Sunday, August 8, 2010

Nuclear Power Plant With Social Responsibility

The idea of nuclear power plant (NPP) has been marketed to the public by WZWH. Is it safe or not?

Furthermore, Malaysia’s nuclear ambition displays a typically worrying pattern of the extremely hazardous technology that is the perception of commom people.

Internationally recognised and independent nuclear experts would be in a better position to advise the government on the pros and cons of embarking on nuclear power.

Isn’t their answer a foregone conclusion? This utility corporation that aggressively bids in the world market to build NPPs is selected by Malaysia to do the feasibility study.

Peter Chin the Energy, Green Technology and Water Minister announced on May 4 that the government has approved in principle the setting up of a nuclear power plant. Then two weeks later, the Prime Minister Najib Razak said that no decision shall be made before any in-depth study is done. Presumably, the green light to go nuclear by 2021 is still on.

However, there are many unknowns. What is the framework of the study (technical model, economic model, health and environmental impact)? Would findings be released for public scrutiny and debate?

Malaysia no doubt has the right to develop nuclear power but it is an enormous burden of social responsibility.

The nuclear controversy always centres on the complex issues of health and environmental impacts of radiation, nuclear reactor accidents, economics, nuclear waste disposal and nuclear weapons proliferation.

With a series of events like collapsed roof of the Terengganu stadium, the water leakage in Parliament building and the cracked elevated highway in Kepong, to name just a few examples, public distrust of the country’s work and safety culture is not without basis.

Right from the start, we need to be clear that NPP is not the same as any other power plants because of its dangerous and long-lived radioactivity. A serious mistake made in operating a nuclear power plant would release huge amounts of highly dangerous fission products. These could be scattered over a vast area, contaminating the land for decades and causing thousands of cancer-related deaths.

Let us look at some of the critical issues and questions:

(1) The IAEA perspective

IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) in its Bulletin vol.19, No.2 highlighted the difficulties that developing countries face and need to overcome when embarking on nuclear programme:

  • ambitious nuclear programmes with minimal and frequently under-staffed regulatory and utility organizations
  • site evaluation of NPP affected by political and military considerations which limit the number of available sites. Financial and time limitations may not allow for adequate investigations
  • limited historical data in the seismology and hydrology areas
  • construction problems with poor domestic subcontractor performance, and
  • minimal training of maintenance staff etc.

In summary, political consideration, lack of qualified people in nuclear applications and lack of proper historical data would have serious repercussions on the safe operation of nuclear power plants.

(2) Risk-benefit doctrine overriding human rights

The decision to go nuclear i.e. the setting up of an NPP is very different from many other decisions on energy for the simple fact that grave issues of the risks to public health is involved.

The public must know what the findings are on risk assessment and whether the risks are acceptable and to whom.

It is impossible to attain zero risk levels but nonetheless advocates of nuclear power often sell the idea that nuclear power is cheap, safe, reliable and green based on a package deal of risks and benefits. It is assumed that if the public can be convinced that the risk is low and the benefit is great, in addition to the threat that fossil fuel is running out soon, the public will readily ignore the consequences and accept nuclear power.

Nuclear accidents are often classified as “low-probability high consequence events”.

Nuclear advocates often dismiss the probability of a catastrophic accident like the Chernobyl or Three Mile Island as extremely low. Also, they argue that such probability can be determined beforehand by theoretical calculations. This gives the impression that the probabilities are known, i.e. low.

In actual fact, there is no historical data stretching far enough in time to make such estimates of risk of hypothetical events. The uncertainties are so large we can only reasonably assert that we do not really know. With car and motorbike accidents, we can give a reasonable projection of road deaths just by looking at past records but not for nuclear accidents.

Even with the best of intentions and the most sophisticated computer programmes, engineers and scientists are still unable to visualize all possible behaviour of their systems, all possible defects in design and construction, all possible operator errors, and especially all possible political and business interference of sound engineering practices.

Due to financial and time constraints, engineering systems are not designed and built to meet all possible scenarios. The worst scenario visualized may not be the worst. The risk and benefit analysis marketed to the public is narrowed to only certain scenarios, certain risk and certain benefits or social costs.

The risk-benefit doctrine proposes that there is a social good which must take precedence over individual rights. The danger of this doctrine is that, in the name of social good, it overrides human rights. The right to healthy and safe living is more so withheld when democratic participation in decision-making is denied.

In essence, the argument is not so much about probabilities but about rights.

(3) Worst case scenario from the Rasmussen Report

In the US, the safety of nuclear reactors was hardly questioned in the 1950s and 1960s. However, by 1970s, questions were raised about the reliability of computer calculations used to predict the behaviour of emergency systems of reactor.

In 1974, the US AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) released the now famous Rasmussen report, sometimes called WASH-1000 which was a US$3-million safety study. It calculated that the worst scenario would be devastating – 3,300 instant deaths, 45,000 cancer cases in later years, 5,100 genetic defects, US$14,000,000,000 in property damage and an area of several thousand square miles contaminated for years.

This report had been criticised by the US Environmental Protection Agency for underestimating death toll.

It used probabilistic analysis techniques developed for ‘event tree’ type of decision-making in business and for reliability analysis in the aerospace industry to calculate the chance of rocket failures. Based on the report’s most accurate estimate, an accident as severe as Three Mile Island would not have occurred for several hundred years. However, TMI happened in 1979.

It turned out that the Rasmussen report prediction was overly optimistic.

(4) Nuclear plant risk studies

The US governmental studies have estimated that more people could be killed by a nuclear accident than were killed by the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in which 70,000 people died.1

Nuclear plant risk studies must include both probabilities and consequences. Our government nuclear advocates have avoided these questions in practically all their announcements.

(5) Chernobyl: How many died?

The Chernobyl nuclear accident is one of the most frightening and most tragic catastrophes of modern industrial history. It was unique in the scale of its social, economic and environmental impacts and long-lasting effects. The long-lived radioactivity released was more than 200 times that of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

As a result of the social-technical disaster, it is estimated that in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia alone, around nine million people were directly affected; around 400,000 people were evacuated; about 200,000 square kilometres of land (about the size of Malaysia) was, and still is, contaminated by radioactive Caesium-137 above 37 kBq/m2 (intervention level).

This contamination will persist for hundreds of years. The above affected countries still face food restriction orders. Ultimately, there is not much difference for us whether the nuclear power plant is to be built in Barisan-controlled Pahang or Pakatan-controlled Penang.

Until today, the figures for death and cancer arising from the Chernobyl nuclear accident are still in dispute. Unlike Nagasaki and Hiroshima, there have been no comprehensive and coordinated studies of the health impacts. Depending on which source is being quoted, the predicted deaths could range from 4,000 to half a million (Guardian, Jan 10, 2010).

The world may not know the exact figure. However, the health impacts have been very serious and will remain so for decades. Our Malaysian decision-makers must not be so indifferent as to believe that death will only occur to others and to not themselves.

(6) Nuclear reactor hazards

The nuclear industry often portrays the Chernobyl as a uniquely Soviet phenomenon. Their excuse is that the Chernobyl reactor is of old design and the accident won’t happen elsewhere.

However, Greenpeace International authors give a grim picture of nuclear safety.2

Their findings:

  • All operational reactors have very serious inherent safety flaws which cannot be eliminated by safety upgrading
  • A major accident in a light-water reactor – the large majority of the reactors – can lead to radioactive releases equivalent to several times the release at Chernobyl and about 1,000 times that released by a fission weapon. Relocation of the population can become necessary for large areas (up to 100,000 sq. km). The number of cancer deaths could exceed one million, and
  • New reactor lines are envisaged which are heralded as fundamentally safe. However, apart from having their own specific safety problems, those new reactors would require enormous sums for their development, with uncertain outcome.

Some of the background information about the authorswho are scientific consultants is relevant to make sense of their viewpoints. One of them, Mycle Schneider, was an advisor to the French Environment Minister’s Office and to the Belgium Minister for Energy and Sustainable Development between 1998 and 2003. Besides Greenpeace, he has provided consultation to IAEA, Unesco and the European Commission.

It is naive to think that updated technology can forestall all human errors; new reactors have new safety problems. Also, the Chernobyl accident is not just due to design flaws. It is a social-technical disaster that can be repeated anywhere.

(7) Shortage of qualified and skilled people

Besides having a sound research base, going nuclear requires qualified and experienced people. There is a world shortage of graduates in the nuclear field. According to World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2007, the field is shrinking:

  • In 1980, there were about 65 university nuclear engineering programmes in the USA. Today, it’s only around 29.
  • And as of 2002, there was not a single undergraduate course in nuclear engineering in the UK.
  • In Germany, the number of academic institutions teaching nuclear- related matters is expected to further decline from 22 in 2000 to 10 in 2005 and only 5 in 2010, and
  • In France, the biggest segment of the hired staff is not trained nuclear engineers or other nuclear scientists.

Lack of qualified and skilled personnel has great impact on safe operation of nuclear power plant. The 2007 report quoted Lothar Hahn, managing director of the German company Society for Reactor Safety as saying:

“First studies indicate that deficiencies in maintaining knowledge as state-of-the-art levels and a subsequent degradation in education and training of operating personnel may endanger the safe operation of nuclear installations. Furthermore, knowledge deficits at authorities and expert organisations due to a lack of qualified successors to retired experts have been depicted as an imminent threat to the qualified supervision of reactor plants and thereby to safe plant operation.”

Malaysia can buy hardware with money. However, software like a safety culture cannot be bought over the counter. Even something like leakage of water from the cooling pipes of the Emergency Core Cooling System would lead to a reactor meltdown – the ultimate nightmare of the nuclear industry.

(8) Where do we go from here?

Nuclear energy is a complex issue. The public needs to have the basic understanding of the various aspects of nuclear energy so that they are able to make a critical evaluation of what the proponents and opponents are arguing about. Also, they would be in a better position to make a wise choice for themselves and future generations.

The very first step is that the public must now educate themselves more on this issue.

Nuclear power comes with the enormous burden of social responsibility to uphold a very high ethical and technical standard.

Reactor safety is just one of the major concerns. Looking at the uncertainties of probability, the potentially disastrous consequences, the hazards of new reactor designs, the global shortage of qualified and skilled personnel, the pertinent question is: Is it worth the risk?

WZWH wants to ask WHY Asian countries such as Japan, China, South Korea, North Korea, Taiwan, India, Turkey, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia are already, planning to go for nuclear plants? Malaysia should not be left out...must join the bandwagon. This is WZWH's personal opinion.


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