The hidden costs of going nuclear

Effective and independent regulation, a management committed to safety and a skilled workforce – factors necessary for the safe operation of a Nuclear Power plant – are not Malaysia’s strong suits.

By Ken Yeong

The recent establishment of the Malaysia Nuclear Power Corporation is yet another indicator that the government is moving ahead with nuclear power (NP) despite earlier assurances that public consultations will help determine the NP decision, this critical process appears to have been bypassed.

Public opposition to NP has been small compared to the proposed 100-storey Warisan Merdeka tower or GM mosquito field trials, for example.

Perhaps most Malaysians agree with the Ministry of Energy, Green Technology and Water (KeTTHA) that nuclear is the best option for cheap, reliable and low-carbon power. But there is more to NP than our Tenaga bills might reflect.

KeTTHA, being entrusted with the stewardship of Renewable Energy (RE) and its myriad options in solar, wind, geothermal, marine and others, should compare in depth, NP with RE for 2020 deployment.

It should also compare NP to energy efficiency (EE), efforts to reduce the energy required to produce products and services and the most cost effective solution to meeting energy demand now.

The government only stands to gain the people’s support for NP if it is measured favourably against EE and RE and its higher standards in an independent feasibility study.

The analysis of NP needs to be grounded on three main considerations.
1. Malaysia needs to diversify its energy mix, as gas and coal reserves are dwindling and costs are rising.
2. The country now has 40% more power than it needs – an amount that will meet projected demand even in 2020.
3. Malaysia is seeking to become a developed nation in an era of climate change and sustainability.

The potential danger of NP is relatively well documented, but perhaps less well known is the debilitating costs of nuclear.

Economic costs
Firstly, NP is not going to be cheap. Various studies estimate the cost of nuclear electricity to be higher than Malaysia’s national average of RM0.30/kWh[1].

Wall Street and independent energy analysts, whose cost projections have been the most accurate to date, put NP at an average of RM0.50/kWh[2].

A 2009 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study – noteworthy for being pro-nuclear power and the first of its kind – states that potential NP cost improvements are only theoretical, but not demonstrated today[3].

In fact, actual projects in South Korea and Japan have seen a 25% increase in average costs[3] and in Finland that figure is 90%.

And, the cost of NP is trending upwards. Since the 1970s, nuclear has experienced, for the same amount of power generated, a five-fold cost escalation in the US and three-fold in France, countries with the most vibrant NP usage[3].

Most nuclear plants worldwide have suffered significant delays, contributing to cost overruns endemic to the industry. As a result, the financial uncertainty of NP is so severe almost all projects require extensive government backing in terms of loan guarantees and subsidies. Wall Street has made it clear that nuclear projects cannot be funded in capital markets[3].

Malaysia’s reputation for mega-projects with its associated cost overruns, delays, corruption and leakages, will only exacerbate the already huge financial risks due to the country’s inexperience in NP. Expecting private investors to fund 90% of the nuclear project, as envisioned by the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP), appears naively optimistic at best.

Realistically, in the very likely case of a cost blowout, the government – and ultimately taxpayers – will have to bail out any private investors, potentially to the tune of RM50 billion, according to an upper range estimate by Standard & Poor’s[4], far exceeding the government’s proposed RM21.3 billion budget. Furthermore, NP’s extreme complexity in set-up, as well as operations and maintenance, will require large corporations, most likely foreign – representing a wasted multi-billion ringgit chance to invest in homegrown small and medium enterprises (SMEs), Malaysia’s growth engine.

Social costs
The government estimates 2,600 jobs will be created by the NP project.

A comprehensive study by the University of California, Berkeley, revealed that EE and RE in the form of solar photo-voltaics (PV or solar panels), solar thermal, wind and geothermal will yield, on average, 2.7 times more jobs than nuclear[5].

Clearly, investing in NP is not the best way to create jobs.

NP jobs are also highly-skilled, benefitting the well-educated and trained. This is to be desired as Malaysia strives to be a higher income economy.

However, consider the distressing situation that 34% of Malaysian workers, or 1.3 million, earn less than RM700 a month, below the poverty threshold[6].

While EE and RE jobs would need upgrading of workers’ skills, it is nowhere near as big a jump as nuclear jobs, and having RM21.3 billion is a golden opportunity to boost this group’s chances of career development, instead of fuelling feelings of disenfranchisement.

In Hot, Flat and Crowded, acclaimed author Thomas Friedman suggests climate change offers a fresh chance of doing things more sustainably and fairly, in a big way. Increased energy autonomy to the people is one such foundational shift, modernising mindsets on power consumption. As consumers can choose when and at what costs they consume electricity, they can optimise usage with increased savings while reducing their carbon footprint.

NP largely misses out on this opportunity due to its business-as-usual model of inefficient centralised power generation and ownership and the need to maximise consumption to recoup its massive infrastructure, operations and maintenance costs.

Nuclear is only a new way of doing the same old thing, and is thus a stumbling block to Malaysian society’s progression with the greening times.

Safety and security
Most Malaysians who object to NP fear the public service’s poor maintenance culture might allow a repeat of the deadly Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

To be fair, the global record on catastrophic nuclear accidents since Chernobyl in 1986 has been strong, partly due to improved operations.

However, effective and independent regulation, a management committed to safety and a skilled workforce – factors necessary for the safe operation of a NP plant[3] – are not Malaysia’s strong suits.

Yet power plant accidents are not the most feared fallout from NP – that distinction belongs to nuclear weapons proliferation.

The fuel used in NP plants, uranium, is the same material or the precursor to that used in nuclear bombs. As more NP plants are operated, more materials for nuclear bombs become available.

Even the pro-nuclear MIT study concedes proliferation is a grave consequence of a worldwide expansion of NP, saying “with modest nuclear infrastructure, any nation could … acquire material needed for several [nuclear] weapons”[3].

Compounding this situation is a nuclear black market that has grown to be sophisticated and audacious, involving movement of equipment and even blueprints for nuclear bombs.

At the uncovering of this black market in 2003, the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), reacted with shock at how international safeguards had proved wholly inadequate[7].

Hence, the international security climate today is rightfully one of apprehension: what separates NP from nuclear weapons is mostly intention.

Some say nuclear arms act as a deterrent to all-out war, but who wants to gamble on the likes of North Korea being able to obliterate other countries?

And it doesn’t stop there: proliferation experts have warned that North Korea and Iran’s nuclear advancements will spark arms races, and that’s just among countries[8] [9]. Could we be seeing the rise of military motives disguising and incubating as civilian NP programs now?

Nuclear, whether fuel, bomb or power plant, is also the terrorist’s dream weapon, as the al-Qaeda’s gameplan has shown even before 9/11[10]. Many scenarios of attack on a NP plant are plausible and have occurred in the past, while other buildings within the site complex other than the reactor can be targeted to result in a nuclear catastrophe[11].

By choosing NP, Malaysia is voting in favour of an industry with devastating side-effects, not just for Malaysians but globally – a move that is at best, unnecessary.

Environmental costs
NP violates the sustainability principle that civilisation needs to embrace for its continued survival.

The mining of uranium fuel causes severe damage to land often inhabited by indigenous people whose lives are closely entwined with their environment.

Communities like the Navajo Indians in the US[12] and Malaysians in Perak’s Bukit Merah-Papan[13] continue to suffer from hazardous waste from mining of radioactive minerals.

The problem of discarding spent nuclear fuel has dogged every nation employing NP. There is yet no long-term solution.

Proponents of NP might cite Finland’s Onkalo, the world’s first permanent geologic repository, as the answer[14].

But a repository like Onkalo costs RM12.5 billion to build, nuclear waste must be isolated for at least 100,000 years, and we have to tell an extremely distant future generation to monitor said repository – a feat the US Academy of Science deems impossible.

Humanity has never handled such mind-bending timelines as we know very little beyond even 100 years. So-called permanent repositories are really a leap into the unknown.

The long timeline – 10 years at least – to bring NP on stream and the inevitable channelling of resources away from swifter yet more long-term and more effective low-carbon power solutions such as RE, will mean climate change remains inadequately addressed in the interim.

The scientific journal Nature put it this way in 2007: “To avert catastrophic global warming, why pick the slowest, most expensive, most limited, most inflexible and riskiest option? … nuclear generation is just an impediment to sustainable

Future prospects
Malaysia’s choice of NP has to be scrutinised in light of future prospects of the technology.

The impact of the multi-billion ringgit investment can be just electricity, or electricity with well-orchestrated long-term spillover benefits.

Does NP have a future of vibrancy and continuity in Malaysia? A look at the global situation is instructive.

The pro-nuclear MIT study stressed that all four critical problems of cost, safety, waste and proliferation must be overcome before NP can flourish, but latest developments are not in favour of three out of the four[3].

Today, a crippling global shortage of skilled NP workers threatens the safe operation of plants.

The scenario of 30% global electricity supply from NP would exhaust current uranium reserves in less than 20 years[15].

New generation NP reactors known as Gen IV reactors that are expected to produce a hundred times the energy now achievable, are not expected till 2045 and remain theoretical today.

The future of NP is fraught with uncertainties, at best. Malaysia may be about to invest billions in a dead-end industry.

EE and RE, on the other hand, do not suffer the safety, waste and weapons proliferation woes that plague NP. In addition, the cost of electricity from some forms of RE, like concentrating solar thermal, could be as cheap as RM0.15/kWh by 2020[1] – far lower than the average RM0.30/kWh Malaysians now pay.

A long-term strategic outlook on Malaysia’s energy needs is sorely needed to modernise the power sector.

This is not an easy task, but the potential rewards could be game-changing innovations like smart grids for efficiency and cost savings, nanotechnology for revolutionary performance jumps in solar PV, and a green power manufacturing and R&D hub, just to name a few.

Significantly more jobs for Malaysians are in the offing for truly green power too.

Finally, a Stanford University study last year found that 100% renewable energy can be achieved globally by 2030 with the only obstacle being political will[16].

Contrast that with a 2009 report commissioned by the German Federal Ministry of Environment, Nature Conservation and Reactor Safety, which concludes “there is as yet no obvious sign that the international nuclear industry could eventually turn the empirically evident decline into a promising future”[4].

A single nuclear plant does not a country’s future determine.

Rather, the assessment process on NP indicates a country’s state of affairs; a signpost to its ultimate destiny.

We Malaysians have not been well informed nor engaged by our government on accepting nuclear power despite its immense costs and far-reaching consequences.

Nuclear power is being pursued without due process, as if Malaysians care only about electricity. And it is this lack of due process that could very well be the
costliest result of going nuclear.