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East Asia’s nuclear soul-searching

Updated On: Dec 01, 2006

Why is East Asia, particularly Southeast Asia suddenly so interested in going “nuclear”?

Way back in 1993, Indonesia under Suharto had already announced plans to go pursue nuclear power as an alternative and a team of researchers in Australian National University (ANU) ran a test to detect the extent of damage in the event of a nuclear accident. The conclusion was that SingaporeMalaysiaThailand andBrunei would be affected in a nuclear fallout, along with the northern sector of Western AustraliaNorthern Territory and Queensland.

Recently, democratic Indonesia has revived nuclear reactor plans with US$8 billion to construct four 1000-megawatt plants by 2016. Indonesian neighbours’ worries about such plans are well-understood, given that Mount Muria, a candidate site for the reactors is located around a dormant volcano with frequent earthquakes.Indonesia’s management of the tsunami disaster or the recent spate of natural and manmade disasters do not lend confidence to its nuclear power management.

Perhaps it is because of such fears that the Seventh Ministerial Meeting Forum For Nuclear Cooperation in Asia (FNCA) Monday agreed to form a new study panel for cooperation in nuclear energy in Asia. Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation Datuk Seri Dr Jamaludin Jarjis said the study panel would focus on areas such as economic analysis and financing scheme, access to nuclear technology for peaceful uses, human resource development, nuclear safety, security and safeguard system. Symbolically, Japan, the only victim of nuclear bombing, is selected as the secretariat for this study panel. It is hoped that multilateral cooperation and coordination would win over any unilateralist moves in nuclear decisions.

Indonesia’s nuclear power ambition is not solitary. Vietnam is keen to have two by 2020 and Malaysia joined the bandwagon to announce its interest. Australia is also in the midst of a nuclear power debate. East Asia is currently constructing 14 reactors with 60 more coming up, the bulk of which is located in Northeast Asia, particularly China which will employ the latest Pebblehead technology. Pebblehead technology is invented by the US but will be most widely implemented in Chinaand it is expected that China will develop its own version for export in a matter of years. It has already secured contracts to deliver nuclear reactors to countries likePakistan.

The rationale for these nuclear power wannabes is cheap power generation, specifically 1.5 US cents per kilowatt-hour. This is 50% cheaper than the cheapest of fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. It is also much cleaner. It makes economic sense. The trend towards nuclear power will challenge environmentally-friendly fuels like biofuels and solar power in the long run. This is because alternative energy sources like solar power also do not come cheap. 1kWp of PV system was at least RM 28,000 (US$7737) of which 30% of the cost was for installation.

Other alternatives include the organic option - oil seeds. The Sarawak Land Development Ministry will initiate a study on the feasibility of cultivating the oil-seed producing tree, Jathropa, to be processed as bio-diesel. Other than saving costs and reducing dependence on fossil fuels, the aim is also to provide cheap energy for isolated areas in East Malaysia. The rural folks located there can process this abundant source of energy pretty easily using rudimentary equipment. Another advantage is that Jathropa has a gestation period of six months, lower production cost compared with oil palm and produces seeds all year round. But again, the costs are not cheap. RM180 million (US$50 million) or 8% of the total development budget for agriculture and land development in that region had to be diverted to develop this alternative energy source.  

Malaysia has also opened a tender and bidding process for companies to install solar energy panels on rooftops from 1 Dec 2006 until 30 March 2007. Government subsidies are in place to offset the installation costs. The bidders are eligible to receive discounts as high as 75% of the price of the solar power system with the Government's Energy Commission covering the discounts. This has the same purpose as nuclear power - basically reducing state dependence on fossil fuels like natural gas, which currently forms about 70% of the country's fuel ratio.

Given the cost factor, East Asia can see a lot more nuclear reactors sprouting up than expected. Especially if the initial pioneers work really well.

However, the region must also be prepared to confront the problem of dealing with the nuclear waste and other issues of proliferation.  The conversion of civilian nuclear technologies to military use and development of nuclear weapons can never be ruled out. How to deal with the problem of inevitable proliferation is really the crux of the matter, and can the cost of other alternative energy be lowered to mitigate the current excitement  over nuclear energy? 

Sources:

RI, Japan worry about N Korean nuclear program (Antara, 29 November 2006)

Sarawak To Study Feasibility Of Jathropa Cultivation For Bio-Diesel (Bernama, 28 November 2006)

Fear of fallout in Asia’s drive to go nuclear (Straits Times, 27 November 2006)

Australia to turn to nuclear energy within 10 years? (TODAY, 27 November 2006)

China endorses India-US nuclear deal, says minister (AP/ST, 27 November 2006)

Govt launches solar energy panel programme for homes (The Star, 27 November 2006)

Study Panel On Nuclear In Asia To Be Formed (Bernama, 27 November 2006)