As 2020 comes a-knocking, whither Malaysia’s nuclear power plan?

Yiswaree Palansamy
An aerial view shows Tokyo Electric Power Co's (Tepco) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture in this March 11, 2013 file photo. – Reuters pic

COMMENTARY, Jan 3 — Whatever happened to Malaysia’s plan to have our own nuclear plants by 2030?

As the year 2020 approaches, I for one cannot help but notice how this project has yet to see the light of day.

The plan was first introduced in 2012, and was led by the Malaysia Nuclear Power Corporation (MNPC) that was established a year prior.

Fast forward to today, the government has decided not to develop nuclear power, and consequently, Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change, Yeo Bee Yin announced that the MNPC will be shut down.

Unsurprisingly, the decision has been praised by anti-nuclear groups while criticised by nuclear advocates.

Are the anti-nuclear groups right, or are we moving backwards as a country, due to our choice to not develop nuclear power?

Before we address the differing opinions, one thing should be made clear. Regardless of the divide, it is undeniable that nuclear energy is the cleanest and most efficient energy available.

However, whenever nuclear energy is brought up as a topic, the two concerns inextricably linked to the technology; safety and nuclear waste would also get the limelight as part of the discussion.

Safety

Two of the biggest nuclear meltdowns in history has opened the eyes of many as to how dangerous nuclear power plants can be in the event of an accident. One, in 1986, Chernobyl, in the then Soviet Union era, and the other in 2011, in Fukushima, Japan.

In the case of Chernobyl, it was a combination of factors, including operators who had disregarded safety measures, coupled with greedy politicians who cut corners in developing their nuclear plants.

In other words, it was purely a man-made accident and not one which happened owing to a technical glitch.

The Fukushima incident on the other hand, is widely reported as a nuclear meltdown that was caused by a natural disaster ― an earthquake and a tsunami. However, there may be more to that story when conflicting reports showed that the incident was in fact preventable. In fact, three directors of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), who were responsible for maintaining the Fukushima nuclear plant, were charged for criminal negligence. Barely three months ago, the directors were acquitted by the Japanese court, though the prosecution is still in the midst of appealing the acquittal.

Regardless of whether both incidents were due to negligence or an “act of God”, it does not change the fact that when it happened, hundreds of thousands of people had died.

Nuclear waste

Putting aside the issue of safety, the other problem is the production of nuclear waste in the process of generating nuclear energy.

While nuclear energy itself is “green” and efficient as it can generate electricity without the greenhouse gas emission, the by-product is extremely radioactive and dangerous.

Therefore, when nuclear waste is produced during the process, the disposal of the said material is always a concern, due to its hazardous, radioactive nature. Currently, one of the best ways to dispose of nuclear waste, is to find a suitable location to bury it, until its radioactivity dissipates.

This, however, is much harder than it sounds.

To put things in perspective, reference can be made to Germany’s situation. After the Fukushima incident, Germany made plans to phase out the use of nuclear energy, with the expectation to have all of its nuclear plants shuttered by 2022.

However, till today, Germany has yet to find a “burial ground” for all the nuclear waste it produced over the years. It was reported that the amount of nuclear waste it has produced to date, to be the size of six London’s Big Ben Tower.

So what’s the alternative?

With so much of safety concerns coupled with the issue of nuclear waste, does this mean Malaysia made the right call by halting all development on exploring nuclear power?

The answer may not be so simple. If we look beyond Chernobyl, Fukushima and Germany and see what other countries are doing as well, the answer may not be as straightforward anymore.

For example, Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear power plants shared a common feature. They are both Uranium-fuelled nuclear reactors.

A possible alternative is actually available ― instead of using Uranium, Thorium can be used instead.

A Thorium-based molten salt reactor does not have the risk of exploding like the Uranium based reactors in Chernobyl and Fukushima. Claims are made that it is, in fact, meltdown-proof.

Thorium-based reactors also produce less amount of nuclear waste, while being only radioactive for 500 years, as opposed to Uranium nuclear waste that may be radioactive and hazardous for 10,000 years.

Granted, there has yet to be a single operational Thorium reactor in the world, but this is not science fiction.

The technology is one that is currently being developed by many countries, including India, China, and the United States. In fact, Andrew Yang, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate for the United States, made an electoral promise to have the US government invest US$50 billion (RM204.4 billion) in the development of Thorium-based molten salt nuclear reactors, and to have them ready by 2027.

The irony of this technology, is that it is actually not something new. It was discovered and tested in 1968, but was not funded for further development because Thorium cannot be used to make nuclear weapons, as opposed to Uranium.

Apart from Thorium being an alternative, there may also be a possible scientific breakthrough on nuclear waste disposal in the future. 2018 Nobel Prize winner, Gerard Mourou, claimed that there may be a solution to cut the radioactivity of nuclear waste to just minutes using laser options.

Yes or no?

The point of the discussion on the possible alternatives is not to show that there is a conclusive solution to the problem, but to demonstrate that there are avenues in science that have yet to be explored.

History should only serve as a lesson in moving forward. In a race against time where non-renewable energy like fossil fuel will deplete one day, every country in the world has a part to play in the preservation of our earth.

For Malaysia, perhaps the government should reconsider its decision to shut down MNPC, so that we can continue to invest in our future.

Even though the original Vision 2020 plan could not be achieved, I hope the government will still see and plan ahead with a 20/20 vision, as we make our way into 2020.

PS: Since our Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s favourite Marvel character is Thor, perhaps he would consider extending his interest on Thor-ium as well?

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