27 August 2014

New Straits Times (Malaysia): Nuclear energy fraught with risks

Nuclear energy fraught with risks

New Straits Times

By Ronald McCoy - 27 August 2014 @ 11:26 AM

THE government plans to table the Atomic Energy Regulatory Bill in Parliament later this year. Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Mah Siew Keong recently urged critics of nuclear energy to keep an “open mind” on the proposal.

The minister claimed that the nuclear debate revolves around three groups — those who are vocally for it, those who know absolutely nothing about it and those who believe in it as long as it is not in their backyard.

However, there is a fourth group who have carefully thought about nuclear issues over a long period, thoroughly researched the subject of nuclear energy — its economics and finances, its hazards and disasters, its false promises and untested premises, its misinformation and mythology — and come to the conclusion that nuclear energy is not cheap, clean or safe and, therefore, not an option for any country.

Nuclear energy carries inherent health, security and environmental risks. Amory Lovins, an energy expert, has called it “the greatest failure of any enterprise in the industrial history of the world”, with a litany of financial disasters, including a loss of more than US$1 trillion (RM3.1 trillion) in subsidies, abandoned projects and other public misadventures.

For the sake of open-mindedness, I would strongly urge the minister and his cohorts in Malaysia Nuclear Power Corporation (MNPC) to study the recently published World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2014. In 139 pages, it analyses the rapid changes in nuclear economics, the technology revolution in the power sector, and the impact of renewable energy on the financial viability and status of nuclear power. The report predicts that the use of renewable energy will increase rapidly, that investment in renewable energy sources will be dominant, and that investment in solar and wind power will exceed investment in fossil fuels or nuclear power.

Cheap nuclear energy is a myth. Misleading claims that it is cheap are often based on unverifiable bottom-line results or “justified” by analyses with hidden assumptions that are highly favourable to the nuclear industry. The total economic cost of nuclear energy is difficult to determine.

The nuclear industry is in decline worldwide. Today, only 31 countries are operating 388 nuclear reactors, compared with 438 in 2002. Several nuclear reactor projects have been indefinitely delayed or cancelled.

Only 14 countries have plans to build new reactors. Sixty-seven reactors are classified as “under construction”. Forty-nine of them have met with significant delays, ranging from several months to several years. Eight of them have been “under construction” for more than 20 years, including one in the United States that began in 1972.

The cost of constructing a reactor largely determines the final cost of nuclear electricity, particularly when numerous construction delays and cost overruns impact budgets significantly. Estimates of investment costs have risen in the past decade, from US$1,000 to around US$8,000 per installed kilowatt.

Germany, Sweden and the US are closing down reactors because projected income does not cover operating costs. Debt levels remain very high amongst European nuclear power companies. The two largest French groups (EDF and GDF-Suez) and the two largest German utilities (E.ON and RWE) equally share a total of more than US$173 billion in debt. Since 2008, Europe’s top 10 utilities have lost half of their US$1.4 trillion share value.