Thursday, March 17, 2011


The ongoing quake-and-tsunami caused nuclear crisis in Japan has stoked fears in Malaysia over whether Malaysia should build a nuclear power plant. Currently, under the government’s Economic Transformation Plan, such a plant aims to become reality by 2021 (2016 at the earliest).

Here’s why we should stay the course.

From an energy point of view, the fact remains that come mid-decade (worst-case scenario), fossil fuels will become uneconomical as a power source. Nuclear power plants are the most powerful of the other energy options out there- producing 3600 kW per acre, while solar produces between 74 kW and 222 kW of power per acre.

A conventional nuclear reactor. The public's misconceptions concerning the safety of nuclear power should be countered with the facts- France produces 80% of it's power from accident-free nuclear energy.

Other fuel sources have much bigger failings. In Malaysia, strong breezes are to be found only at the coasts and in mountains. Building wind turbines in such areas would hurt tourism revenues and contribute further to the loss of Malaysia’s forest cover, of which only 56% remains. The same argument goes against hydropower. Remember, Malaysia has a pledge to maintain 50% of her forest cover under the Rio Earth Summit.

Wind turbines would ruin tourism to Malaysia's beaches and hill getaways. At a time when new tourist destinations are popping up with alarming speed, we do not need more turn-offs.

Solar power will continue to suffer from the problem of overcast and night-darkened skies for a while yet. Technologies like heated salt and MIT researcher David Nocera's fuel cells are on the horizon to mitigate this, but logically speaking, hinging a country’s electricity generation on the weather doesn’t seem very wise. Solar can and should play a major role in Malaysia’s energy future, but shelving nuclear power in favour of it is the wrong move.

Nuclear power’s safety issues are decisively handled by several new technologies on the horizon. The first of these are the fourth generation nuclear reactors, scheduled to be able to go online by 2021. One model, known as the Very High Temperature Reactor, uses unreactive helium as a coolant, and has a graphite composed core, meaning a high heat capacity and structural stability at superhigh temperatures.

A scaled model of a Very-High Temperature Reactor, one type of Generation 4 nuclear power plant.

Moreover, Toshiba Corp. and NuScale Power have both come up with what are best called nuclear batteries. Mini power plants buried in the ground, these cheap reactors can produce 10-45 megawatts of power, with Toshiba’s reactor lasting 30 years. The best feature? They are safe, one because the whole system is submerged under water, the other because it has no moving parts and a dual mechanism to prevent meltdown.

These mini nuclear reactors offer exciting possibilities for power in remote areas, as well as a putting less strain on fragile electrical grids in developing nations.

It is plain here that the options for Malaysia to keep her power plant plan on track are available. The question here is whether the Malaysian government has the political will to slug it out with the opposition, and the eloquence to explain the facts to the public. The facts are with us. Let us keep the faith.