By Arveent Kathirtchelvan
Recently, Dr. Mahathir made a few comments on his views regarding the viability of nuclear power for Malaysia. Sadly, Dr. M showcases antiquated ideas regarding a mature technology which has the potential to accelerate deep decarbonisation for the Malaysian electricity mix. As a man of science, it is disappointing, indeed, to see him use these arguments as they are unsubstantiated.
His main argument is that nuclear power plants produce a lot of nuclear waste that must be managed. For us to properly understand this, we must first start at the beginning; exactly how much nuclear waste is produced from a plant? According to the International Atomic Energy, a 1000 MW(e) reactor will produce about 30 to 50 tonnes of heavy metal waste from spent fuel per year. For context, this is about 5% of Malaysia’s electricity generation in 2017. Whilst this might seem to be a huge amount, a comparable coal power plant (about the current size of Jimah East Power plant) will produce 5238 tonnes of fly ash per day! As reported, fly ash releases to the surroundings 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy. This is not even touching upon the carbon footprint of these plants.
Nuclear Waste – Revisited
Of course, Dr. M might have been meaning to say renewable power can be used instead. He even alludes to this when he mentions that Malaysia is trying to leverage on solar panels, mentioning we have a lot of space to build solar panels, going so far to mention even the sea can be used for floating solar panels. The thing is, though, if we are talking about waste management, solar panels are much, much worse than nuclear power. About 300 times more toxic waste is produced by solar panels for the same amount of electricity generation compared to nuclear power. These are carcinogens, poisons, really nasty chemicals that pose serious risks to human life.
However, some may say it is not a like-for-like comparison. Nuclear waste is not the same as toxic waste from solar panels. Waste management for nuclear power is far more advanced and mature. In fact, out of all electricity producing technologies, the only large-scale one that takes full responsibility for its wastes is nuclear power. Nuclear wastes come in 3 types: Low-Level Wastes (LLW), Intermediate-Level Wastes (ILW) and High-Level Wastes (HLW). All three are managed using differing strategies, from recycling and landfilling for the wastes of low radiation until Permanent Disposal for the highly radioactive wastes.
The latter is often thought of as impossible to store or dispose. This is a false assumption. Firstly, the HLW in spent fuel rods are not immediately removed from the power plant after use. They are stored in earthquake-proof, sturdy cooling ponds within the facility for decades to cool and reduce in radioactivity. After this, the HLW is vitrified (immobilised in glass) and then stored in metal casks that separate them from the environment. This effectively prevents leakages for decades. Moving forward from this, these casks can be stored in waste repositories through Geological Disposal. Repositories such as these are designed for 100,000 to 1 million years. An example of this repository is the Onkalo spent nuclear fuel repository. More can be read here.
Of course, one doesn’t need to dispose of nuclear waste immediately even then. Nuclear waste can be reprocessed to produce even more energy. In France, the La Hague reprocessing plant takes nuclear waste and extracts fissile material from it. This material is them made into MOX fuel at France’s Melox plant, at about 150 tonnes a year. 2012 estimates show approximately 17% of French nuclear generation was contributed by recycled material (though Orano, who run the La Hague and Melox plants, put this number at 10%).
If not recycling, nuclear wastes can be used directly in Fast Neutron Reactors (FNR). Current designs of these reactors use liquid metal as a coolant. This is sodium in Russian BN reactors, seemingly the most mature ones and the Chinese Experimental Fast Reactor, though India is building a lead-cooled variety. In addition to these, new designs are coming forward that may not only use the waste fed to them but also bombard the non-fissile atoms in the waste to produce their own fuels. These will be classified as breeder reactors. One may have even heard of Thorium possibly being used to replace uranium as a safer fuel source (since it is basically impossible to militarise thorium) and this will be possible with breeder reactors as well.
Can we say this depth of waste management exists within the solar panel industry? Recycling of these panels are in their infancy. We haven’t seen what commercial extraction of usable material really looks like at scale. How much material resources have to be spent for this recovery? All of these are issues as yet unresolved to a satisfactory level. In fact, if we take into consideration the wastes and impact on resource depletion, nuclear power has the smallest footprint bar none. The fact of the matter is, so little power is produced from solar panels, and so much is produced from nuclear power plants, compared to the amount of material needed to generate it, at the end, the environmental impact of it is comparable or worse than nuclear power.
Energy Security and Nuclear Expertise
We must then consider that nuclear power plants produce electricity at much greater scales than solar panels. The capacity factor of a nuclear reactor is above 90% whereas solar panels flounder in the mid-20s, heavily affected by cloud-cover, temperature and dust. What’s more solar electricity is non-continuous, dropping when the sun is blocked or it’s night-time. This is when backup generators powered by fossil fuels are used to supply the additional electricity necessary to keep the grid afloat. These cost a lot of money and continue all the problems associated with fossil fuels as well. If we were to use battery storage, it is similarly expensive and may not be suitable to deploy at large scales. Pumped hydro is a possible storage option, but what sites do we have for this when our current hydroelectricity potential is only about 17% of our electricity mix? What’s more, solar panels and batteries need to be replaced every 20-30 years. Is there enough material to sustain this?
The last point I would like to touch is Dr. M’s insistence that Malaysians do not have the expertise to operate a nuclear power plant. Well, if that’s the case, so don’t the Emiratis, or the Bangladeshis or the Belarusians or the Turks. The reality is, we had the Malaysian Nuclear Power Corporation (MNPC) to study the viability of nuclear power and to get ready for it. The IAEA found Malaysia to be quite prepared, pending regulatory improvements. We have experts in radiation and PhDs in nuclear engineering, some of them with their own reactor design patents. We have trained nuclear engineering graduates from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia. What’s more, we have close neighbours in South Korea that have mature nuclear capabilities. Let us be honest, it is not that Malaysians do not have the expertise, it is that we do not want to use them.
Unfortunately, the most successful technology to decarbonise an energy grid whilst maintaining energy security has been tarnished by well-meaning but ultimately misled people. The fear of disasters have clouded many a man’s judgement, when it is actually much safer than we give it credit for, from comparable to much safer than even renewables. Current Generation III reactor designs improve this further. Instead of fighting amongst each other, it is time that nuclear power and renewables team up. Nuclear can provide the baseload power and can back up renewables during inopportune times (as they do in France). Renewables can come in when the sun shines bright or the wind blows fast to generate cheap, clean electricity. A nuclear-renewable hybrid grid can provide all the benefits of both without relying on fossil fuels for help. This can be our future, if Dr. M allows it.