Article contributed by Bar Council Environment and Climate Change Committee Members Seira Sacha Abu Bakar, Kiu Jia Yaw and Roger Chan; and Officer Shegi Nair; and photos by Shegi Nair and Florence Laway, Administrative Assistant, Bar Council
It has been reported in the media that the Malaysian Government is planning to use nuclear energy as a possible energy source for the country in the future. While it is clear that we need an alternative energy source, it is of paramount importance to acknowledge and understand the risks involved should the Government proceed with the plan of building a nuclear power plant.
With that in mind, the Bar Council Environment and Climate Change Committee (“ECCC”) organised a public forum on 24 Jan 2015 in order to have a better understanding of the Government’s plans for harnessing nuclear technology, and the concerns involved. Speakers for the forum were well–versed on the topic and included Dr Mohd Zamzam Jaafar, Chief Executive Officer of Malaysia Nuclear Power Corporation (“MNPC”); YB Charles Santiago, Member of Parliament for Klang; Dato’ Dr Ronald McCoy, founder President of Malaysian Physicians for Peace and Social Responsibility; and Hajime Matsukubo, Editor and Liaison Officer from Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center (Japan).
The forum started at 9:30 am with a welcoming speech from Roger Chan Weng Keng, Chairperson of ECCC. In his speech, Roger Chan expressed his concerns on nuclear power and cited the recent Fukushima disaster. He also spoke on the need to observe global environmental standards and best practices, and for meaningful participatory consultation on the matter.
The first speaker was Dr Mohd Zamzam Jaafar, who gave a slide–show presentation entitled “Nuclear as a Valid Energy Option for Power Generation in Peninsular Malaysia: Pre–Project Activities by MNPC”. Dr Mohd Zamzam displayed graphs on the electricity production and supply chain, which are currently in demand in Malaysia. The information was obtained from the National Key Economic Areas (“NKEA”) Laboratory 2010 and National Energy Balance 2012. According to Dr Mohd Zamzam, the need for nuclear energy arises from the need to fill the energy demand–supply gap. While there are currently 30 countries around the world with operating Nuclear Power Plants (“NPPs”), there are also other countries that are considering building one, which includes Malaysia. Under the Economic Transformation Programme (“ETP”), Malaysia targets to build a twin–unit nuclear power plant by 2021.
He then went on to explain the role of MNPC. Established in January 2011 as a fully government–owned company, and placed under the jurisdiction of the Prime Minister’s Department, MNPC was formed to lead the planning for Malaysia’s first NPP based on the current development timeline of 11 to 12 years. Since its establishment, MNPC has started its feasibility study, and submitted its findings and recommendations to the Government in 2013. At the end of his presentation, Dr Mohd Zamzam reiterated that Malaysia is not the only country considering nuclear option.
The second speaker was YB Charles Santiago. He began by saying that in Parliament, he has always asked these two questions: “Have we identified the location to build the NPP? And if so, have we consulted the local people?” and “What is the current status of our NPP?” The reply that he usually received to the first question was that the Government has yet to identify the location. For the second question, as the Government is still studying the issue, the status is still unconfirmed. Charles then informed us that according to the World Nuclear Association website, Malaysia has identified five possible locations to build NPPs. He questioned whether the Government is misleading us with the information that they disclose. He questioned where did the World Nuclear Association obtained the information on the five locations because the Malaysian public has no knowledge of the possible sites. He further questioned why Malaysia must follow the other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (“ASEAN”) countries in their race to build NPPs. He argued that rather than building NPPs, Malaysia should focus on finding alternative energy sources.
The third speaker was Hajime Matsukubo. He had flown in all the way from Tokyo, Japan, to share the Japanese experience in dealing with the Fukushima nuclear disaster. According to him, even after three and a half years after the disaster, the decontamination process is still ongoing. The decontamination process involves collecting contaminated materials, but they face the problem of looking for suitable repository sites. Apart from having to evacuate from their homes, the Fukushima people also faced health and food issues. Before the disaster, the rate of thyroid cancer in Japan was 2–3 persons per 1 million persons, per year, and after, the rate increased to 109 persons per 298,362 persons, per three years. Staple food such as rice, soy bean and wild vegetables in the surrounding areas were also contaminated year by year.
The fourth speaker was Dr Ronald McCoy. He elaborated on what YB Charles Santiago had said earlier, pointing out that there are actually seven sites that have been identified in Peninsular Malaysia as possible sites for the NPPs. He debunked the myth that nuclear power is cheap as it is based on unverified results. He then reminded us of the Bukit Merah incident as a good reason not to build NPPs. Bukit Merah was the location in Perak for a plant to extract rare earth. The authority concerned issued a licence to Asian Rare Earth Sdn Bhd (“ARE”) to operate the plant but due to public pressure, the plant was finally closed in 1994. The decontamination and decommissioning work only started in 2003. Dr Ronald concluded his presentation by arguing that renewable energy is the way forward and not nuclear power. He also argued that Malaysia is making a huge mistake if we decide to build NPPs, and is of the view that nuclear power is not cheap, not clean and not safe.
The final speaker for the forum was Kiu Jia Yaw, whose presentation was entitled “Malaysia’s Foray into Nuclear Power — An Environmental Rights Perspective”. What was interesting about Jia Yaw’s presentation was that he touched on the legal aspects of environmental law. Considering that most of the audience comprised activists and nuclear energy advocates, it was refreshing to learn about legal principles, which has impacted on the nuclear energy movement. He introduced the 1972 Stockholm Declaration, Principle 1, which basically states that man has the fundamental right to freedom in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well–being. He went on to explain that among the various categories of environmental rights, the three basic ones are: (1) public consultation; (2) responsibility to future generations; and (3) the precautionary principle. He informed us that Malaysians derive their environmental rights under Article 5(1) of the Federal Constitution. Jia Yaw pointed out that the Government, through MNPC, is engaging in nuclear implementation–type activities. This is jumping the gun because the Government has yet to conduct any public consultation. Neither is it right for the Government to decline to give the public any information about its nuclear plans. In his conclusion, Jia Yaw suggested to Dr Mohd Zamzam that MNPC call on the Government to begin a rigorous public consultation exercise according to the international standards of the 1998 Aarhus Convention before it continues with any further activity relating to the implementation of nuclear power.
After Jia Yaw spoke, the forum stopped for lunch. The question–and–answer sessions — initially scheduled after each speakers’ presentation — was postponed after the lunch when all the speakers were invited back to the stage. Before the forum started, the audience was given a piece of paper to write down their questions. The questions were then given to the moderator who directed them to the respective speakers. There was a lively two–hour question–and–answer session. A number of questions were directed at Dr Mohd Zamzam. The audience was keen to know the current status of NPPs in Malaysia. One of the questions asked was whether the sites for the construction of the NPPs have been identified. Dr Mohd Zamzam did not commit to a definitive answer, however. Another member of the audience, Hilary Chiew, asked Dr Mohd Zamzam if he would take up the challenge for the MNPC to ask the Government to conduct a public consultation exercise first. Dr Mohd Zamzam responded that there will be consultation later.
At the end of the day, we must acknowledge that nuclear energy remains a serious environmental issue that needs to be addressed on a broadest possible basis involving everyone. In the light of this realisation, ECCC will organise similar forums in the future.