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Environment 101: Celebrating Earth Hour 2011

Earth Hour Environment Hot Air Balloon

(Earth Hour is an idea to create awareness – not only among the ordinary citizens of the world but also organizations and governments. Image source:

Whilst the world is busy with the nuclear crisis in Japan (which remains serious), here’s an event that marks the need for cleaner and renewable source of energy in light of global climate change. Earth Hour 2011 will be held at 8:30 pm on Saturday 26th March 2011 – details here.

Please mark the date in your calendar and help to spread the awareness and the need to change positive action on global climate change.

And whilst we are on the nuclear crisis in Japan, there was an interesting letter in theSun on why we should not go for nuclear power in Malaysia. In case you had missed it, here it is – it does make a compelling point why we should not have a nuclear plant on our own backyard:-

Why nuclear power is not for us

Radioactive waste
No country has been able to satisfactorily store its atomic waste which lasts for thousands of years. US and Canada each have more than 60,000 tonnes of spent uranium fuel stored on site.

After spending US$9 billion (RM27.5 billion) on Yucca Mountain, the US still cannot decide whether to use it (it was designed for 70,000 tons and is on a volcanic structure).

It limits clean energy.
Every ringgit spent on nuclear is not available for green energy, energy conservation and energy efficiency. It is an inflexible, expensive, time constrained method of electricity generation and not as environmentally friendly as publicised.

The reactors have a finite life span, are expensive to build and decommission, and have to be guarded around the clock.

It is not completely safe.
Safe nuclear power is a myth. The nuclear industry knows that the risk of major nuclear accident is real and requires a special law, the Nuclear Liability Act, to protect it financially from the liability of accidents.

Nuclear power plants are a terrorist or war targets.
Such plants are attractive to terrorists because of their importance to electricity supply, the consequences of radioactive releases and their symbolic character.

Imagine the effects of a plane crashing on the stockpile of radioactive caskets or the plant or in the event of hostilities, being hit by a bomb or cruise missile.

Nuclear power plants are unreliable.
There is no guarantee that these power generators will be free from maintenance problems and history is full of stories of generators being shut down because of poor performance or safety concerns, such as happened in Ontario in 1997 when eight of the province’s 20 reactors went awry, turning to coal and gas generation when this happened.

It ended up adding more CO2 to the atmosphere and billions of dollars to repair.

Nuclear power is a cause of nuclear arms proliferation.
If we value peace then we should consider this as a poor alternative to renewables. “In theory, reprocessing spent fuel and recycling it in fast breeder reactors reduces the quantity of uranium mined and leaves more of the waste in forms that remain radioactive for only a few centuries rather than many millennia.

But in practice, it is problematic because it is expensive, reduces waste only marginally (unless an extremely costly and complex recycling infrastructure is built which will add US$1-2 billion to the cost), and increases the risk that the plutonium in the spent fuel will be used to make nuclear weapons,” says physicist Frank N von Hippel.

In the US, three fast breeder reactors closed and Sellafield in UK was also closed temporarily while only the La Hague in France is still open and Rokkaso-Mura in Japan is under testing.

Radioactive emissions
There is a definite increase in radioactivity around nuclear power stations, with particulate pollutants such as tritium going into the air, soil and water and consequently into the food chain.

This increases the risk of cancer, leukaemia and birth defects. The incidence of leukaemia among children of workers at Sellafield is twice the national average. Since 1990, 18 cases of leukaemia were reported in children around Kruemmel, one of Germany’s nuclear plants, which is three times the national average.

At one conference, Gloria Hsu Kuang-Jun showed data that showed vicinity infant death rates and cancer rates decreasing substantially within two to seven years after nuclear plants closed down.

It is expensive.
Many nuclear plants undergo massive cost over-runs and delays, a burden to the general population in terms of debt and bills incurred for long-term management of radioactive waste.

In Finland, a third generation reactor was supposed to be built from August 2005 to May 2009 but it is now scheduled to be ready by December 2011 with a massive 60% cost overrun on the €3.2 billion (RM13.8 billion) project.

Claims that nuclear energy is cheap are based on hidden assumptions. Huge subsidies are ignored such as research and development, enrichment of uranium, insurance liability, waste storage, and decommissioning.

And since nuclear power has high capital costs and lower operating cost, its proponents choose unrealistically low interest/discount rate or accounting methods that shrink interest and capital repayments.

In UK, there is a fossil fuel levy of up to £1.3 billion (RM6.5 billion) a year to “subsidise” nuclear power after electricity privatisation in 1990’s. Nuclear subsidies in the US already top US$100 billion.

Not the answer to climate change.
It is certainly not that carbon friendly. Moreover there is a long lead time to build and operate a plant, whereas a solar or wind power installation would need much less time.

Even China can only plan to generate 6% of electricity by 2020 from nuclear which is currently 2.5%. But it plans to target renewable energy to 16% by the same year; simply because it is more feasible.

Sunny Spain has about 30 solar thermal plants under construction and may have 8,000 megawatts installed by 2020. Malaysia is the third largest producer of solar cells, has abundant sunshine and puny solar installations.

It is not popular.
Nowhere in the world is the population enamoured by nuclear power because of cost overruns, government subsidies borne by the masses, poor performance, mounting stockpiles of waste, health problems with accidents, security concerns and others.

Tenaga Nasional Bhd is considering building a Generation III/III+ Evolutionary Design reactor.

If Malaysians have to subsidise power generation let it be for solar/wind or other less dangerous methods.

Dr Thong Kok Wai
Malaysian Physicians for Social Responsibility

(Source: TheSun)

Interestingly, a couple of days ago, there was another letter in theStar as to why we should go for nuclear power – I did not read in detail into it but similar arguments found in the letter was found here – in this WSJ’s 2008 post titled “The Case For and Against Nuclear Power”.

The counter-arguments were:-

The argument for nuclear power can be stated pretty simply: We have no choice.

If the world intends to address the threat of global warming and still satisfy its growing appetite for electricity, it needs an ambitious expansion of nuclear power.

Scientists agree that greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide, are building up in the atmosphere and contributing to a gradual increase in global average temperatures. At the same time, making electricity accounts for about a third of U.S. greenhouse emissions, mostly from burning fossil fuels to produce power.

Nuclear power plants, on the other hand, emit virtually no carbon dioxide — and no sulfur or mercury either. Even when taking into account “full life-cycle emissions” — including mining of uranium, shipping fuel, constructing plants and managing waste — nuclear’s carbon-dioxide discharges are comparable to the full life-cycle emissions of wind and hydropower and less than solar power.

And on the issues raised by most anti-nuclear power lobbyists:-

So, what’s the case against nuclear power? It boils down to two things: economics and safety.

One reason it’s so expensive at this point is that no new plant has been started in the U.S. since the last one to begin construction in 1977. Lenders — uncertain how long any new plant would take because of political and regulatory delays — are wary of financing the first new ones.

So financing costs are unusually high. As we build more, the timing will be more predictable, and financing costs will no doubt come down as lenders become more comfortable

The next generation of plants is designed to be even safer, using fewer pumps and piping and relying more on gravity to move water for cooling the hot nuclear core. This means fewer possible places where equipment failure could cause a serious accident.

And even if a serious accident does occur, U.S. plants are designed to make sure that no radiation is released into the environment. Reactors are contained inside a huge structure of reinforced concrete with walls that are as much as four feet thick; the Chernobyl reactor lacked such a structure.

Yes, there are plenty of arguments for and against nuclear power and until we will be able to harness enough juice to power the world economies, a nuclear plant may be the way of the future.

(Science fiction or something we have yet to put our thoughts and resources in?  The technology that drives huge starships across many galaxies in the Star Trek world. may mean something when it comes to the new energy source. Image source here)

In my one of my favourite series, Star Trek, the starships use the warp drive which is a faster-than-light (FTL) propulsion system. Here’s the interesting part of warp drive:-

A primary component of the warp drive method of propulsion in the Star Trek universe is the “gravimetric field displacement manifold,” more commonly referred to as a warp core.

It is a fictional reactor which taps the energy released in a matter-antimatter annihilation to provide the energy necessary to power a starship’s warp drive, allowing faster-than-light travel.

Starship warp cores generally also serve as power plants for other primary ship systems.

And despite it is being in the far future, nothing remains safe:-

If the containment fields ever fail, the subsequent interaction of the antimatter fuel with the container walls would result in a catastrophic release of energy, with the resultant explosion capable of utterly destroying the ship.

So, yes, in the far future, we do need another source of energy once the fossil fuel has depleted – after all, it is not renewable.  In the end, we still need to look into renewable clean energy like solar (the good ones power 85% of the energy need of offices and homes and there’s plenty of sunshine in Malaysia all time around) and wind or the dreadful nuclear plant. We will cross that road when the time comes to pick the available options.

But the call for a nuclear plant in Malaysia has additional unique “Malaysian” factors that need to be considered – rather seriously by those in power.

1. Is there really need for more energy in Malaysia now? There always been a contention that we have an oversupply of power in Malaysia and we been paying too much to IPPs with heavy subsidies from the Government as well.

What about the 12 hydro-dams planned in East Malaysia in 2008? Have we been focusing on creating the supply first before there is a real demand for it?

2. The “tidak apa” culture of Malaysians – how many times we have heard of roof of newly constructed buildings falling down?

Poor design, lack of enforcement, subcontracting to unknown cronies or to those bristling with poor and bad records, has been part and parcel of construction of key infrastructures in Malaysia.

3. Enforcement of strict laws and execution of punishments to those who have failed safety and building standards. I dread the thought of enforcement of strict safety standards of building a new nuclear plant in the hands of the local “majlis perbandaran”.

Since the time we had the Highland Towers tragedy, news of landslides due to poor enforcement and monitoring keep cropping up.

Or on those developers who flout regulations and slapped with stop work orders, just how many of them have been booked for continuing with the development work until something dreadful happens?

4. Escalating cost of construction – this one no need to say lah – we are famous for mismanagement of public funds for many, many years now and I don’t think it is going to change a bit when we lay out the “initial costing” of constructing a nuclear plant.

Actual construction cost is one thing – as usual, in Malaysia, this would soon be followed by issue of an undisclosed “commissions” to be paid out upfront, maintenance costs, training, the “sudden” increase of construction cost, etc to contend with.

Of course, are we going to see it happen without open tender and in shroud of secrecy.

Constructing new nuclear plant costs anything between $3 – $7 billion and then there is a separate operating cost that covers security, safety, purchase of uranium fuel (about $59/lb), waste disposal management (costs between £67,000/m3 and £201,000/m3) and finally decommissioning the plant (it cost $300 million or more to shut down and decommission a plant).

These of course exclude the cost of compensation and clean up should the unthinkable happen (all information sourced here).

For now, switching the light for an hour this 26th March 2011 is a good start. The tough choice that we need to do in the near future is to decide whether we really need nuclear power for our energy needs but also whether we have the right people, design, policies, laws, enforcement manpower and the funds in place before we take the giant leap.

After all, if the Japanese with all the know-how, technology, discipline and money is facing a bleak future with its nuclear reactors after the 2011 tsunami, what more of us in Malaysia? Truthfully, we are yet to reach the level necessary to construct and manage and nuclear plant in Malaysia.

One would just hope that the Government would not rush in the issue of having a nuclear plant in Malaysia and takes it’s time to get all things in place before it decides to have one.

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