By Arveent Kathirtchelvan
Recently, I wrote an article entitled ‘We Are Wasting Our Potential’ discussion how research and development can propel Malaysia to a greater epoch. I coined this restructuring of the economy as ‘Proactive Reindustrialisation’ as a step to reverse the premature deindustrialisation affecting Malaysia currently. As part of this restructuring, one thrust I recommend is nuclear power. I will outline my logic followingly.
Mitigating Climate Change Whilst Ensuring Energy Security
Firstly, an economic restructuring in the 21st century cannot run away from the problem of climate change. A responsible thrust for the economy would not only look to increase the GDP of a country and create jobs but also do so environmentally. This is not just due to a shared moral responsibility to our fellow man but mitigates future expenditure in multiple fronts. Amongst these are prevention of crop failure due to rising temperatures and soil acidification, health complications caused by pollution like lung troubles due to carbon particulates, loss of revenue in the fishing sector due to more intense storms, food insecurities and lack of potable water.
In this regard, the cleanest electricity generation source should be considered and, luckily, it also provides for stable energy security. This is nuclear power. As I have covered before, the life cycle of nuclear power provides for the least volume of waste, smallest carbon footprint and least deaths per unit energy. More than that, nuclear power is a like-for-like replacement for other baseload electricity generation technologies like coal, natural gas, fuel oil and diesel. This means fossil fuels can be readily replaced without the need for expensive storage which is imperative with intermittent renewable energy technologies. Renewable energy is also of low efficiency, requires high resource depletion and causes considerable peripheral problems that are not properly addressed currently like high human toxicity potential.
Opportunities From Waste and Radioisotopes
Nuclear power also opens avenues for other industries to thrive. The first of this is waste management. Though nuclear power does produce relatively small amounts of waste, they still need to be managed well. In this regard, downstream industries can be created to find pathways to process the waste. Spent fuel, firstly, can be reused as fuel in fast breeder reactors. However, the process currently is economically expensive. Further research can lead to reactors that can lengthen the lifetime of nuclear fuel to provide electricity for a longer time, especially through extraction of unused Uranium and Plutonium from the wastes.
Spent fuel further can be used to extract certain radioisotopes that can be used in multiple fields. Americium-241 is once such radioisotope. It is produced from the decay of plutonium-241 in nuclear reactors and is used in smoke detectors. Industrial tracers, which are radioactive material used in industrial piping to detect leakages and blocks, can be extracted from spent fuel as well. Medical tracers are similar, with an additional possibility of being produced by irradiating certain targets in nuclear reactors directly to be produced. Of these, the most important is Technetium-99, which is used in nuclear medicine to image blood flow through heart muscles, labelling blood cells to visualise sites of infection and imaging renal function. Other radionuclides can be extracted for their respective uses as well.
Even with the reuse of nuclear wastes, eventually there will still be a need for disposal. There are 3 types of nuclear wastes; namely, Low Level Waste (LLW), Intermediate Level Waste (ILW) and High Level Waste (HLW). LLW and some ILW can be dealt with through physical treatment like supercompacting, cutting and drying followed by permanent storage through grouting in a metal container. HLW, which makes up less than 10% of all nuclear wastes, together with highly radioactive ILW and LLW, need permanent disposal for which geological disposal is agreed to be the scientifically superior solution. Since only Finland is moving forward with building such a repository, there is immense possibility for Malaysia to spearhead innovation in that area as well.
Nuclear Reactor Design
Moving back to nuclear reactors, countries which go into nuclear power eventually seem to develop designs of their own. This is evident in Japan with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries developing their own Advanced Pressurised Water Reactor and Tokyo Electric Power Co’s Advanced Boiling Water Reactors, in Korea with the Advanced Power Reactor 1400 MW electricity from the Korea Electric Power Corporation, in China with the Hualong-1 pressurised water reactor, in Canada with the Canada Deuterium Uranium (CANDU) pressurized heavy-water reactor and in France with the AREVA European Pressurised Reactors.
With this in mind, it is not unreasonable to think Malaysia cannot produce its own reactors. At the very least, we can make engineering improvements to existing reactor designs to drive higher efficiencies and lower costs. This is what happened in Korea where gradual improvements saw electricity price decreases of 50%. Moreover, new nuclear reactors (Generation IV reactors) are currently being developed and Malaysia could bring them into commercialisation if the proper programs are put in place, joining the small number of suppliers in the world whilst potentially commanding a large global market share.
This is especially so as Malaysian talent with regards to nuclear engineering and nuclear physics is impressive. Locally, we have been running the TRIGA PUSPATI nuclear research reactor since 1982 and have been cultivating talent in radiation safety for decades through the Atomic Energy Licensing Board and Nuclear Malaysia. Moreover, the Malaysian Nuclear Power Corporation (MNPC) has been deep in research on the feasibility of nuclear power plants in Malaysia for many years, so much so that the IAEA was satisfied to note that Malaysia is ready to make an informed decision on undertaking nuclear power. Moreover, we have many local graduates of nuclear engineering strengthening the depth of human resource for the undertaking as well.
New Nuclear Fuel Sources
Though nuclear power utilises uranium fuel sourced from mines in a few locations throughout the globe, there is innovation to be explored in this area as well. The first port of call as mentioned before is reusing spent fuel. France, for example, produces about 17% of its nuclear power from spent fuel. Building from this, one can explore utilising thorium as a fuel source instead of uranium. Thorium can be used in breeder reactors to produce Uranium-233 which is fissile and can be used to produce electricity in the conventional uranium fuel route. Malaysia is also blessed with 4500 tonnes of Thorium reserves that can be taken advantage of for development of this electricity source. Outside of Malaysia, India and Australia contain large reserves of thorium as well, hence closer trade relations can be pursued on the basis of mining the metal for Malaysian power development.
However, uranium reserves are still plentiful throughout the world. Global reserves can last for about 135 years at current mining practices according to the IAEA. The NEA estimates, including undiscovered reserves, current consumption can be satisfied for over 200 years. This is considering current reactor design. If breeder reactors are made commercial, these reserves can last for thousands of years. Uranium may also be extracted from seawater, which promises to supply enough fuel for tens of thousands of years at least for global energy consumption, but this technology is currently in the testing phase.
However, with advances in thorium as a fuel source, breeder reactors and utilising more efficient reactor designs, we could extend the life of the nuclear fuel available enough to give time for other fuel sources to achieve the desired maturity. Renewable power, more efficient electricity storage (particularly graphene) and nuclear fission are potential candidates that can completely take over the electricity generation and storage sectors currently.
The region of South East Asia has not ventured into nuclear power yet. This places Malaysia in a strategic position where it can become the hub of nuclear-related industries for the region. Our stable electricity provided by nuclear power plants can help power Thailand or Singapore when needed. The radioisotopes we produce from our spent fuel or targets irradiated in our reactors can be exported to strengthen the region’s medical and industrial sectors. When they need it, the waste management process refined by Malaysia can be used to help South East Asia deal with proper waste disposal. When it is ready, our reactors can be hegemonically spread in the region to power South East Asia. Our links with Australia and India can help bring thorium in, our innovations can drive regional growth.
All of these possibilities, with the minor addition of possible desalination of seawater for potable water production, can be made realities for Malaysia. This is not a pipedream. It has happened in South Korea, Japan and China, and it will happen to Bangladesh and the United Arab Emirates as they have ventured into nuclear power. And it will happen to us, if only we are bold enough to realise the opportunities present to us.
Featured Image from Vox.com