NUCLEAR power was Malaysia’s last energy option during Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s first tenure as prime minister. The policy was rescinded by his two successors, who studied nuclear as a possible part of our energy mix in the peninsula.
However, now that Dr Mahathir is back at the helm, nuclear power is again out of any energy policy consideration.
He declared during his address at the Conference of the Electric Power Supply Industry (Cepsi 2018) that Malaysia would instead explore full use of domestic coal reserves for baseload power generation.
His stand against nuclear power is not surprising. In a number of his blog posts, he lamented over disturbing experiences with radioactive materials called “amang” during the Asian Rare Earth Bukit Merah controversy.
He claimed that until today, scientists had failed to offer an acceptable solution to the radioactive waste conundrum.
Be it in office or out, he said that nuclear power should never be an option for Malaysia.
It, however, feels like we are unwittingly turning the clock back to the 1980s.
When he opts for coal, a number of prominent people — such as Bill Gates, former United States president Barack Obama and former Greenpeace Canada president Patrick Moores — embrace nuclear power.
This is because nuclear power is accepted as the only proven solution for a carbon-free base-load electricity generation.
Nuclear power was so unexpectedly popular in the last decade that there was even a brief period of global nuclear renaissance when climate change felt inevitable and crude oil price hikes seemed unending.
Almost immediately, unfortunately, the Fukushima nuclear accident occurred in 2011.
In spite of the accident, 436 nuclear power reactors are in operation in 31 countries, while 55 new reactors are under construction. Even Japan, which experienced Fukushima first hand, as well as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, is gradually restarting its nuclear power plants to meet domestic electricity demands.
Germany, on the other hand, shut down nuclear-powered plants post-Fukushima.
In place of the domestic nuclear power, Germany imports electricity from, ironically, nuclear-powered France, while sweating over a creeping increment of carbon index due to their higher reliance on fossil fuels.
All these demonstrate the importance of nuclear power in advancing the national interest while mitigating climate change.
It is worrying when we opt for coal in the midst of a global war against climate change.
While coal is cheap and abundant, making it the most widely-used source of energy for power generation, one cannot but notice greyish thick smog arising from the chimneys of coal-fired power plants in operation.
The smoke pollutes surrounding air and water, and affects the health of the neighbouring communities.
Exposure to coal and its by-product at these plants possibly contaminates the food chain.
The burning of coal emits humongous amount of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
Even the “clean coal” technology, according to the guidelines of International Finance Corporation and the World Bank, as championed by Tenaga Nasional Bhd, is not clean as it emits poisonous greenhouse gases, albeit at a much reduced amount.
Since we are fast approaching the breaking point of greenhouse gases at 425 parts per million, we should accept only zero carbon emission instead of a mere reduction.
Coal is not the answer for our future energy needs.
On the other hand, nuclear industry offers proven solutions to radioactive waste problems.
The first approach is by closing the fuel cycle loop as in recycling nuclear spent fuels as what France has done for decades and what Gates’ TerraPower is working on
The second option is by storing the high-level radioactive wastes in a long-term underground repository, just like in Finland, Sweden and France.
One should note that this radioactive-waste repository is like a treatment facility where we store and monitor the activated nuclear materials.
Unlike chemical waste, which remains the same forever, radioactive waste decays according to its various half-lives. With time, its radioactivity abates and becomes manageable.
Nuclear power is neither popular nor easy. But nuclear power, in tandem with renewable energy and long-term power storage, offers a solution for a greener future.
It should, therefore, remain an option for Malaysia.
Dr Mohd Syukri Yahya, Bandar Baru Bangi, Selangor