The Hidden Costs of Going Nuclear

These Sunsets Are to Die For | Credit: Shepard Fairey

These Sunsets Are to Die For | Credit: Shepard Fairey

“To avert catastrophic global warming, why pick the slowest, most expensive, most limited, most inflexible and riskiest option? … nuclear generation is just an impediment to sustainable electricity.” Nature, Oct 2007

The recent establishment of the Malaysia Nuclear Power Corporation is yet another indicator that the government is moving ahead with nuclear power (NP).

Despite earlier assurances that public consultations will help determine the NP decision, this critical process appears to have been bypassed.

Public opposition to NP has been small compared to the proposed 100-storey Warisan Merdeka tower or GM mosquito field trials, for example.

Perhaps most Malaysians agree with the Ministry of Energy, Green Technology and Water (KeTTHA) that nuclear is the best option for cheap, reliable and low-carbon power.

But there is more to NP than our Tenaga bills might reflect.

KeTTHA, being entrusted with the stewardship of Renewable Energy (RE) and its myriad options in solar, wind, geothermal, marine and others, should compare in depth, NP with RE for 2020 deployment.

It should also compare NP to energy efficiency (EE), efforts to reduce the energy required to produce products and services and the most cost effective solution to meeting energy demand now.

The government only stands to gain the people’s support for NP if it is measured favourably against EE and RE and its higher standards in an independent feasibility study.

The analysis of NP needs to be grounded on three main considerations.

1. Malaysia needs to diversify its energy mix, as gas and coal reserves are dwindling and costs are rising.

2. The country now has 40% more power than it needs – an amount that will meet projected demand even in 2020.

3. Malaysia is seeking to become a developed nation in an era of climate change and sustainability.

The potential danger of NP is relatively well documented, but perhaps less well known is the debilitating costs of nuclear.

Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant, 2 days after a meltdown that forced the closure of the plant. | Credit:

Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant, 2 days after a meltdown that forced the closure of the plant. | Credit:

Economic costs

Firstly, NP is not going to be cheap. Various studies estimate the cost of nuclear electricity to be higher than Malaysia’s national average of RM0.30/kWh[1].

Wall Street and independent energy analysts, whose cost projections have been the most accurate to date, put NP at an average of RM0.50/kWh[2].

A 2009 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study – noteworthy for being pro-nuclear power and the first of its kind – states that potential NP cost improvements are only theoretical, but not demonstrated today[3].

In fact, actual projects in South Korea and Japan have seen a 25% increase in average costs[3] and in Finland that figure is 90%.

And, the cost of NP is trending upwards. Since the 1970s, nuclear has experienced, for the same amount of power generated, a five-fold cost escalation in the US and three-fold in France, countries with the most vibrant NP usage[3].

Most nuclear plants worldwide have suffered significant delays, contributing to cost overruns endemic to the industry.

As a result, the financial uncertainty of NP is so severe almost all projects require extensive government backing in terms of loan guarantees and subsidies. Wall Street has made it clear that nuclear projects cannot be funded in capital markets[3].

Malaysia’s reputation for mega-projects with its associated cost overruns, delays, corruption and leakages, will only exacerbate the already huge financial risks due to the country’s inexperience in NP.

Expecting private investors to fund 90% of the nuclear project, as envisioned by the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP), appears naively optimistic at best.

Realistically, in the very likely case of a cost blowout, the government – and ultimately taxpayers – will have to bail out any private investors, potentially to the tune of RM50 billion, according to an upper range estimate by Standard & Poor’s[4], far exceeding the government’s proposed RM21.3 billion budget.

Furthermore, NP’s extreme complexity in set-up, as well as operations and maintenance, will require large corporations, most likely foreign – representing a wasted multi-billion ringgit chance to invest in homegrown small and medium enterprises (SMEs), Malaysia’s growth engine.

Social costs

The government estimates 2,600 jobs will be created by the NP project.

A comprehensive study by the University of California, Berkeley, revealed that EE and RE in the form of solar photo-voltaics (PV or solar panels), solar thermal, wind and geothermal will yield, on average, 2.7 times more jobs than nuclear[5].

Clearly, investing in NP is not the best way to create jobs.

NP jobs are also highly-skilled, benefitting the well-educated and trained. This is to be desired as Malaysia strives to be a higher income economy.

However, consider the distressing situation that 34% of Malaysian workers, or 1.3 million, earn less than RM700 a month, below the poverty threshold[6].

While EE and RE jobs would need upgrading of workers’ skills, it is nowhere near as big a jump as nuclear jobs, and having RM21.3 billion is a golden opportunity to boost this group’s chances of career development, instead of fuelling feelings of disenfranchisement.

In Hot, Flat and Crowded, acclaimed author Thomas Friedman suggests climate change offers a fresh chance of doing things more sustainably and fairly, in a big way.

Increased energy autonomy to the people is one such foundational shift, modernising mindsets on power consumption.

As consumers can choose when and at what costs they consume electricity, they can optimise usage with increased savings while reducing their carbon footprint.

NP largely misses out on this opportunity due to its business-as-usual model of inefficient centralised power generation and ownership and the need to maximise consumption to recoup its massive infrastructure, operations and maintenance costs.

Nuclear is only a new way of doing the same old thing, and is thus a stumbling block to Malaysian society’s progression with the greening times.

Nuclear power plants pave the way for nuclear weapons. | Credit: The Economist

Nuclear power plants pave the way for nuclear weapons. | Credit: The Economist

Safety and security

Most Malaysians who object to NP fear the public service’s poor maintenance culture might allow a repeat of the deadly Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

To be fair, the global record on catastrophic nuclear accidents since Chernobyl in 1986 has been strong, partly due to improved operations.

However, effective and independent regulation, a management committed to safety and a skilled workforce – factors necessary for the safe operation of a NP plant[3] – are not Malaysia’s strong suits.

Yet power plant accidents are not the most feared fallout from NP – that distinction belongs to nuclear weapons proliferation.

The fuel used in NP plants, uranium, is the same material or the precursor to that used in nuclear bombs. As more NP plants are operated, more materials for nuclear bombs become available.

Even the pro-nuclear MIT study concedes proliferation is a grave consequence of a worldwide expansion of NP, saying “with modest nuclear infrastructure, any nation could … acquire material needed for several [nuclear] weapons”[3].

Compounding this situation is a nuclear black market that has grown to be sophisticated and audacious, involving movement of equipment and even blueprints for nuclear bombs.

At the uncovering of this black market in 2003, the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), reacted with shock at how international safeguards had proved wholly inadequate[7].

Hence, the international security climate today is rightfully one of apprehension: what separates NP from nuclear weapons is mostly intention.

Some say nuclear arms act as a deterrent to all-out war, but who wants to gamble on the likes of North Korea being able to obliterate other countries?

And it doesn’t stop there: proliferation experts have warned that North Korea and Iran’s nuclear advancements will spark arms races, and that’s just among countries[8] [9]. Could we be seeing the rise of military motives disguising and incubating as civilian NP programs now?

Nuclear, whether fuel, bomb or power plant, is also the terrorist’s dream weapon, as the al-Qaeda’s gameplan has shown even before 9/11[10].

Many scenarios of attack on a NP plant are plausible and have occurred in the past, while other buildings within the site complex other than the reactor can be targeted to result in a nuclear catastrophe[11].

By choosing NP, Malaysia is voting in favour of an industry with devastating side-effects, not just for Malaysians but globally – a move that is at best, unnecessary.

Environmental costs

NP violates the sustainability principle that civilisation needs to embrace for its continued survival.

The mining of uranium fuel causes severe damage to land often inhabited by indigenous people whose lives are closely entwined with their environment.

Communities like the Navajo Indians in the US[12] and Malaysians in Perak’s Bukit Merah-Papan[13] continue to suffer from hazardous waste from mining of radioactive minerals.

The problem of discarding spent nuclear fuel has dogged every nation employing NP. There is yet no long-term solution.

Proponents of NP might cite Finland’s Onkalo, the world’s first permanent geologic repository, as the answer[14].

But a repository like Onkalo costs RM12.5 billion to build, nuclear waste must be isolated for at least 100,000 years, and we have to tell an extremely distant future generation to monitor said repository – a feat the US Academy of Science deems impossible.

Humanity has never handled such mind-bending timelines as we know very little beyond even 100 years. So-called permanent repositories are really a leap into the unknown.

The long timeline – 10 years at least – to bring NP on stream and the inevitable channelling of resources away from swifter yet more long-term and more effective low-carbon power solutions such as RE, will mean climate change remains inadequately addressed in the interim.

The scientific journal Nature put it this way in 2007: “To avert catastrophic global warming, why pick the slowest, most expensive, most limited, most inflexible and riskiest option? … nuclear generation is just an impediment to sustainable electricity.[15]

Future prospects

Malaysia’s choice of NP has to be scrutinised in light of future prospects of the technology.

The impact of the multi-billion ringgit investment can be just electricity, or electricity with well-orchestrated long-term spillover benefits.

Does NP have a future of vibrancy and continuity in Malaysia? A look at the global situation is instructive.

The pro-nuclear MIT study stressed that all four critical problems of cost, safety, waste and proliferation must be overcome before NP can flourish, but latest developments are not in favour of three out of the four[3].

Today, a crippling global shortage of skilled NP workers threatens the safe operation of plants.

The scenario of 30% global electricity supply from NP would exhaust current uranium reserves in less than 20 years[15].

New generation NP reactors known as Gen IV reactors that are expected to produce a hundred times the energy now achievable, are not expected till 2045 and remain theoretical today.

The future of NP is fraught with uncertainties, at best. Malaysia may be about to invest billions in a dead-end industry.

New generation off-shore wind turbines slated for 2014 launch | Credit: The Guardian

New generation off-shore wind turbines slated for 2014 launch | Credit: The Guardian


EE and RE, on the other hand, do not suffer the safety, waste and weapons proliferation woes that plague NP.

In addition, the cost of electricity from some forms of RE, like concentrating solar thermal, could be as cheap as RM0.15/kWh by 2020[1] – far lower than the average RM0.30/kWh Malaysians now pay.

A long-term strategic outlook on Malaysia’s energy needs is sorely needed to modernise the power sector.

This is not an easy task, but the potential rewards could be game-changing innovations like smart grids for efficiency and cost savings, nanotechnology for revolutionary performance jumps in solar PV, and a green power manufacturing and R&D hub, just to name a few.

Significantly more jobs for Malaysians are in the offing for truly green power too.

Finally, a Stanford University study last year found that 100% renewable energy can be achieved globally by 2030 with the only obstacle being political will[16].

Contrast that with a 2009 report commissioned by the German Federal Ministry of Environment, Nature Conservation and Reactor Safety, which concludes “there is as yet no obvious sign that the international nuclear industry could eventually turn the empirically evident decline into a promising future[4].

A single nuclear plant does not a country’s future determine.

Rather, the assessment process on NP indicates a country’s state of affairs; a signpost to its ultimate destiny.

We Malaysians have not been well informed nor engaged by our government on accepting nuclear power despite its immense costs and far-reaching consequences.

Nuclear power is being pursued without due process, as if Malaysians care only about electricity.

And it is this lack of due process that could very well be the costliest result of going nuclear.

Ken Yeong loves his coffee and sashimi, but loves creation/earth more so its soy latte and sardines. He’s about to throw himself into a Master of Environment course in Melbourne Uni in July.


1) The Case Against Nuclear Energy

2) Myth: Nuclear Power Provides Lower Energy Prices

3) MIT: The Future of Nuclear Power

4) World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2009

5) Energy Policy: Clean Energy and Jobs

6) A Third of Workers below poverty line

7) A Tale of Nuclear Proliferation: How Pakistani Built His Network

8) Iran, North Korea could spark arms race, says Clinton

9) Nuclear Weapons Proliferation, Energy Security, And Carbon Emission Reduction: How To Overcome The Civilian-Military Nuclear Dilemma

10) Al Qaeda Weapons of Mass Destruction Threat: Hype or Reality?

11) Nuclear Reactor Hazards

12) A Peril That Dwelt Among the Navajos

13) Dumpsite Danger

14) Finland Buries Its Nuclear Past

15) Fifty Years of Hopes and Fears

16) Nuclear Energy: The Energy Balance

17) Stanford: Numbers for Clean Energy by 2030

Tags: , , , , , ,

Posts by Ken Yeong

Posted on 15 February 2011. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

Read more articles posted by Ken Yeong.

Read this first: LB Terms of Use

15 Responses to The Hidden Costs of Going Nuclear

  1. Solar system is very expensive and it is beyond the access of poor. Make efforts to available for poor

  2. Guys,

    We (EAROPH Malaysia)is organizing a Roundtable and would like to invite the public with topic on "THE MALAYSIA NUCLEAR ENERGY OPTION, A POST FUKUSHIMA PERSPECTIVE"

    Date: 9/6/2011, Thursday

    Venue: Sime Darby Convention Centre

    Time: 8.30am – 2pm.

    Admission: Free

    Limited 50 seats

    The objective of the roundtable is to bring together stakeholders to further deliberate on the nuclear energy option in the context of the Malaysia energy needs. The Fukushima nuclear disaster following a powerful 8.9 earth quake and tsunami has seemingly cast a grave doubt on the viability of pursuing the nuclear option for Malaysia.

    In the light of the above, EAROPH Malaysia has invited panels from energy providers, professional bodies, universities, consumers group and other NGO to share and exchange views on current energy situation and meeting forward to also discuss other energy options including renewable energy source, such as solar PV, biomass, wind and others.

    It is our hope that the roundtable organized will contribute in some way towards the continuing upgrading of cities’ alternative energy and hence make it resourceful and more livable. We have invited the Honorable Minister of KeTTHA to chair the meeting.

    Interested parties please email me [email protected] for details of program.

    Thank you for taking the time to read this letter and consider our invitation.

    Wh Yap

    EAROPH Malaysia

    [email protected]


  3. Ng Ai Soo

    @ Sinjoro Eng:

    At the moment rooftop solar photovoltaic yields too little electricity (1500kWh/kWp installed, annually) for too much money (RM20,000 per kWp). But with the coming subsidy and generous feed-in tariff, I suggest you persuade your family to get some installed, unless your family cannot afford the cost even with the subsidy, or do not have a rooftop because you are renting a house or live in a condominium or flat. This is the best way for your family to benefit, but at the expense of the poorer taxpayer, of course. Sadly, despite monetary savings to you, it will not save you much carbon emissions because backup generation is required and ours is mostly fossil fuel. But hey, not to sneeze at the savings, we can always say we are going green.

  4. Ng Ai Soo

    This is a totally deluded, trashy and biased anti-nuclear report that does not provide any proper analysis of our energy situation. When confronted with an objection to wind energy yields, an estimate is provided from a vendor of windmills who has not actually done the measurements!

    Bald statements abound, like "as the Msian scene goes, ignorance and opacity prevails"… in other words, we Malaysians know nothing and cannot be clear… this refers more to the author than the rest of us, I am sorry to say. But I am glad the author is trying to do an environmental science masters in Australia… I do hope he raises the matter of coal pollution, both in Australia and exported to Asia, as part of his studies. Here is reference to help you on this route…

  5. CCJ

    Informative and mind opening for the uninitiated and uninformed.

    With NP, we need our government to not only count the cost with their heads but also with their hearts and conscience.

  6. Ken

    Thanks for the detailed sharing Clarissa. Much appreciated!

    I wish we could separate politics from the virtuosity of options based on logic, but the reality is politics is very much a part of energy. A poll conducted by The Star last year revealed that 56% of Msians approve of nuclear, while only 32% oppose.…
    Perhaps that means it's a good political move to go nuclear. However, i believe most Msians falsely consider nuclear to be the answer to our energy challenges in an era of climate change and if they knew the heavy costs, this will make it a politically bad move to go nuclear. But, as the Msian scene goes, ignorance and opacity prevails.

    I have no issues with ongoing research to further develop nuclear, just it's current half-baked condition. Nuclear certainly needs more understanding, but as it is now, it's not ready for power generation.

  7. Clarissa Lee

    Firstly, I am not saying that nuclear energy is a better choice than other AEs. Clearly, other AEs have many benefits in our not having to deal with figuring out how to dispose of the 'afterlives'. But I am talking in terms of the economics and research programs that have gone into the development of alternative sources of energies, and how very little funding has so far, until fairly recently, been channeled towards the development of AEs. At the same time, nuclear energy should not be dismissed as harmful and pointless without taking the time to discern the finer points of its science or its possibilities. I am also saying that one should NOT conflate issues of the politics of nuclear weapon proliferation and enrichment programs WITH the science of nuclear energy. The politics in this is horrible because of the potential devastating harm that uncontrolled use of nuclear power can lead to (due to its extreme power) but that does not mean we should not work at understanding its science outside the value-ladenness of its economics and politics.

    My reference to the periodic table is to underline the many kinds of atomic elements that could be used as sources of nuclear power (not to mention that each has different species of isotopes), each with different half-lives and radioactive stability issues. I agree that there has not been much development in fission technology since probably the 1970s but it has a lot to do with the priority of funding rather than the fact that such possibility does not work. Priority of funding has shifted focus into other forms of research.

    At the same time, why hasn't the world move more quickly into the investment of technology to use AE even as we spend our research energies into creating supposedly more efficient forms of fuel? This is because much of our economies are intricately tied to the revenue generated by 'cheap' fossil fuel, regardless of the long-term repercussions on our health and biosphere. All petrol-producing countries are guilty of this.

    I am not arguing that AE such as geothermal or solar energy is NOT better than nuclear energy. What I am arguing for is the distinction between a POLITICAL/ECONOMIC manner by which any of these energies are deployed rather than for their scientific veracity. We tend to blur the lines when regarding the usefulness and potentiality of an energy with real world deployment. Of course much of nuclear research has been about proliferation because of who's funding them (and who has the budget to do so). For the very same reason that other forms of AEs take so long to 'proliferate' (I am using it in a different sense here) because, for the longest time, those who are in charge of the economic and political direction of the state has not seen any point in investing too much in the development of technologies that would utilize these alternatives. Europe (some countries of which are also dependent on nuclear power plants) is focusing more on that because other 'cheap' options are not as available to them as it is to us. The same thing with Australia too (its geographical-economic conditions/location makes it more feasible for it to start focusing at developing other energy sources).

    But for governments who are already involved and are invested in high-energy research and have spent much money in this undertaking (as well as having built and used nuclear reactor plants for decades), it is possible to channel the technology into creating 'cleaner' nuclear energy. I understand the concerns with the production of radioactive waste in the current instances of nuclear fission technology (nuclear fusion is found to produce less waste because of the way in which the particles are and recombined, but the technology to use it safely under controlled conditions is not quite in existence yet) but we also need to begin looking beyond its 'catastrophic' issues to the other benefits it has brought in some of its implementation format (nuclear medicine being one). The question is how one can break down the radioactive elements and turn them into 'passive' isotopes if these elements have such long half-lives? This is something that is worth looking into since the wastes already exist. Raising Star-Trek mystification of fission theory only clouds the issue of what nuclear power can provide.

    However, I am not arguing that governments that do not already have the infrastructure in this area or the expertise should begin investing in that, as it is, as you already mentioned, extremely costly, and, if poorly deploy, can lead to real catastrophe. Countries such as Malaysia may do better at this point to concentrate its resources to looking at AE. In other words, I will not argue for the building of a nuclear power plant where it does not already exist. At the same time, we need to look at how one can begin planning research programs that would enable the optimal development of 'good' energy sources.

    Nuclear energy, just like climate change, is the site of much discontent, contention and myth-proliferation.

  8. Ken

    Guwawijaya, Impsa, an Argentine company working with TNB, said 500-2,000MW should be doable for Msia.
    We can also look forward to future technologies as the current generation of wind turbine design is really not modernized and optimized. I attended a forum by a wind turbine maker in Australia and they're coming up with turbines with 2-blades, blades that bend away from the wind, nacelle sited on the ground. Wind turbines also stand to gain much from propeller industries like helicopter, shipping, etc. Plus, off-shore farms and super turbines at 130m.

    As for geothermal, advanced systems require deep drilling to tap into latent heat there. Technology slated for commercialization around 2020.

  9. guwawijaya

    Ken, regarding wind and geothermal, would these sources be available in Malaysia?

    As for winds, in the tropics these are not regular significant phenomena as they would be at higher latitudes (Holland, northern parts of China, southern regions of Australia, etc) – a factor of geostrophic force.

  10. Ken


    Can you further elaborate on the periodic table comment and that nuclear isn't any less safe than alternative or renewable energy (RE)? RE has no waste and proliferation issues like nuclear fission, so I don't quite get your point.

    Yes we all would love the Star Trek nuclear fusion of warp speed ahead! Seems like fusion remains a conceptual idea now and there is no realistic progress made nor is there seemingly any concrete way forward to achieve a working fusion reactor.

    After more than 60years of funding and research, fission still can't get its act right. How long a time do you suppose a technology deserves before it can be considered a no-go? Nuclear has consumed such large subsidies and funding and such a scenario has its opportunity costs in taking away precious limited resources from alternatives like RE and EE (energy efficiency). I think fission is either proven unworkable, or ahead of its time.

  11. Ken

    Thanks for pointing that out Marg. I must have made a mistake somewhere as the findings from MIT update in 2009 states:

    "Since 2003 construction costs for all types of large-scale engineered projects

    have escalated dramatically. The estimated cost of constructing a nuclear power

    plant has increased at a rate of 15% per year heading into the current economic

    downturn. This is based both on the cost of actual builds in Japan and Korea

    and on the projected cost of new plants planned for in the United States. "…

    So the actual increase since 2009 is higher than 25%.

    Yes we all hope the Koreans can keep costs under control. The MIT study casts doubt on the Koreans inexperience in overseas projects, but let's see and hope for the best. Unfortunately, most projects won't be built by the Koreans as they are still new to the game.

    Would be good if you could share more on your experience with Korean nuclear plants.

  12. As someone who studies the culture and history of the physical sciences, I would agree that the choice of nuclear energy as a safe source should be considered last IF we do not already have the infrastructure nor the expertise that could be redeployed towards this goal. Where alternative energies are concerned and the technologies that could be built to deploy them, it is much dependent on research programs and the resources that are channeled towards the design, creation and innovation of apparatuses and tools that would allow one to deploy the chosen AE most effectively. I have not quite followed how far has Malaysian come in terms of building the necessary infrastructure for the deployment of AEs such as solar power and whether there are moves to make solar panels even more affordable and effective in providing energy for the masses. However, I will not argue scientifically that nuclear power is any less safe than other forms of AE, if we understand that nuclear power is not a homogenous but rather a heterogenous entity with a large selection of elements and isotopes of the periodic table at its disposal for choice. There is also the choice between fission and fusion, both leading to different consequences

  13. An absolutely brilliant piece by a tree-hugger. My retort (playing the devil's advocate with tongue, and finger, in cheek): But it's NU-CLEAR man! That's so freaking COOL. It's like putting a guy in space. It's soooooo kewl!!!! … :-) I rest my case ;-)

  14. Sinjoro Eng

    Certainly agreed with Ken. Malaysia has such good sunshine, why go nuclear ? Just search youtube, you can tons of solar energy built bulidings. This website is always my inspiration.

  15. R Margolis

    I could not find the 25% cost increase figure for Korea in the MIT report. I had worked on the Korean nuclear plants and my experience was that their inflation adjusted cost went down with each unit (the OPR-1000, which is the standard PWR). The Koreans made rapid improvement in construction and operation when I was there. No doubt that is part of the reason they were selected for the Braka Units in the UAE.