During my recent holiday in this lovely country, I noticed the ongoing debate on whether Malaysia should build nuclear energy plants or not, and read the stories in StarMag with great interest (Green or black?, Insight, Aug 16).
I have the feeling that most important points are reflected correctly (maybe except Mr Robinson – Berol Robinson, president of the American branch of Environmentalist for Nuclear Energy – who obviously thinks that one part of nuclear waste which is fatal within minutes of exposure might be less harmful than one million parts of inert coal ash).
Still, there are a few points I would like to throw into the discussion from my personal perspective.
1. There is not, and will not be, a nuclear Renaissance. Here is a simple calculation: there are currently 440 reactors operative worldwide. Assuming a lifetime of 50 to 60 years, about eight reactors will be decommissioned every year, or about 90 until 2020.
Currently, 42 new reactors are under construction, and 79 are in planning (let’s say to be commissioned until 2020).
The bottom line is that despite all the reactors under construction and in planning, the number of operative reactors worldwide is not going to increase significantly until 2020. And due to the long lead times, there is nothing we can do about this. So nuclear energy fails to compensate for today’s increasing energy demand and the shortage of fossil fuels.
2. Nuclear fuel is not as abundant as one might think. Firstly, uranium ore, which contains enough U-238 to make enrichment feasible, can only be found in a handful of countries. Some of those are politically instable, others need the uranium for their own reactors, and some may use their power as a means of exchange (like Russia recently did with natural gas for Europe).
Hence, the security of supply is not guaranteed.
Furthermore, usable uranium is a limited resource, just like any fossil fuel, and studies even show that the peak of nuclear fuel can be expected during the coming decade, similar to the peak of oil (lbst.de/ressources/docs2006/EWG-paper_1-06_Uranium-Resources-Nuclear-Energy_03DEC2006.pdf). Reactors are designed for around 60 years! Consequently, the supply of nuclear fuels needs to be considered carefully.
Also, the process of enriching uranium until it can be used as nuclear fuel is an extremely energy intensive one that produces lots of greenhouse gases. Hence, nuclear power is not as carbon neutral as its supporters say.
3. Renewables are the real trend. Mr Comby (Bruno Comby, founder of US NGO, Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy) turns the facts upside down with his calculation to replace one nuclear reactor with wind turbines.
In Germany, we started very efficient incentives for wind energy in the 1990s; we now have 25 GW of wind power installed. Prices are becoming competitive now and the trend is increasing.
The same success story is going to happen with photovoltaics – we have already about 5 GW installed in Germany. Needless to say that Malaysia, with its abundant sunshine, has much better conditions for photovoltaics than Germany.
People calling renewable energies “romantic nonsense” must have stopped watching the market some time in the 1990s! Renewables are in fact the only energy source that will be able to supply the world for all time.
I would like to encourage Malaysia to dismiss its nuclear plans once and for and focus fully on renewables because they, and only they, are our energy future.