Malaysia 2017 | ENERGY | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Mohd Zamzam bin Jaafar, CEO of the Malaysia Nuclear Power Corporation (MNPC), on the progress being made on the path toward nuclear energy, the international and national guidelines that are being followed, and the regional perspectives on nuclear energy.

Mohd Zamzam bin Jaafar
Mohd Zamzam bin Jaafar is the first CEO of the Malaysian Nuclear Power Corporation (MNPC), which is administered by the Prime Minister’s Office and tasked to plan, spearhead, and coordinate the implementation of the nuclear energy development program. He holds a BSC and a doctorate in nuclear engineering from Queen Mary College, London University. Prior to his appointment as CEO of MNPC, he served as the Head of the Nuclear Energy Unit at Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB), and as managing director of Malaysia Transformer Manufacturing, a subsidiary of TNB since 1976.

How do the current oil prices impact the advancement of nuclear energy?

When we reported to the Economic Council chaired by the prime minister in June 2015, we mentioned that nuclear is marginally competitive against unsubsidized gas; however, we also see that nuclear has a high upfront investment cost. However, if the nuclear owner-operator can secure a low-interest, inexpensive loan, then nuclear is still an attractive option. As per an IEA-OECD-NEA report, nuclear is still competitive at interest rates of 3-7%. For example, Bangladesh will go ahead with its nuclear project with a loan from Russia for 90% of the project cost with an interest rate ceiling of 4%. Vietnam has also signed an agreement with Russia; however, in Bangladesh the political will and need for electricity is more compelling. The project site was already earmarked in 1965, and Russia will provide its safest plant to date, with EU-compliant design and double-walled containment buildings.

How have you moved forward with ratifying the necessary international and national instruments?

The Convention for Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials, for example, is already in force at the international level, including Malaysia. However, at this stage we cannot take further steps, as parliament needs to first pass the necessary bill. We held a meeting about this with all the stakeholders from various ministries and have committed ourselves to getting the bill approved in 2017. This law is not a green card for nuclear energy, which is a common misunderstanding, but replaces Act 304 of 1984 that already had a provision to develop nuclear energy. With new international standards and best practices, we need a new act. We maintain a close dialogue with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and have recently hosted an IAEA Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review (INIR) mission to Malaysia. The INIR mission looked at the state of preparedness of our nuclear program and assessed the 19 issues that IAEA recommended in its guidebook. It evaluated our work over the last five years, the direction we are heading in, what is still lacking, the gaps we have to fill, and how to fill them, and hopefully the government can decide accordingly.

How advanced is Malaysia in nuclear energy compared to other ASEAN countries?

Vietnam is ahead because it has parliamentary approval to proceed with two projects, one with Russia and one with Japan. Fukushima impacted nuclear plans in many countries and delayed the projects, but they are not off the rails. Thailand was also looking at nuclear but because of the political uncertainty it has pushed nuclear energy to after 2035. We will not have a nuclear power plant in operation in Malaysia before 2030 as we had to make some adjustments to our original 2021 plan. Beside the nuclear legal and regulatory framework and government commitment, there is also a need to study funding and financing options.

What is your roadmap toward 2030 to move toward nuclear in Malaysia?

We first have to make the necessary preparations to get the bill passed by parliament. Malaysia has already used nuclear technology for non-power applications such as in medicine, agriculture, and industrial inspections, so the technology is not completely new. If we do not sign some of these nuclear conventions that are already in force, in particular the physical protection on nuclear materials, then we may not be able to access some of the nuclear and radioisotope materials for our medical applications. The second issue is to continue to engage the public and educate them on the workings of nuclear technology. The third one is selecting and acquiring a suitable site. We will also need a special purpose vehicle (SPV) to become the owner-operator; this cannot be MNPC because that would be a conflict of interests. We should remain a non-profit company playing the role of the designated Nuclear Energy Programme Implementing Organisation (NEPIO), as recommended by the IAEA.