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Going nuclear could be an option

Updated On: Apr 20, 2009

New Straits Times
Going nuclear could be an option
By Ashraf Abdullah

2009/04/19

ASK anyone what makes him or her most proud about being Malaysian, and the answers that come readily to mind include the Meranti trees, the unique animals, the extraordinary vistas of our mountains, forests and beaches. Yet, on the other hand, for most of our history, we have taken our rich biodiversity for granted -- as if it was so extensive and so vast that no action of ours could damage it.

But we now know that many of our rivers have become polluted, and our unique species of flora and fauna are threatened by deforestation.

Every day, the impact of our actions is painfully visible. We know that climate change is causing the ice on the North Pole to melt, even in winter. Due to the rise in sea levels, the island states around the world are sinking, slowly but surely.

I make no apology for saying this, but the truth is the world is now facing the most human-inflicted damage since time immemorial. It took us so long to notice this. It is rather frightening that many scientists are now calling the current era as the Earth's 11th hour.

But all may not be lost. More and more countries and their leaders have now begun to embrace new policies to protect the earth from climate change caused by greenhouse gases. Green technology has suddenly taken pole position in the governments' decision making process. In Malaysia, a new ministry has been set up to develop green technology.

As they do this, the argument on whether nuclear power should replace coal and gas for power production, has surfaced once again.

Supporters of nuclear energy are of the view that it is the perfect alternative for coal and gas because it is much cheaper, more efficient and environment-friendly.

On a global scale, nuclear power currently reduces carbon dioxide emissions by some 2.5 billion tonnes per year (relative to the main alternative of coal-fired generation, about two billion tonnes relative to the present fuel mix).

Carbon dioxide accounts for half of the human-contributed portion of the global warming effect of the atmosphere.

Nuclear power has a key role to play in reducing greenhouse gases. Every 22 tonnes of uranium used saves one million tonnes of carbon dioxide relative to coal.

Coal and gas are also depleting faster than one would have imagined five decades ago.

The detractors, on the other hand, mostly overcome by paranoia following the unfortunate accidents in Chernobyl in 1986 and Three Mile Island, United States, in 1979, argue that nuclear reactors are dangerous and not cost-effective. This is not so.

I think they have turned the other way on the positive attributes of nuclear energy and have been overwhelmed by a false perception of danger.

In private, some members of the green movement will acknowledge this, but they know also that their supporters are so adamant that nuclear energy can bring the greatest of hazards that a change of mind would be almost impossible.

The fact is an energy shortage in the next decade is inevitable. "Brownouts", or lowering the operating voltage to prevent a blackout, are already common in some countries, including the United States.

In Malaysia, 60 per cent of its power is currently generated with the use of gas, while coal is used to produce another 30 per cent. Hydroelectric dams throughout the country produce about seven per cent of the country's electricity.

The ever increasing thirst for gas and oil will soon see the depletion of these natural resources as well as coal. What happens then? Malay-sia's best choice will be nuclear power.

Currently, nuclear power provides over 15 per cent of the world's electricity, almost 24 per cent of electricity in OECD (Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, and 34 per cent in the European Union. Its use is increasing.

Uranium is also cheaper and the amount used to produce electricity is very small compared to coal and gas. To produce 1,000MW of electricity for a year, two million tonnes of coal are needed compared with only 30 tonnes of uranium.

The risk factor which most so-called pressure groups use as their main argument to stall nuclear energy programmes, is minimal.

The fact is, there have been only two major nuclear accidents known to man. The Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents are the only two incidents in more than 12,700 cumulative reactor-years of commercial operation in 32 countries. Nuclear power plants today are safer.

In Chernobyl, there were 46 casualties, and most of them were firemen. The incident was the result of a radiation leak.

However, the incident is not likely to recur as the technology used in Chernobyl has been or is being phased out by Ukraine. This is one of the conditions imposed by the European Union for countries seeking EU membership.

In the Asean region, Thailand and Indonesia have plans to build their own plants. When their nuclear reactors are operational, Malaysia would be exposed to the same risk as if it had its own nuclear reactor.

There is risk in everything we do. We are living in an era where the world has shrunk by jet travel and telephonic communication. Plane crashes can kill hundreds of passengers each time, but do we stop flying and opt for sea travel instead? We can, but it will only be less efficient and greatly hamper productivity.

Then again is sea travel any safer? The Titanic, which according to its manufacturer was "unsinkable", sunk after hitting an iceberg.

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