Going Nuclear in Southeast Asia

Going Nuclear in Southeast Asia

By Tim Daiss

While the world is pre-occupied and suspicious with the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, 45 other countries are actively considering nuclear power programs, ranging from first world economies to developing nations. Some on this list will keep you awake at night.

In Europe 12 countries want to go nuclear, including: Turkey, Serbia and Croatia. Those with nuclear ambitions in the Middle East and Africa include a mix with dire potential geo-political ramifications: Jordan, Israel, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Libya and Sudan. Other African states considering embarking upon nuclear programs include Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Kenya and Namibia.

The thorniest of the three nations in South America that want nuclear power is Venezuela.  In South Asia, Bangladesh is working with Russia on its first nuclear plant that is scheduled for construction in 2013. Two 1000 MW Russian made nuclear power reactors are scheduled for operation from 2018, according to the World Nuclear Association.

In Southeast Asia, the Philippines and Singapore, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members, are holding discussions in their respective countries over nuclear power as serious policy options, though Singapore recently stated that current nuclear energy technology is not suitable for use yet in the city-state.

The Philippines developed a nuclear power plant under former dictator Ferdinand Marcos that was to come online by the late 1980s, however when Marcos was forced from power in 1986 (the same year of the Chernobyl disaster), new leadership in Manila decided to scrap nuclear plans due to environmental and safety concerns. In 2008, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) advised that the plant could be refurbished economically and safely operated for 30 years at a cost of $800 million to $1 billion. But the findings aren’t taken seriously in Manila and aren’t likely to be implemented.

Thailand and Indonesia, also ASEAN members, have well-developed nuclear plans but their commitments are pending. Plans are on hold in Thailand due to backlash from anti-nuclear groups, while Indonesia states that it has earmarked $8 billion for four nuclear plants to be in operation by 2020. Yet, plans remain on hold due to what the government calls “the current economic climate.”

ASEAN member Vietnam however is the wild card in the pack and not only has committed plans, but has legal and regulatory infrastructure in development for two nuclear power plants.

According to an August Vietnam News report, Vietnam is seeking more support from the IAEA and countries with advanced nuclear power industries to develop the infrastructure for its nuclear power program.

Preparations are under way for construction of Ninh Thuan 1’s first two nuclear power plants (Russian built and Japanese built concurrently) in central Ninh Thuan Province. Construction is set scheduled for 2014 and the sites are projected to become operational around 2020. Each will have 1000 MW capacity. According to the IAEA, Vietnam’s plans include two additional plants for Ninh Thuan 1 at 1000 MW each and to be operational by 2024-2025.

Ninh Thuan 2 will consist of four units at 1000 MW each and be in operation starting 2021-2022, with units three and four scheduled for 2026-2027. Two other nuclear power units at 1350 MW each are planned for operation in 2028-2029. By 2030, there will be 10 units with total capacity of 10,700 MW.

Nuclear power infrastructure takes 10-15 years to develop in three phases, from the government’s commitment to operation of the first plant. Vietnam is currently in phase two, preparing feasibility conditions for construction of the first plant.

IAEA’s deputy director general, Alexander Bychkov, said earlier this year that following the 2011 Fukushima disaster, nuclear development would be suspended in many countries and unlikely to be reversed.

This appears to be the case in developed economies, including Germany, who closed seven of its older plants immediately after the Fukushima disaster and announced it would close all nuclear power plants by 2020, and nuclear-dependent France where there is talk of a nuclear phase out with the Socialist Party in favor of closing 24 of the country’s oldest reactors by 2025.

However, this is not the case in energy hungry Asia.

The World Nuclear Association states that nuclear capacity worldwide is increasing steadily, with over 60 reactors under construction in 13 countries, with most of the reactors planned for the Asia region. The international association claims that by 2025, Southeast Asian nations will have 25 nuclear power plants.

In East Asia, China announced in late-October that it will approve new nuclear power plants to help reduce reliance on oil and coal, ending a moratorium imposed after last year’s Fukushima disaster. While Japan debates its nuclear future, hydrocarbon dependent South Korea plans to build more nuclear plants as well.

Albeit, ambitious Vietnam seems positioned to be the first ASEAN member that will go nuclear, yet they still must overcome several hurdles.

In an interview with Vietnamese media on the sidelines of a nuclear conference with the IAEA in September, Vietnamese Minister of Science and Technology Nguyen Quan said that the biggest challenge facing his country’s nuclear plans are financial.

“The entire capital for the nuclear power project relies on ODA [Official Development Assistance] from Russia and Japan,” he admitted.

The minister also addressed another perhaps more pressing hurdle – trained personnel.

Quan said that the selection of trainees is more demanding than other fields, but pointed to Vietnam’s cooperation with Russia, Japan, South Korea, France and the US in training what he called a “young team of scientists.”

In the last three years, Vietnam has sent 200 people to Russia, and about 200-300 others to various countries to attend short and long term nuclear training courses, according to Quan.

He added that as part of the VND2 trillion ($100 million) package for the nuclear training program, the Electricity Group of Vietnam is also providing VND1 trillion for the training of technicians.

Despite these challenges, Quan is hopeful that Vietnam’s nuclear program will proceed.

“It is expected by 2020 [that] Vietnam will have enough manpower for operating the plants,” he concluded.

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