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Learning From Japan’s Nuclear Energy Sector

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TOKYO – Malaysia could learn much from Japan in seeking new energy sources to increase electricity output when the need arises in the future.

Japan’s current electricity generating capacity is about 250,000 MW with the bulk of it generated using fossil fuel – coal, crude petroleum and natural gas – and about 22 percent coming from its nuclear power plants and the remaining from hydro and solar sources. In comparison, Malaysia’s existing generation capacity is only about 23,000 MW with 52 percent generated using coal, natural gas (45 percent) and hydro (three percent)

Being a highly developed nation, Japan has insatiable appetite for electricity to feed its industries, run its train networks including the Shinkansen bullet train, and light up the cities and homes where its 127 million people live. While Malaysia’s power generating capacity is sufficient for now, down the road as the population grows and the country modernizes further, with its own high speed trains already on the cards, and with more growth corridors emerging, it has to generate more electricity in the future at competitive cost.

Malaysia is lucky as it is blessed with natural resources like petroleum and natural gas that can be used to generate electricity. Nonetheless, fossil fuel are not renewable resources and their use contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

As Malaysia has given its commitment to adhere to the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21) agreement on climate change, the extensive use of fossil fuel will contradict its stand on reducing emissions. Moreover, Malaysia is heavily relying on fossil fuel to generate electricity and hence it is vulnerable to fossil fuel price spikes or supply disruption.

Hence, diversification of energy sources to generate electricity is necessary in ensuring energy security of the future. However, what are the options available for Malaysia? The solar and wind energy’s potential in Malaysia is limited due to inadequate land area available for solar farms and the lack of strong winds throughout the year. The hydroelectricity potential of our rivers has already been tapped and there is only limited generating capacity available here.

So can nuclear energy be an option for a new base-load source? Is Malaysia ready to go nuclear?

THE STIGMA OVER NUCLEAR ENERGY

Admittedly, mention nuclear and it sends fears into the hearts of many. And why not when Malaysians would recall Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi reactor meltdown after the tsunami that was unleashed by the 9.1 magnitude earthquake on 11 March 2011.

Though radiation fallout did occur within the Fukushima Prefecture, it has been contained within a small area with no causalities reported and not as widespread and dangerous as initially claimed. However, there was even a bigger fallout from the incident, the Japanese government ordered the country’s Nuclear Power Plants (NPPs) to shut down for a stringent safety review.

Nonetheless, the Fukushima Daiichi episode pales in comparison with the Chernobyl catastrophe in 1986 where many people were killed and the nuclear fallout reached as far as western Europe. Much earlier, in 1979, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania literally halted the historic growth of nuclear power industry in the United States.

LEARNING NUCLEAR FROM JAPAN

On the last week of February, a Malaysian delegation led by the Malaysia Nuclear Power Corporation (MNPC) visited Japan’s nuclear facilities and took note of the revised safety benchmark imposed by Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority after the Fukushima Daiichi accident.

The visit was facilitated by JAIF International Cooperation Centre (JICC) that provides cooperation for nuclear energy development under the strong commitment of the Japanese government. The Malaysian delegation, including this writer, was accompanied by JICC project advisor Kiyonobu Yamashita and General Manager Hiroki Takimoto accompanied

The delegation consisted of senior officials from the Economic Planning Unit (EPU), Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), Atomic Energy Licensing Board Malaysian, Malaysian Society for Non-Destructive Testing. Also in the delegation was MNPC’s Board Chairman Tan Sri Dr Rahamat Bivi Yusoff , CEO Razib Dawood and board member Prof Dr Awang Iskanderdzulkarnein Pengiran Rayari.

The group was taken to the reactor core of the Fukushima Daini NPP, located about 20 km away from Fukushima Daiichi. Both NPPs that use Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) are owned and operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco).

The Fukushima Daini NPP, now idle pending safety review and green light from the local government, was also affected by the tsunami in the 2011 earthquake after its water pumps to cool the reactor too failed as the generators were cut off. However, quick action by the employees saved the NPP from a meltdown.

The delegation also went to the Tsuruga Power Station in the Fukui Prefecture operated by Japan’s Atomic Power Company to take a look at the pressurized water reactor (PWR) and the counter measures taken to improve safety.

At Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd (MHI) Nuclear Energy Business Operation Department in Kobe, the delegation took a look at the fabrication of steam generators, the robot arm for removing nuclear fuel debris and the impressive huge dashboard screen that not only displayed real time operational data but also supported decision making during emergencies at NPPs.

The lessons learnt by the delegation from the visit is that operating an NPP is a complex task and it requires a mindset change back home to create a competent, committed and well trained nuclear work force, and not to mention lots of planning and studies before embarking on nuclear.

NUCLEAR HAS NOT LOST ITS LUSTER

Despite of the high cost in putting up a NPP and the safety concerns in operating a NPP subsequent to the Fukushima Daiichi episode, nuclear energy has not lost its luster. Turkey is set to see the Sinop NPP in operations by 2023 , Horizon Nuclear Power is planning to build new NPPs in United Kingdom, UAE has embarked on the Barakah NPP that will be fully commissioned by 2020 and China already has 37 nuclear reactors with another 20 under construction. South Korea too has many nuclear power plants.

Though nuclear energy was identified as a potential long term option for power generation under the 10th Malaysia Plan (2010-2015), the Fukushima Daiichi incident had affected public perception and Malaysia’s nuclear option took a back seat.

However, lessons have been learnt from all the nuclear accidents with the Fukushima episode being a blessing in disguise for the nuclear industry as it has raised the safety benchmarks. Also a new generation of III+ medium-power pressurized reactors (PWRs) – ATMEA1 that are highly efficient and with more safety features have been developed by MHI and France’s Areva through a joint venture .

The nuclear fuel cycle including the nuclear waste management has also seen major improvements.

MALAYSIA’S POSITION ON NUCLEAR ENERGY

During a lunch meeting with the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), Dr Rahamat Bivi Yusoff noted that the delegation has learnt a lot on Japan’s nuclear sector during the six-day trip.

She however admitted that the idea of Malaysia going nuclear remained at infancy and more efforts were needed in convincing the people, stakeholders and Malaysia’s neighbours of the country’s intention to harness nuclear energy to generate electricity.

There are many other things to look into as well including human capacity building in nuclear power programmme, conduct detailed studies on issues and considerations related to nuclear power, ratify treaties relating to the use of nuclear for peaceful purpose and identify a suitable site for a NPP.

MNPC, that serves as the Nepio (Nuclear Energy Programme Implementing Organization), will embark on communications and advocacy and work towards establishing the Nuclear Energy Commission that will serve as an independent regulatory body in establishing a reliable, safe, and secure nuclear programme.

So far the Malaysian government has yet to take any firm decision to proceed with a NPP and instead has extended the timeline to consider building the NPP from 2021 to 2030.

This means NPP in Malaysia may not appear anytime soon, what more it will take between 13-14 years to complete a NPP right from the conceptual stage until power generation begins.

However, in the meantime the country may start laying the framework for a nuclear energy programme so that if given the go ahead in the future the implementation could move fast. – BERNAMA

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