and achieve energy diversification. A year later, the deployment of nuclear energy was identified as one of the Entry Point Projects in the Economic Transformation Programme and the Malaysia Nuclear Power Corporation (MNPC) was assigned the role of spearheading, planning and coordinating the implementation of a nuclear energy development programme that is expected to culminate in the delivery of Malaysia’s first nuclear power plant by 2021.
The MNPC argues that nuclear energy is a valid energy option, if there are suitable sites for nuclear power plants, strong community support, and international safeguards applied by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which promotes the peaceful uses of nuclear energy but is seen to be a creature of the nuclear industry, with obvious conflicts of interest.
There is a lot of disinformation about the virtues of nuclear energy and the Malaysian government and nuclear proponents need to answer some serious questions. Where is the strong community support in the country for nuclear energy? Where is the process of genuine dialogue, debate and consultation with the people of Malaysia? Where is the evidence that nuclear energy is cheap, clean and safe? What is the real cost of nuclear energy? What about the enormous subsidies required? How concerned are you about the serious health and environmental dangers of nuclear energy? And most critically, how are you going to manage the safe disposal of lethal nuclear waste which will
remain radioactive for thousands of years? Do you not have a moral responsibility for the safety and welfare of future generations?
There are times in the history of a country when critically important decisions must be made correctly and democratically, with considerable care, honesty, and wisdom, because such decisions will have a lasting and crucial impact on the country’s future. Whether or not to opt for nuclear power is such a decision. In determining Malaysia’s portfolio of energy resources, we must isolate and quarantine the issue of nuclear energy from politics, cronyism, personal gain, duplicity and foolishness.
Most governments in the world have seen the writing on the nuclear wall and are phasing out nuclear energy and investing in renewable energy, energy efficiency technologies and energy conservation. The Malaysia government will be seen to be indifferent, if not delinquent, if it ignores sensible global trends and proceeds to build a nuclear power plant, which could be potentially catastrophic, nation-crippling, and a radioactive time bomb for future generations.
About the writer: Dr Ronald McCoy is a retired obstetrician and gynaecologist who believes that all the babies he had delivered, as well as the rest of humanity, deserve to live in a world without nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. He is also former president of the Malaysian Medical Association, past co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, and founder president of Malaysian Physicians for Social Responsibility.