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Going nuclear: Convincing the public

(Pic by merlin1075 /

(Pic by merlin1075 /

MALAYSIA’s first nuclear power plant is expected to be up and running by 2021.That’s just one decade away. Public concerns have already been expressed about the astronomical start-up costs, safety, and radioactive waste management of having such a nuclear plant. In response, Energy, Green Technology, and Water Minister Datuk Seri Peter Chin told Parliament on 7 June 2010 that the government would be conducting road shows to educate the public.

Additionally, Tenaga Nasional Bhd (TNB) has begun branding nuclear energy as “green” energy. It seems the government is bent on going nuclear so that we don’t lose out to our neighbours. For certain, there is big business involved. South Korea, France, and other foreign nuclear industries are already eyeing to tap into Malaysia’s new multibillion-ringgit nuclear market.

Still, the government must allay serious and legitimate fears about nuclear power. It cannot expect that there will not be public protests unless these fears are convincingly addressed.

Not alone

Malaysia is not alone in wanting to pursue nuclear power. Asean countries began flirting with the idea of harnessing nuclear energy for electricity generation around the 1960s.

The Philippines was the first to build a nuclear power plant in 1976. However, the project became a white elephant after the plant was found to be unsafe as it was constructed near major earthquake fault lines.

Since then, other Asean countries have announced plans to go nuclear due to rising fossil fuel prices. In 2007, Myanmar signed a deal with Russia to build its first research reactor, while Thailand declared that its first nuclear power plant would be operational by 2020. In late June 2010, Vietnam announced it would be building eight nuclear power plants in the next 20 years.

Others like Cambodia and Singapore have also indicated keen interest.

Show us the plan

Since the Malaysian government is so determined to play catch-up with our neighbours, here are some steps it can take to convince the Malaysian public that nuclear is indeed a safe, clean, and affordable energy option.

1. Where’s Malaysia’s radioactive waste management plan?

The government has identified potential sites in Pahang, Johor and Terengganu to build the plant. But it has yet to make public what it plans to do with the radioactive waste generated.

(Pic by flaivoloka /

(Pic by flaivoloka /

Will we be shipping our radioactive waste to France to be reprocessed or are we storing it in our own country? If we are shipping it half a globe away to be reprocessed, what measures are the government taking against terrorist attacks? Plutonium, which will be among the radioactive waste generated, is commonly used to make atomic bombs.

If we are storing it in Malaysia, where will it be stored? I imagine Pakatan Rakyat-led states would be among the first to say no. Will other states be willing to offer their states as a dumping ground? After all, even for the Broga incinerator project, there was so much public protest that in the end, the project was cancelled.

2. What’s Malaysia’s emergency plans?

For all they want, the nuclear industry can boost their safety record after the tragedies of Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986. But the truth is, the industry has continued to be plagued by other accidents and radioactive leaks during the past few decades.

What will the Malaysian government do in the event of a radioactive leak, fire, floods, or in the worst case scenario, a nuclear meltdown? What are the emergency plans that will be put in place? Show us you are prepared to deal with potential natural and human-caused disasters.

3. Give us financial security.

The nuclear industry is also notorious for cost overruns and construction delays. The latest example would be the new generation reactor in Finland, which was supposed to be completed last year. Its price tag has increased almost 50% to €4.2 billion due to safety issues in its design.

What steps are the government taking to ensure that Malaysia’s nuclear reactor will not go down the same path as Finland’s reactor? Who will foot the bill if we do? Surely the government does not expect to use taxpayers’ money to bail out the project if it goes beyond its original budget of between RM6 billion and RM13 billion. Perhaps the current ministers, TNB’s directors, and any other party that is so determined to push for nuclear energy to satisfy Malaysians’ “surging energy demand” can offer to fork out their own money.

The truth is…

Radioactive waste from nuclear energy will likely outlive human civilisation. That’s why, without a viable waste management plan, it is irresponsible to set up nuclear reactors. Even developed countries like Germany, which depend significantly on nuclear for its energy, have yet to figure out where to store their waste permanently.

Indeed, high-level waste generated from a reactor has to be stored in steel containers that must also last beyond human life. If the government were to be entrepreneurial, it could of course sell eternity ad spaces on these steel containers for a nifty sum. That would help reduce the government’s deficit for certain. But it would still not address the legitimate fears people have about nuclear waste.

Susilo Bambang (Source:

And lest the government forget how critical public support is, Indonesia had to postpone its plan to build nuclear power plants indefinitely, partly due to public protest. Its president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, said on 19 June 2010 that the country would instead focus on developing renewable energy such as geothermal, wind, solar and biofuels.

For now, the Malaysian government doesn’t actually have a plan that addresses the safety issues of nuclear energy. And for so long as it doesn’t, it cannot hope that road shows alone will convince the public.

Gan Pei Ling believes in renewable, instead of, nuclear energy. She is a member of NukeOff, a Malaysian youth group that questions the government rationale of going nuclear. Her column, As If Earth Matters, will be a fortnightly offering on The Nut Graph.

Related post:

“No solution to nuclear waste”

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14 Responses to “Going nuclear: Convincing the public”

  1. dropout says:

    The Malaysian government cannot even build decent highways or buildings, let alone a highly hazardous facility. They fail to see the earth they’re standing on while trying to reach at the sky. Besides, who’ll be the contractor if not one of their terribly-skilled cronies? This is not about the lives of some Malaysians, it’s about the whole population! I strongly oppose a nuclear plant in Malaysia. Don’t we have an excess in electricity due to numerous dam projects? Why do need a nuclear plant here?

  2. Lainie says:

    I can’t even expect constant electricity in my house, and they want to go nuclear? With all the dodgy people in our government? Memang tak ah.

  3. Simpson says:

    Does it mean that we have to go for a public protest also? But [there’s the] ISA. If the protest is done in PR states or facilities, then it will become [politicised] and be used by some politicians. Then, how, how, how?

  4. Ng Ai Soo says:

    So, just how much electricity do I need in a year? How many grams of nuclear fuel will that require, how many tonnes of coal, how many barrels of oil/gas? If I want to watch the Brazil v. Cote D’Ivore match at 2:30AM, will the electricity be available when I switch on the light/TV?

    That summarises the problem. Most of us are, of course, addicted to our comforts and the heaviest exercise most of us do is jump to conclusions. For example, was not the Japanese earthquake “spill” due to a barrel of low-level waste rolling into the drain? Was not the amount of radioactivity spilled into the Japanese Sea equivalent to that contained in two average adult humans (yes, you and me), who if they went swimming there would have caused the same radioactivity “release”? Or am I 100% out and it should be four people swimming! Would not the entire high-level waste of the British nuclear energy program to date fit into a single two storey bungalow or two? Is it not the containment that makes it seem larger? How many tonnes of carbon waste are produced to supply my or your electricity for a year?

    Renewables do not supply on demand, they need backup supply in the event of shortfall and/or storage, either as hydrogen fuel or in pumped hydro storage or, heaven forbid, conventional capacity like coal, oil, gas or nuclear. In many cases the transmission costs are also high since the best resources may not be located close by and the low energy density requires widespread generation. So far the proportions of renewables in grids have been small compared to more conventional generators, so that back up and load-following have not been issues which will arise when these proportions increase.

    So “clean” coal was just a few years ago touted as best, but now not so because of the cost/technical problems involved in carbon capture. Nuclear is therefore the most carbon-free 24/7 supply there is today.

    In addition to total costs, always ask for the amounts (weight or volume) of fuel or waste involved as this will reveal to you what is best for you to get your yearly electric fix on demand.

    And if we are so accident prone (on the roads, for example), why fly our own airlines? Other than on our roads, surely we have been safer than Exxon or BP or Union Carbide or coal mines wherever… so far – touch wood! Perhaps we should just get a bank of small 300MW no-maintenance no-refueling load-following nuclear “batteries” which we buy on condition each is shipped back to the manufacturer when used up and replaced with another on the same terms. Let’s ask Toshiba!

  5. Sean says:

    There’s no need to convince the public of anything – they’re going to get nuclear power whether they like it or not. There’s an energy deficit coming and the only sources of funding available for energy projects are “work smart” capital for mega-projects (=nuclear, alternative energy schemes not lending themselves to large-scale, centralised projects with easily marketable value) or public money which the Global Celebrity Politician will only spend on ego-inflating projects (=nuclear, and a chance to join the atomic club). Investor behaviour makes nuclear power inevitable.

  6. Sean says:

    “That summarises the problem”

    No it doesn’t, it completely misstates it. Which seems more risky to you: a teaspoonful of arsenic or a bus-load of casual sex? A bus is really big, right? Does a falling windmill make a noise when there’s nobody around? How many people does it kill? It’s really, really big right? After it falls on the ground, how many people will die or get sick from exposure to it? How many farmers will have to destroy their herds or crops because a windmill fell near them? Evacuate a town because some solar panels got dusty? Deliver more babies with neural tube defects than they were expecting because the biomass supply reduced because of a change in agricultural funding?

    Everything comes down to risk, and some alternative energy methods can fall down, blow away or possibly even pop and spew smelly gas. I don’t have data to hand, but I believe most renewable energy processes are mostly benign while they’re operating and instantaneously inert when they’re no longer required. The same is not true of nuclear power. It’s not that nuclear power must necessarily be dangerous – I know the nuclear industry (in some places at some times) invests heavily in health and safety assurance. Errors do happen – and times, management and accountants do change. When things go wrong with nuclear it is not a small matter, with effects not confined within national borders, and with timescales longer than human. I think the idea of “nobody should inherit a debt” should also apply to power production. With nuclear waste storage times many times greater than a human lifespan, nuclear is a heavy debt to place on those not yet born.

    “Renewables do not supply on demand”

    This is also either obviously untrue or you must make the same statement about fossil and nuclear. Your car engine is only able to ‘supply on demand’ because it has been designed with an output that carries your car from 0-100km/h in around about 10 seconds. Most of the time, the engine is either idling or throttled back well below capacity. People are easily confused about this point. Your ‘accelerator’ is really a ‘retarder’ or throttle. It’s sprung that way but the spring effect is undone by the driver. The same goes for your HiFi (if people still have those). The amplifier has been designed for a certain gain, and the ‘Volume’ control is actually an attenuator – it doesn’t make the amplifier louder, it makes it less quiet, up until the design capacity is reached.

    No engine, nor fossil-fuel power station, nor nuclear power station can deliver more power than they were designed for, and they will probably run at quite a bit less than their full capacity, unless they too are twinned with a backup supply. If you visit a coal-powered power station, you’ll see an enormous yard piled high with a mountain of coal which is locally stored energy, occupying a considerable amount of space = which cannot be used for anything else – itself. If there is some interruption in coal shipments to the power station, the coal yard will be depleted and eventually the power station will shut down. Supply reliability will have been taken into account at the design stage. If any of the design characteristics prove optimistic, the power station will fail to meet demand. You can really only claim “X will not supply on demand” if it has been designed badly, and the same problem is a feature of all energy production techniques.

    • neptunian says:


      Please read carefully –

      1. The sun keeps shining all the time, but not on your solar panels at night

      2. The wind does not blow on your windmills all the time

      You don’t have to switch off the power at solar or wind power station, nature shuts them off at its whim.

      3. Coal, nuclear etc (conventional) runs 24 /7 except on planned maintenance shutdown – ok, maybe accidents.

      4. You do not have to evacuate a whole town if a solar panel gets dusty, but you do have to evacuate a whole town to make room for installing enough solar panels to power up the town…. Oh wait, you have evacuated the town, so no need for power.

  7. Ng Ai Soo says:

    Sean, maybe I am not making it clear that we are “addicted” to this stuff. At half time during the Brazil v Cote d’Ivoire match I ran to put the 1kW kettle on for a cup of coffee. If 10,000 others did so at the same time, then the immediate demand is for 10MW electricity within a minute of halftime. TNB must supply this since they have agreed to do so and to their credit, by and large, they do here on the peninsula since they have excess capacity. If not, they have to shed some load, and lights have to go off in some places until demand and supply can be matched. So every grid has to have some spare capacity to deal with peak demand from us.

    We want electricity more and more. So we have to choose between supplies. We have to balance the costs and risks against the benefits. We do this personally every day, when we cross the road, when we drive or fly, when we play, when we eat or drink and even when we get medical treatment. We expect some accidents to happen, hope that it does not happen to us and take precautions or prepare in case. All this is normal.

    So how to choose. Try reading and see if it does not help clarify the choice for you personally. Now, about “on demand”, all it means is that the supply has to follow the load. With renewables, the supply (like wind or solar or wave) varies and cannot follow the load, so requires either backup or storage. Smart-grids which adjust the load to follow the supply are now just being tested on a small scale and require investment in a data infrastructure in addition. Currently the best load followers are gas-turbines and hydro but new designs for other conventional plants have improved their load following capability a little. The above website will clarify. Hope it helps.

  8. Pei Ling says:

    Adding in a point about public consultation from my Danish friend Gregers:

    “Denmark is a good example of a country where there was a proper public debate in the early 1980s of whether the country should go into nuclear power. Similar to Malaysia today, the Danish power utilities were pro nuclear, whereas the public was more skeptical. As the public’s understanding of the issues heightened during the years of national debate, the sentiment in the public did not favour going nuclear. This sentiment was also reflected in the final parliamentary vote, which was a “no” to nuclear power in 1985.

    A poll conducted last year (2009), showed that the Danish public still does not favour nuclear power. Nuclear power was only placed seventh on a list of preferred future fuels following those of wind energy, solar energy, geothermal energy, wave power, bio-gas energy and straw fired power plants. In fact, only 5% of the Danish public put nuclear energy as their preferred source of energy for the future.

    I would encourage the Malaysian government to conduct a similar poll among the Malaysian public as well as to engage the public in the important issue of whether Malaysia should go nuclear.”

    • Ng Ai Soo says:

      Please ask your friend what the price of electricity is in Denmark, compare it with our price and tell us… we should expect to pay the same as them if we follow their advice. Anyway their so-called green sources are not as green as they once thought because of all the subsidies and incentives. A lot of renewable capacity was installed there to take advantage of these financial benefits rather than for the purpose of a better electricity supply. As a result their conventional coal and gas capacity are operated inefficiently to support compulsory purchase of renewable electricity at very high prices. Now their costs are high and their grid is a mess. I would advise caution before following their example. Perhaps we should conduct a poll to see if the Danes would like to pay our prices for their electricity.

  9. Sean says:

    @Ng Ai Soo:
    David MacKay’s site (I’m familiar with it) has the numbers behind the quite reasonable observation that any Malaysian might make on disembarking at London Heathrow: the UK is cold and dark. The UK faces a grim energy future where they really don’t have the option (there is an option, but I expect nobody will volunteer to stop living) of no nuclear power. Malaysia is larger than the UK, has fewer people, has different housing stock (one of the problems MacKay points out with solar is that UK roofs have a number of solar-challenging attributes), probably has lower per capita energy demands. The really big difference is that Malaysia has lots more sun, and much more reliably than the UK. Using David MacKay’s figures, my modest terraced house roof could supply the needs of my house and two more like it. It is unlikely in the UK that one family’s roof could supply even their own energy needs.

    I’m going to give “can’t follow the load” one more shot: you’re comparing a complex system like a coal power station to a transducer: a device that converts energy from one type to another. A transducer doesn’t necessarily have a built-in energy store. Everybody’s favourite comedy ‘green device’ is the solar torch. The simplest construction is a solar panel wired directly to a bulb. When sun shines on the panel, the light comes on. When the sun goes down, the light goes out. Useless, right? That is a device which “can’t follow the load”. If you search for “solar torch” or “solar light” on the Internet, you’ll get lots of results for very popular products which get their energy from the sun and which can be switched on when it’s dark. They are devices which very clearly can follow demand.

    Leaving aside the obvious characteristics of a hypothetical (none of my local power stations are solar) solar power station which could follow the load, you have to accept that a coal-burning boiler and turbine combo has intermittent inputs in exactly the same way a solar torch does. When the ship or train that carries the coal arrives, it has inputs in the form of coal energy. When there’s no ship or train being unloaded, there is no input of coal energy. The coal isn’t unloaded straight into the furnace, it’s unloaded into the coal yard, and the furnace is fed from the coal yard. The coal yard is a giant energy store, just like the battery in a solar torch. The coal-yard is recharged by the arriving ships and trains.

    There is no “can’t follow the load” drawback that’s somehow magically a feature of renewable energy production techniques, yet not of fossil fuels. The farmer’s wife probably said the same thing about the lump of coal her husband brought back from the market when she observed it eventually stop burning and going cold in a way that cows never do when one shares a bedroom with them. Nuclear’s difference is that its inputs last longer. I’m a bit hazy on the details of nuclear re-charging, but I’d be surprised to learn that there currently exists a nuclear power station that can be eternally recharged. A coal-fired power station can be maintained forever, I would have thought – is it yet possible for a nuclear plant, or is decommissioning still the only way to go? Decommissioning, like ever-lasting graveyards, is not sustainable.

    I’d like to see a Malaysian version of David MacKay’s site. Like I said in my first comment, renewables are never going to be a big favourite with speculators because they’re not big, dirty and dangerous. They don’t need any special legislation and the attendant obligation on society to pick up the bill when things go wrong. The biggest problem with solar power in a place like Malaysia is that a level of self-sufficiency would be returned to consumers (possibly without them even being aware – it’s easy to imagine a scheme where householders trade roof space in part exchange for reliable energy supply). It would effectively remove large amounts of generation to a place where it would be harder (not actually impossible) to speculate on it.

    Another awkward issue with solar power from a Malaysian point of view is that while it easily covers suburban domestic demand, it doesn’t so easily extend to two very powerful lobbies in Malaysia: urbanites and industry. Fiscal plans from both sides of the nascent two-party system still appear to be stuck in Victorian times, promoting the idea of moving the nation into cities so we can all ‘look modern’. Solar power’s energy density is such that it’s a complete non-starter for use in cities, despite what Appleseed’s Olympus might make one think. There’s unlikely to be political support for solar power that is anything other than the occasional showcase mega-project. Solar mega-projects will more or less serve to prove that solar is a bad choice: it is a bad choice for mega-projects, because solar panels are expensive and they need a lot of plan area, which is also expensive.

    Industry isn’t going to support solar power because of its low energy density. While (in Malaysia) that energy density is more than adequate for suburbia (with unused plan area on all our roofs), there are few ‘big dirty dangerous’ industries that could afford the same amount of land, or could be as easily retro-fitted with solar in the same way a residential area could.

    If there’s an ideal solution from my point of view it would be that residential demand should be met from safe renewables which are integrated with living areas. In Malaysia, I suspect the only workable option is solar (because it’s the only one that does not require exclusive use of plan area).

    I think – particularly in the wake of Deepwater Horizon – it might be a good time to check again exactly who needs how much power for what. If residential demand could be served separately from industrial needs, it would strengthen the case against socialisation of costs after disasters. Alternatively, a clear split between users of energy sources might strengthen the resolve of industry to seek cleaner, safer energy sources. I realise that having a nuclear industry might mean our PM gets to shake hands with the US president more often, but wouldn’t it be nice to be able to stay outside the nuclear debate and remain critical of other country’s nuclear carelessness? I think Malaysia has that opportunity: some other countries do not.

    • Ng Ai Soo says:

      MacKay’s figures cannot be used in Malaysia, as you point out, his methods must be properly adapted to our situation. So while we have more sunlight being nearer the equator, we also have more cloud cover. This reduces the solar electric output and makes it more variable. Our per capita electricity consumption is lower that the UK, so perhaps at this time one roof may be enough… but not for our middle class families who consume above average. What we want is to consume per capita like the Brits or even higher like the [Americans].

      Clearly this “can’t follow the load” business is somewhat challenging for you. In a conventional grid with no renewables, the load is basically in two parts, namely, the base load and the variable load. The latter may be split into the slowly varying part and the quick varying part, but for this argument, lets just say the variable part. Some generators become inefficient when their output is ramped up and down, making them poor choices to follow the variable part of the load. Other generators, like gas or hydro, do so with alacrity without much effect on their efficiency. TNB has to mix our power supply capacity in such a way that both the base and variable portions of the load can be supplied at the correct voltage and frequency. Since power stations take a while to start up and synchronize with the grid, some spinning (yes, actually spinning) reserve is necessary to cater for sudden spikes in the demand.

      Renewables are themselves variable and the variation adds to the grid control problems, especially when they are a significant proportion of the supply mix. If used with storage, as in your example of the solar torch with rechargeable batteries, then they are better able to follow the load. So in the larger scale of an entire nation’s power supply, storage is needed and, as an example, pumped hydro storage is economic and green at this level. However, this may not be not enough in all cases and backup supply in the form of conventional generators are needed to ensure the supply mix will definitely follow the demand for electricity. To do this the power station must be “spinning” at part load or no load so that it can take up the slack quickly. This adds to the costs and adds to the carbon if fossil fuels are used.

      And that is it without the farmer’s wife, her little bit of coal and her bovine bedroom companion, which you should explain much, much more clearly just for us who “can’t follow the argument”.

      Solar electricity is uneconomic at the moment. It needs subsidies and incentives in many countries such as Germany and these payments raise the price of electricity to the end-user if not paid by the government out of tax revenue, a cost to the consumer anyway. Power rationing by structured tariffs (first few units cheaper, the next getting progressively more expensive) is already in place here. Perhaps it could be better structured to encourage frugal use. I feel until our per capita electricity consumption is equal to the “developed” countries, we should do what they did to get where they are now… use the cheapest, most economic sources of power. When we are equal, then we talk about all the other issues. Otherwise, ask them to subsidize carbon-free sources for us… after all this is what they are doing in their own countries… do it here as well.

  10. Aristophanes says:

    No two ways about it. BN is far too toxic and intoxicated with power to be allowed to exist – what more continue to mismanage the country!

  11. Ng Ai Soo says:

    We already produce radioactive waste from our medical facilities, from all our tin mines and so on. We dispose of these best we can. We even eat radioactive substances like bananas and we are ourselves radioactive. So please tell us the amounts of radioactive substances that we have to store or dispose from nuclear. Then we can see if that is manageable and if the risks can be overcome by the benefits. Let us know how many tonnes and compare with the quantity of radioactive waste we have now including all the tin tailings so conveniently forgotten.

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