Proponents of the use of nuclear energy in electricity generation argue that nuclear power is sustainable, produces virtually no air pollution compared to coal-fired plants, and, most importantly, helps establish a country’s energy security (i.e. energy independence) because it is not dependent on fossil fuel imports.
Energy independence is an issue of national security: if a country is dependent on an external supply of fuel, the effect of an interruption of that supply on our national economy and physical security is enormous. Countries can be held to ransom on the basis of energy, and this has happened before.
Peter Chin, the Minister for Energy, Green Technology and Water, has argued in favour of nuclear power from the perspective of security. He has argued separately that nuclear power is “sorely needed to meet the country’s accelerating energy needs and ensure its energy security, an issue high on the agenda of most Asian nations now living with high oil prices,” and that “the government is aware that various aspects such as safety, human resources, technology know-how and location have to be taken into consideration seriously.”
What no one addresses is the fact that nuclear power plants also depend on an imported fuel source, i.e. natural uranium. Sixty-three per cent of the world’s uranium supply is produced by three countries—Kazakhstan, Canada and Australia. This fact alone should make us think about how far the energy security argument takes us even in as apparently unrelated a matter as foreign policy. The whole point of security is independence and the implications should be pretty obvious.
The destructive consequences of uranium mining is borne by other communities in other countries, but should we let that blind us to the fact that we bear responsibility for these communities if we become uranium consumers? Ask the Belgians about that.
Australia possesses the world’s largest uranium reserve at 23 per cent, but yet possesses not a single nuclear power plant and a very strong anti-nuclear lobby. Before Malaysia runs headlong into nuclear power generation, we should ask one of Australia’s leading rock-star environmentalists, Peter Garrett, about Australia’s power-generation policy. Garrett is, after all, the Federal Minister for Environmental Protection, Heritage and Arts.
Prime Minister Rudd has repeatedly ruled out nuclear power generation, most recently in February this year, despite pushing for increased uranium mining and exports. And despite growing support for nuclear power, at least one state National Party chief has defied his own party because “when it comes to a nuclear waste dump, I’ll be indicating to my parliamentary team that that is electorally unpalatable.”
And what precisely does Malaysia intend to do with spent fuel rods? No one has answered this question. The Insider article that I referenced earlier indicates only that:
The handling of spent nuclear fuel is also more critical compared to fresh fuel, as after nuclear fuel rods are spent, they will be stored for about five years in a spent fuel pool on site.The spent rods will then be stored in another on-site dry storage, before being transported elsewhere for storage or recycling. There are bigger risks when transporting or storing nuclear fuel rods because they will still be radioactive for more than a hundred years.
Paragraph two: “transported elsewhere for storage and recycling”. Where exactly? We might think of making a fast ringgit by exporting spent rods to places that buy them, and since it is NIMBY, this would conveniently relieve us of any further moral obligation to think about it. So, it really doesn’t matter if someone else has to deal with the environmental timebomb we set ticking? It doesn’t matter if some of these rods end up as radiological weapons?
That is a shameful way to conduct ourselves and we should think twice about complaining when it comes to other ASEAN pollution issues. Shouldn’t we?
And there is of course the Chernobyl factor. How often have we heard the complaint of “first-world infrastructure, third-world mentality” applied by Malaysians to Malaysia? Can we really expect the highest levels of nuclear safety from a company that has a track record of exploding substations and even electrical poles that catch fire, as well as lousy billing?
Are we even aware of the generation of thermal pollution, let alone understand how it will affect the tropical ecosystem on which so much of our heritage and biodiversity depends? What about other radiological waste issues?
At the very least we should debate our future needs for additional power generation before concluding that a nuclear reactor is the most sustainable way of meeting our (as yet unknown) needs. We should then debate what constitutes sustainability, and prove clearly that alternatives forms such as solar power are less sustainable and more hazardous than nuclear power generation. We must also prove that we have so urgent an immediate or medium-term need for electricity that nuclear power is the only option available to us.
The reason why I bring up solar power is this: just few days ago the International Energy Agency reported that solar power could represent up to a quarter of global power generation by 2050. If you have a mind to read the IEA Concentrated Solar Power Roadmap, click here (pdf).