Going nuclear in ASEAN: Can Malaysia rise to the challenge? Part 2

Dr Mohd Zamzam Jaafar

Dr Mohd Zamzam Jaafar stresses the importance of gaining public support.

NFA’s Simon Hyett conducts part two of an exclusive one-on-one with Dr Mohd Zamzam Jaafar, the first CEO of Malaysia’s Nuclear Energy Programme Implementing Organisation, discussing challenges and solutions related to Malaysia’s quest to “go nuclear.”

In line with its vision to reach developed nation status by 2020, Malaysia is on a mission to energy self-sufficiency. This ambition runs parallel with the energy demands of a rapidly industrialising nation with a growing middle class and increasing wealth. On the other side of the equation, of course, are Malaysia’s commitments to reduce fossil fuel dependence (for instance the Paris agreements, COP21) while at the same time producing increased energy output.

This is no small ambition and one that is fraught with challenges impeding progress along the road to “going nuclear.”

“The first such challenge is gaining public support,” says Dr Mohd Zamzam Jaafar, the founding CEO of the nation’s Nuclear Energy Programme Implementation Organisation. Public support is a ubiquitous challenge for most nuclear emerging nations, but of course as Zamzam continues, overcoming public misperceptions is heightened as the wounds of Fukushima continue to heal. “When we talked to the Ministry of Economy of Japan, approximately 52% of the public were against restarting - 30% were for a restart. The key is for them, as it is for us, is convincing the people to agree to the restart,” or in Malaysia’s case, to commence a productive programme in the first place.

The Fukushima accident has stung Malaysian nuclear ambitions not just in terms of public acceptance but in a serious commercial context as well. “The cost of nuclear after Fukushima has increased,” says Zamzam. “This is due to the safety features that we have to incorporate in the new designs, particularly in Generation 3 plant designs. This cost increase coupled with current low fossil fuel prices, has a negative impact on the competitiveness of the nuclear industry.”

These wounds will heal nonetheless. Fukushima, which must be remembered was only the third major nuclear accident in over 60 years of utilising the atom to generate power, will fade and the dual pressures of increasing power demands and emission reductions will force the issue onto the national agenda. Meanwhile, fossil fuel costs are naturally set to rise even in an exporter nation, such as Malaysia.

Government must lead the way
A further challenge emerges due to the fact that the government is slow to place nuclear treaties and technology agreements on the national agenda. Putrajaya must of course and then ratify (often the most precarious and time-consuming stage) international instruments in order for Malaysia to access nuclear technology. Without signing these instruments supplier nations and their experienced vendors are unable to supply Malaysia with technology.

The government must play an important role, argues Zamzam. “If you consider the situation in Bangladesh, it is a government-to-government agreement and even in Turkey, where they’re talking about a nuclear BOO for the first time, it is a government-to-government agreement and I was told that the Turkish Parliament and the Parliament of Russia have approved this project.”

Zamzam argues for strong and consistent government commitment before going nuclear and fears the project falling off the rails once it gets started, as has proven to be the Taiwanese experience. In the case of Taiwan, the small seismically acting, maritime nation had a government committed to a nuclear framework have even built a handful of plants and parliamentary democracy brought about stagnation in the roll-out of a productive programme. The current government is against starting production whereas the old government, now in opposition, was at least putting the question to a referendum, not that that was any guarantee.

After the fall of President Marcos in the Philippines, incoming president Cory Aquino decided that the Bataan plant should be operational and productive. For any number of political and public opinion reasons, it did not unfold in this manner and cost the Filipino people US$2.3billion for a plant that resembled a white elephant.

“So it’s very important, says Zamzam, “Once you want to make a commitment to go nuclear, as a government you have to stay and make it happen to until the very end.”

A positive example, that Zamzam hopes to emulate, is in the United Arab Emirates, with its first plant slated to commence operations next year. What is interesting regarding this project is the UAE signed a contract with a Korean group in December 2009, and the COD will be in May 2017. This seven and a half year roll-out period shows, among all the projects currently under construction around the world, that projects can move quickly when there is political will.

“In the case of Abu Dhabi, they didn’t seek financial and that’s why they could work within the contract period of seven and half years. In other countries, the process will take longer due to financial and capital raising reasons and that’s why we think that nine to ten years is more realistic for us to run the project, from the contract signing to completion. When you have a long time of gestation period for a project, it is very important that the government is strong and consistent with policy in favour of nuclear.”

In Malaysia, the government plays a triumvirate role as policymaker; lawmaker, licensor and regulator; and insurer. Such a diverse and risky range of roles can cause jitters in government – and in the people – there were public protests in relation to the Lynas project in Kuantan a few years ago - but this must be overcome before Malaysia can move forward.

Moving forward
Malaysia’s greatest challenge is overcoming challenges. These are not insurmountable by any stretch but will take a co-ordinated public relations campaign and political drive. The southeast Asian Kingdom may have little choice as the pressure of the energy equation will prevail. Political drive may be thrust upon Malaysian policy-makers by necessity, the fear being then that Malaysia will need to push forward too quickly, but safety must come first, “We cannot rush nuclear, so we have to win the public, we have to prepare ourselves. So hopefully, when the Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review Mission comes to dissect where we are and what we have done, we will have a better picture what we need to do in the future.”

“That’s what it’s all about,” adds Zamzam, “You have to prepare for all eventualities in the nuclear world to make sure it is really safe.” If the nation can win over the public, advance the political agenda and welcome on board its experienced partners and vendors then the industry will flourish, and while Dr Zamzam is in charge of this push, Malaysia is not far from seizing the moment.