Sunday, July 18, 2010

Mapping Southeast Asia’s Nuclear Future

Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew once hailed air- conditioning’s role as the breakthrough technology that helped transform Southeast Asia’s post-colonial commodity-dominated economies into some of the world’s fastest-growing financial and industrial markets. Nuclear power can play a significant role in providing electricity for running those air-conditioners, making the adoption of safe new-generation nuclear power plants an area that should be prioritized under US-Asean cooperation. It is an effort that supports our mutual economic and national security interests.

There is no operational nuclear power plant in the Asean region today. However, all of the 10 member nations — except Brunei and Laos — have active plans for adding nuclear power into the electricity-generating mix. In terms of scale, Vietnam has the most aggressive nuclear power ambitions. It recently announced plans to build eight plants by 2030, producing 15,000 to 16,000 megawatts of electricity. Indonesia plans to have four nuclear plants producing 6,000 MW by 2025. Thailand has plans to develop two nuclear plants to generate 2,000 MW by 2022. Singapore, which generates the majority of its power from increasingly scarce gas, has a feasibility plan for nuclear power under way. Other countries are developing similar plans.

Nuclear power is an important option for Asean, whose electricity demand is estimated by the International Energy Association to increase 76 percent between 2007 and 2030 at an average annual rate of 3.3 percent growth, compared to an estimated 2.5 percent annual growth in demand in the rest of the world over the same period. Meeting Asean countries’ electricity demand will require investing more than $1.1 trillion in the next 25 years.

Contemplation of nuclear energy for Asean countries is not new, but today, with growing demand for imported fossil fuels and concerns about the environment, it is much more serious. Asean nations are bound by the Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone, which states that there will be no prejudice toward the peaceful use of nuclear energy. It also states that prior to embarking on nuclear programs, political buy-in is needed from the International Atomic Energy Agency and from other Asean nations.

Nuclear nonproliferation concerns and safeguards will be very important as Asean proceeds in developing its nuclear power capabilities. Only one Asean country, Burma, is alleged to be developing any plans for nuclear weapons. Those allegations, denied by Burma’s military leaders, are being investigated by the IAEA.

Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the IAEA established safeguard standards suitable for application to both simple nuclear activities and to complex nuclear fuel cycles; ie, a system applicable to reactors and to conversion, fabrication, enrichment and reprocessing plants that produce and process reactor fuel. The IAEA has clear accountancy and monitoring rules for tracking declared nuclear material.

To be effective, this system requires a high level of confidence, trust and transparency. These are guidelines Asean governments would have every interest in following, but strong engagement from the international community would be helpful. In fact, there is already a strong alliance between the United States and Japan in developing new nuclear power plant designs.

Asean nations must also negotiate bilateral civil nuclear cooperation agreements with the nuclear supplier countries (including the United States, Japan, France, Russia, Canada and Australia, among others, before they can receive nuclear reactors, fuel, equipment, services and technology. Some Asean countries already have such agreements in place. As part of this process, Asean countries will need to demonstrate their commitment to maintaining international standards of nuclear safety, security and nonproliferation.

Given the Obama administration’s interest in building international partnerships and consensus on nuclear nonproliferation and climate change, and the president’s commitment to engage Asean at new and substantive levels, the nuclear energy field seems a logical area for immediate and expanded cooperation. This engagement is also consistent with the Obama administration’s goal of doubling US exports in the next five years. American companies are among the world’s leaders in various aspects of nuclear power but face stiff competition from France, Russia and Japan.

Obama could initiate this process in the broader context of US-Asean energy cooperation, which could include a wide range of issues from renewable energy to energy conservation. One format for such cooperation could be a US-Asean Energy Bilateral Meeting that would be a step toward the US energy secretary attending the annual Asean Energy Ministers Meeting.

As the mercury rises inside the beltway, US policy makers would be wise to take the opportunity to stay indoors, hydrate aggressively and open a new chapter of US-Asean cooperation on nuclear power. The initiative would serve both Asean’s and America’s economic and national security requirements.

By Ernest Bower senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.


  1. Nuclear energy is the only option for an advanced technological civilization.