By Charles F. Moreira, Editor
In Part 2, we covered the arguments in a memorandum entitled – Memorandum Supporting Nuclear Power Incorporation in the Malaysian Energy Mix presented to Y.B. Yeo Bee Yin, Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment & Climate Change (MESTECC) by #Liberasi and the Malaysian Nuclear Society, urging her that Malaysia should adopt nuclear power not only over fossil fuels but also over renewable energy sources such as solar voltaic, wind and biomass.
In this 3rd and final part, we take a critical look at the arguments presented in the memorandum regarding the limitations of renewable energy sources compared to nuclear power and the claims that nuclear power is one of the safest, cost effective and efficient energy sources.
Whilst the Malaysian government is actively engaged in developing renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and biomass, with a target that 20% of Malaysia’s electricity will be generated from renewable sources by 2030, however the memorandum regards these renewable energy sources as impractical for Malaysia and to cost more and are less efficient overall than nuclear power plants, and they also generate toxic waste which needs to be disposed of.
The memorandum contends that onshore wind farms require wide expanses of land, which Malaysia does not have and wind speeds in Malaysia are generally too low to generate significant enough amounts of electricity compared to nuclear.
Also making wind turbines requires large amounts of steel and other metals, much of which they claim cannot be recycled due to the wear and tear they undergo and moreover the magnets used in these turbines require mining for the rare-earth metal, neodymium, which also negatively impacts the environment. Whilst offshore wind farms are being looked into, however these could be prohibitively expensive.
The memorandum contends that solar photo-voltaic panels require exposure to direct sunlight and not diffused sunlight through cloud cover or during rain and that Malaysia receives only from 4 to 8 hours of direct sunlight per day, when if solar power is to be a significant part of Malaysia’s energy mix, we will have to receive between 16 and 20 hours of sunlight per day.
Malaysia’s largest solar farm in Sepang has 230,000 solar panels covering 98 hectares (0.98 sq km) and produces 50MW of electricity, whilst the memorandum contends that a small nuclear power plant built on 4 sq km of land can produce at least 1,000 MW of electricity.
According to Lazard’s Levelised Cost of Energy (LCOE) Analysis 2017, the LCOE – i.e. the cost per 1MWh of electricity generated by a utility crystalline photovoltaic farm in terms of its overall construction and operational cost over its lifetime, was between US$40 and US$46 per MWh, compared to between US$112 and US$189 per MWh for a nuclear power plant.
However, the memorandum also rightly points out that solar panels don’t work after dark, so solar-electric installations require battery storage, especially lithium batteries to store electrical power during the day to be able to continue providing power after dark and once the cost of storage is factored in, the LCOE of utility solar can increase to around US$120 per MWh with 24 hours storage and US$205.50 median cost per MWh with 48 hours storage, and this exceeds the LCOE of nuclear energy.
Meanwhile, others have argued that whilst availability of land for solar farms is also limited in Malaysia, however roof top solar panels are a practical option for Malaysia, and the Energy Commission’s Guidelines on Licensing Under Section 9 of the Act (Electricity Supply Act 1990) allows for private co-generation of electricity for own consumption, including from renewable energy sources such as a solar photovoltaic system, whilst the co-generator can also fall back on supply from the national electricity grid when their private generating plant is down or after sundown, in the case of their rooftop solar panels.
However, according to Lazard 2017, the LCOE of rooftop residential solar was between US$160 and US$267 per MWh, rooftop commercial and industrial solar between US$81 and US$170 per MWh and community solar between US$73 and US$145 per MWh, excluding storage cost.
The memorandum claims that Lazard’s LCOE figures for nuclear power do not take into account the cost of decommissioning nuclear plants after their lifespan which can be as long as 50 to 60 years and this would further increase the LCOE of nuclear power plants but they argue that this additional cost can be recovered by charging customers a small levy of US$0.001 per kWh (US$1 per MWh) of electricity consumed – i.e. pass the buck onto the consumer.
There also are concerns over the safe disposal or recycling of the components of solar panels after they have been replaced, since they contain metals such as cadmium and indium, some even in toxic compounds.
There are two main methods of using biomass to generate electricity. The first is to burn wood chips obtained from trees which have been felled to produce steam which turns turbines which produce electricity. In Malaysia, palm oil waste such as empty fruit bunches, fibres and palm kernel shells can be used for this purpose.
Environmentalists argue that this method is ‘zero carbon emitting’ because whist the burning releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere it’s absorbed by other living trees over the course of their life but the memorandum contends that sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulates (dust) are also emitted which can cause acidification of soil and bodies of water, skin problems, respiratory ailments and other problems.
The second method is anaerobic decomposition of the organic waste by bacteria in a digester tank to produce carbon dioxide and methane which is fed to a gas turbine where they are burnt and produce electricity. However, this process is slow, can be intermittent and does not produce much electricity, whilst the waste contains pathogens which can be harmful for the environment.
On the other hand, a nuclear power plant can operate 24 x 7, 365 days a year.
Safety of nuclear power plants
As we pointed out in Part 1, there were an estimated 450 nuclear reactors operational worldwide as of February 2019, plus 225 research reactors and so far there have been three notable nuclear reactor accidents – i.e. Three Mile Island in the U.S. in 1979, Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986 and Fukushima Daiichi in Japan in 2011, and amongst them, only the Chernobyl disaster directly resulted in deaths so far.
According to Wikipedia, the consensus is that about 30 men died from immediate blast trauma and acute radiation syndrome in the seconds to months after the disaster, respectively, with 60 in total in the decades hence, inclusive of later radiation induced cancer, whilst a joint consortium to the United Nations estimates that there were a total of between 4,000 deaths due to the disaster amongst most people exposed to the radiation across Ukraine, Belarus and Russia by 2005 and 2006, and up to 16,000 deaths across the continent of Europe, with up to 60,000 people worldwide being affected, including minor effects worldwide.
In the case of Fukushima, the population within 20km radius of the plant were evacuated before the meltdown of several reactors and only recently have they been allowed to return, so it could still be too early to tell whether there will be any increase in cancers and deaths resulting from that disaster.
So it appears that apart from these three notable nuclear plant accidents, nuclear power is generally very safe and the memorandum argues that Generation III nuclear reactors in use today are safer and more efficient than earlier generations and their designs and technologies are being constantly improved, and Generation IV reactors expected to enter commercial service between 2020 and 2030 are believed to be even safer and more efficient, whilst thorium reactors, which are still experimental in China, India and other parts of the world are believed to be even safer and can produce from 3 to 4 times as much energy as uranium reactors .
Many of the points in favour of nuclear power and the safe disposal of nuclear waste presented in the memorandum are drawn from Arveent’s earlier articles on the same issues on the #Liberasi website, and they tend to be rather dismissive of renewable energy and place a high emphasis on comparative costs (LCOE) and efficiency of nuclear power plants versus solar, wind and biomass.
In many ways, the arguments that nuclear power and nuclear waste management are very safe is similar to the argument that air travel is one of the safest modes of transport, which is true provided the airliner takes off and lands safely, but should it crash, more often than not, all on board are killed, plus in some cases, some people on the ground as well.
However, unlike aircraft disasters where the death toll of several hundred is immediate and finite, in the case of a nuclear disaster, the resultant radiation related illness and deaths can occur for decades afterwards, as in the case of Chernobyl and perhaps also in the case of Fukushima.
Also, the claims that Generation IV and thorium reactors will be safe is still very much theoretical and we’ll only know for sure after they have been in operation for several decades.
Just like the new model Boeing 737 Max airliner or a new version of software, any new designs tend to have defects (bugs in the case of software) which show up after a while.
Whilst such defects are usually corrected, however in the case of a small country like Malaysia, it would be prudent to err on the side of caution or as scientists say to invoke the precautionary principle, when they are not entirely sure.
Also, one of the key arguments in the memorandum advanced in favour of nuclear power is that it does not emit carbon dioxide, which is believed to be a greenhouse gas and a major contributor to global warming.
However, there are others, including scientists and environmentalists who have changed their mind from being dead against nuclear power to being advocates of it for various reasons.
Film director Robert Stone’s 2013 documentary Pandora’s Promise features several prominent scientists and environmentalists who had been opposed to nuclear power but had since changed their mind, one of the reasons being that it does not emit carbon dioxide.
However, there are a growing number of scientists who also argue against this widely held belief since around the 1980s that carbon dioxide causes global warming, including scientists who have changed their mind.
One of them is Dr. Patrick Moore, an environmental scientists and co-founder of the environmental group Greenpeace in British Columbia, Canada and who has subsequently left the organisation, claiming it to have been hijacked my non-scientific, politically-motivated forces, and he now argues against the belief that the elevated level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is responsible for higher atmospheric temperatures, and he also is in favour of nuclear power.
Other scientists have studied patterns of atmospheric temperatures and the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and have found that increased levels of carbon dioxide follow increased temperatures, which suggests that it is increased temperatures due to natural causes such as solar cycles which cause increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere due to higher temperatures causing dissolved carbon dioxide too be released from the oceans.
If these scientists are right, then it demolishes the argument that nuclear energy is safer for the environment because it does not emit carbon dioxide.
Malaysia’s frequent haze problem
Also, whilst the smoke, soot and sulphur dioxide emitted from burning coal has been known to be largely responsible for the smog in industrial countries such as Britain and more recently in China, however as far as I am aware, there have been no public complaints in Malaysia over emissions from coal-fired power plants in their vicinity.
However, what most of us experience fairly regularly around the third quarter of some years, is the thick and unhealthy haze due to burning of plantations in Indonesia and carried by the wind to Peninsular Malaysia, and less frequently due to smoke from peat fires in Selangor and the rest of Peninsular Malaysia.
So whilst countries such as China, India, Iran and many other countries already have nuclear power and whilst Singapore, Thailand and other countries are considering it, Malaysia should seriously study the possibility of adopting nuclear power, including thorium reactors.
It won’t be enough for Malaysia or any other country to reduce or eliminate air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels only in the area of electricity generation. Instead, air pollution can be greatly reduced by the replacement of petrol and diesel powered vehicles with electric vehicles and whilst electric powered airliners may not be a viable reality any time soon, however air travel can be replaced by energy-efficient, high-speed trains.
However, unlike the arguments in the memorandum downplaying renewable energy sources, Malaysia should continue with our initiatives to adopt safer renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and biomass as alternatives to fossil fuels as best we can, whilst taking into account the practical limitations of the Malaysian context.
At the same time, Malaysia must place a higher priority to public health and safety over comparative costs and efficiencies which are prioritised in the memorandum.
Also, unlike as proposed in the memorandum, are we willing for Malaysia to become the world’s dumping ground for high level nuclear waste from around the world in return for the economic opportunities, especially when our MESTECC Minister has been struggling to stop illegal imports of non-recyclable plastic waste into Malaysia from other countries?
Will Malaysia yield to the lobbyists and adopt nuclear power?