By Arveent Kathirtchelvan
A recent letter entitled Nuclear power in Malaysia – a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’? intrigued me and inspired me to write this response. The letter itself was quite a basic run-through of common misbelief with regards to nuclear power, which I have visited before on multiple occasions (here, here and through a memorandum here, amongst other times).
Firstly, looking at one article from a known anti-nuclear NGO, the Union of Concerned Scientists and a 1985 article on Forbes is not enough to make up one’s mind on nuclear power. For example, in the IPCC 1.5oC Report shows that for most pathways to limit the increase of global temperatures to 1.5oC, shares of nuclear energy rise. The International Energy Agency also reports a need for greater nuclear energy generation.
However, even these reports are based on current, biased, negative feelings towards nuclear power and don’t fully show the viability of the technology in its usage. Looking at the effects towards metrics associated with electricity as produced by nuclear power directly will be a better evaluation. Outside of fossil fuel technology, particularly coal, and large hydropower, nuclear power produces cheap electricity. This is evident in practice in Europe, with some of the cheapest electricity tariffs in countries with high shares of nuclear power.
For example, Ukraine has the cheapest tariffs in Europe with about 50% of nuclear power. Bulgaria with about 50% nuclear power has the cheapest electricity in the European Union, with Slovakia, Slovenia nearer the lower end of the spectrum. Sweden (35%) and France (over 70%) make it below average for the EU, with the largest tariffs coming from Denmark (over 40% renewable energy) and Germany (over 30% renewable energy).
Even when some countries show high electricity prices with nuclear power, this has been attributed to network costs, surcharges and other associated externalities, not the price of generated electricity. For example, France’s amortized nuclear energy prices are about $48/MWh, comparable or lower than renewables and fossil fuels. In fact, Liberasi has calculated based on Lazard’s LCOE 2018, the cost of nuclear power can go down to $44/MWh even for new, costlier nuclear power plants due to their longer service life and lower capital cost in South Korea and China.
The scaremongering of ‘there only needs to be one disaster to have massive impacts’ is tired and needs to stop. The fact is there will never be another Chernobyl, all nuclear reactors have significantly improved designs which do not have the same flaws as the original reactor. In fact, Chernobyl had 4 reactors, one of which went through a meltdown but 2 others continued to operate until 1996 and 2000 (another was shut down in 1991 due to a fire which broke out due to a faulty switch). Funnily enough, the agreement for those shutdowns included Ukraine receiving the EU’s assistance to complete 2 other nuclear power plants. However, it is understood that Chernobyl was bad.
Fukushima was bad as well, but only one person has died so far due to the radiation and the lifetime radiation-induced cancer risks are much smaller than even baseline cancer risks. In fact, the water from the plant now is so low in radiation, it can be drunk. Former residents of the evacuation zones are now returning to their homes. In fact, the harsh movement of people out of the evacuation zone contributed to much more deaths than the radiation itself. The incident itself was due to found issues which were not resolved prior to the tsunami, including a sea wall that was too short and back up diesel generators being on the sea-facing side. Moreover, the fail-safes needing electricity and the bureaucracy of workers waiting for instructions before safe shutdown contributed to the escalation of the impacts. In fact, a sister plant to Fukushima Daiichi called Fukushima Daiini went through safe shutdown even when hit with the same tsunami due to these safety factors not being present.
The reality of the situation is, nuclear reactors are incredibly safe. Studies have found that, averaged out over the amount of electricity produced, nuclear power kills far lesser people than even solar and wind. In fact, it is so safe that people falling off rooves when installing solar panels become a more significant factor of mortality comparatively. Post-Fukushima, reactors have just gotten better and safer. Generation III and III+ reactors now all have passive failsafes which do not need electricity to safely shut down when loss of electricity to the cooling systems occur. Moreover, the safety culture, other equipment and efficiency all have improved dramatically. Modern reactors compared to the ones in Fukushima (built in the 1970s) can be several orders of magnitude greater in safety.
If we are talking about pollution, the thermal pollution of nuclear power plants is very small in magnitude. We are talking about a 5 degree increase in seawater or even lower. Sometimes, one would not need so much water and just use cooling reactors that produce steam vapour. The threat to aquatic life is miniscule. In fact, some even prefer the warmer temperatures for migration or even breeding purposes. However, temperature discharge can be reduced by using industrially robust methods including cooling ponds, heat transfer for cogeneration (like producing steam for other industrial usages) or even just using a greater volume of water so that the temperature increase is minimal (coupled with more circulation coils in heat exchanges).
On the other hand, nuclear power’s carbon footprint is miniscule, smaller than solar and comparable to wind energy. This is because the amount of material needed to produce a lot of electricity is smaller for nuclear power. Compared to nuclear power, the amount of materials needed to produce an equivalent amount of energy is about 10 times higher for wind power and about 16 times higher for solar. Solar power even produced 300 times more toxic waste than nuclear power. What about these pollutive impacts?
Even if we consider the nuclear waste produced, the management strategies have been proven to be robust. We can reprocess the waste into usable fuel like what’s done in France and Russia or store them for a long enough time (several decades) then dispose of them through geological disposal or both. More on this can be read here, but it is safe to say that nuclear waste management is a well-understood part of the fuel cycle.
The reality of the situation is, our Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change (MESTECC) Yeo Bee Yin was painfully wrong when she said nuclear is obsolete. Countries like Belarus, Bangladesh and the UAE have invested in new nuclear plants. Sweden is planning to build new reactors at their existing plants, Pakistan is expanding nuclear power and South Korea is expanding as well. Russia, China and India are stepping up their current capacity of nuclear power. Estonia and Indonesia are looking to nuclear power.
Whereas YB Yeo is floundering at her solar power expansion plan. Recently, she stated an increase of 2% to 20% of renewables will cost RM 33 billion. Well, this is only installed capacity, the amount of electricity actually generated would be much lesser than that. Say a third is produced (and I am being very generous), we are looking at an increase of 6% costing RM 33 billion. A nuclear power plant producing 2000 MW of electricity (about 10% of Malaysia’s energy needs) is allowed to cost RM 55 billion given the same ratio. Liberasi conservatively estimates RM 50 billion for our first nuclear power plant, cheaper if we get the Koreans or Chinese to do it. And, we don’t need to replace it every 20-30 years like the solar panels.
In conclusion, let us in Malaysia, indeed, move forward from empty polemics about energy sources and strive to learn more about them before deciding to protest. Luckily, Liberasi will be conducting educative sharing sessions called ‘The Nuclear Initiative’ from the end of October at several locations to directly share our knowledge with the general public. We would like to invite all of you to contact us about venues you would like to host us in for such sessions so that we can all finally understand and debate the merits and demerits of nuclear power once and for all.