The overall growth of nuclear power in Southeast Asian countries is slow in spite of power shortages. Plans in some countries keen to introduce atomic energy have run up against political barriers and constraints.
Vietnam is resolutely pushing ahead with its nuclear power plans and will be one of the first new entrants to the atomic club since the meltdown in Japan. “I think Vietnam is in a good position because it’s doing this right now after Fukushima. It’s not wavering,” said Lady Barbara Judge, chairman emeritus of the UK Atomic Energy Authority at the “World Nuclear Power Briefing 2012″ in Hanoi late last month.
At least five other members of the 10-nation Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) are considering nuclear power as an option to meet demand for energy in the fast-growing region of 600 million people. Proponents say atomic energy is unavoidable for the region, and the prohibitive cost of alternatives will help to drive the sector, say experts.
Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore are among 35 countries considering nuclear energy. However, Vietnam was the only emerging nuclear-power country which was undeterred by last year’s Fukushima meltdown and is moving ahead with its atomic energy plans.
Vietnam plans to start construction of its first Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) in 2014, expected to go online in 2020, followed by another 14 reactors to generate some 15-16 GWe of atomic power by 2030. The country has set a goal to have atomic sources account for 20-25% of all energy consumed by 2050. The government has already signed agreements with Japan and Russia to supply the Ninh Thuan 1 and 2 reactors for the first NPP.
Richard Clegg, Global Nuclear Director at Lloyd’s Register, said that one of the biggest global bottlenecks, and one that will likely slow things down in Vietnam, is getting qualified personnel who can operate reactors and regulate them. In order to operate a NPP those people in charge ideally require 15 to 20 years of experience, which naturally only comes with 15 or 20 years of work. As a working guideline in the industry, each reactor requires about 15 inspectors.
Indonesia’s National Atomic Energy Agency has been researching reactors for more than four decades and preparing their human resources, but the country lacks the political will to implement the programme. According to an agency spokesman, the groundwork is ready, but the public sees nuclear as too dangerous and too expensive, so the key challenge is in people’s minds.
The Thailand Energy Ministry is drafting a plan that could see a NPP entering into operation in 2026. The nuclear power project is still in the country’s power development plan, but its implementation is also subject to acceptance of the public.
In Malaysia, the government shelved an earlier proposal to build two 1,000 MWe NPPs. The decision came after environmentalists opposed a plan by an Australian company to commission a processing plant in central Malaysia that would dispose of radioactive waste. Presently, gas accounts for more than 60% of Malaysia’s electricity generation, with other fuels plus hydro power producing the rest.
After Fukushima, the Philippines gave a pause to its efforts to revive its Bataan NPP, which was built in the early 1980s but never entered into operation because it sits on a tectonic fault and volcano.
Singapore is in the initial stages of considering the possibility of using nuclear power as a part of its power mix, but seems unlikely to build a NPP on its own territory.
The development of nuclear energy in the ASEAN region has always been hindered public non-acceptance. Some countries have been working hard to gain public approval to introduce nuclear power, but it seems the idea is unlikely to soon find favour in the prevailing ant-nuclear sentiment in the region after Fukushima. The proximity of the region to Japan, the scene of the biggest nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986, has acted as a dampener for development of nuclear energy in Southeast Asian countries.
There is need for countries planning to introduce nuclear power to utilise the interim period to develop people’s awareness of the benefits and safety of nuclear power, formulate legal and regulatory policy frameworks, and develop human resources to undertake project implementation as and when public perception turns in favour of atomic energy. Since the gestation period for the development of nuclear energy for a new entrant from the time of decision-making to the time of commissioning of a plant could be anything between 15-20 years, the countries need to remain focused and connected with the nuclear world to access technology and knowhow when needed.