June 30, 2008

Powering Up the Nuclear Option

IN 1973, the National Electricity Board (the predecessor of Tenaga Nasional Berhad), realising that oil prices would continue rising, established a nuclear division to work towards harnessing nuclear energy for power generation. It was closed down after seven years, as the cabinet felt nuclear energy should be the "last" option. The price of oil was US$1.80 per barrel when the NEB's nuclear division was established. With oil prices soaring - it passed US$140 per barrel on Friday - nuclear energy is becoming an attractive option again.

On June 21, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak said the government was willing to look into the use of nuclear energy, but not before exploring alternative sources, such as solar and hydro energy. The Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry has prepared a working paper on electricity generation, incorporating nuclear energy. Nuclear power is cheaper to produce as it costs US$1.72 (RM5.61) per kilowatt compared with US$9.63 per kw for petroleum and US$6.75 per kw for gas.

Understandably, the government is wary about venturing into nuclear power generation, for there is too much negative baggage attached to the word nuclear. It conjures images that fuel fear in many people, with some arguing it poses health, safety and environmental problems. Obviously, the scars of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and even Chernobyl have not healed. Which is why the government's current energy policy revolves around gas, diesel, wind, water and sun.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, world energy demand will grow 50 per cent over the next two decades and oil prices could rise to US$186 per barrel. Malaysia's oil reserves are not inexhaustible, with Petronas president and chief executive officer Tan Sri Hassan Marican saying Malaysia might become a net oil importer after 2014. That would mean even higher pump prices and power tariffs. More nations, including neighbours Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, are joining the nuclear power generation league. TNB vice-president (Supply) Ab'llah Mohd Salleh said, given the rising price of fossil fuel, it might be necessary in the long- term to exercise this option. If so, it must be done without compromising public safety.

It is clear that Malaysia, while cutting down on energy wastage, has to expand the use of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power, and biomass. Certainly it would be wise to have a good mix of energy sources, including nuclear energy. And it might be time for a new NEB - Nuclear Energy Board.

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