Monday, March 5, 2012

Vietnam’s nuclear dreams blossom

Experts fear that a 'bad safety culture' might lead to disaster if Hanoi really builds nuclear plants

INSIDE an unheated classroom at the Institute for Nuclear Science and Technology in Hanoi, about 20 young government technicians from Vietnam's incipient nuclear power industry kept on their winter jackets on the first morning of a 10-day workshop on radiation.
The workshop, sponsored by the semi-governmental Japan Atomic Energy Agency, started with radiation physics 101. The students then collected radiation samples with the help of Japanese specialists and analysed them in a lab built by Japan.
"Nuclear power is important for Vietnam's energy security, but, like fire, it has two sides," said one of the students, Nguyen Xuan Thuy, 27.
"We have to learn how to take advantage of its good side."
As Vietnam prepares to commence one of the world's most ambitious nuclear power programmes, it is scrambling to raise from scratch a field of experts needed to operate and regulate nuclear power plants.
The government, which is beefing up nuclear engineering programmes at its universities and sending increasing numbers of young technicians abroad, says Vietnam will have enough qualified experts to safely manage an industry that is scheduled to grow from one nuclear reactor in 2020 to 10 reactors by 2030.
But some Vietnamese and foreign experts said that was too little time to establish a credible regulatory body, especially in a country with wide-spread corruption, poor safety standards and a lack of transparency. They said the ambitious timetable could lead to the kind of weak regulation, as well as collusive ties between regulators and operators, that contributed to the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan last year.
Hien Pham Duy, one of Vietnam's most senior nuclear scientists and an adviser to government agencies overseeing nuclear power, said it had been his "dream for many years" to bring nuclear power to Vietnam.
But he said the government's plans were based on a "lack of vigorous assessment of the inherent problems of nuclear power, especially those arising in less developed countries".
Hien, a former director of the Dalat Nuclear Research Institute, which houses Vietnam's nuclear research reactor, pointed to the high rates of accidents on Vietnam's roads as the most visible example of a "bad safety culture" that pervaded "every field of activity in the country".
Tran Dai Phuc, a nuclear engineer who worked in the French nuclear industry for four decades and is now an adviser to Vietnam's Ministry of Science and Technology, the ministry in charge of nuclear power, said potential problems were not related to the reactors' technology but to the lack of "democracy as well as the responsibility of personnel, a culture of quality assurance and general safety regarding installation and impact on the environment".
The Vietnamese government fears that the country's strong economic growth will be jeopardised without the energy provided by nuclear plants. Vietnam, which relies mostly on hydroelectricity, is expected to become a net importer of energy in 2015.
"One of the reasons for the introduction of nuclear power in Vietnam is the shortage of conventional fuel supply sources, included imported," Le Doan Phac, deputy director-general of the Vietnam Atomic Energy Agency, the government's main nuclear research and development body, said in an email message.
Russia and Japan have won bids to build Vietnam’s first two plants; South Korea is expected to be selected for the third.
For Japan, the contract was the fruit of years of high-level lobbying by the government and the nuclear industry, which is threatened at home by a strong public reaction against nuclear power, after the crisis last year. About 500
Vietnamese have gone through workshops by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency since 2001. Toshiba, a plant manufacturer, has also offered one-month courses since 2006 to win the construction contract.
Like Russia, which has pledged Vietnam loans of US$8 billion (RM24 billion) to US$9 billion to finance the first plant’s construction, Japan is expected to offer a package of low-interest loans through the Japan Bank of International Cooperation.
With the memories of the Fukushima disaster still raw in Japan, the Japanese government’s active role in selling nuclear plants to developing nations like Vietnam has drawn sharp criticism.
Critics say that the government and nuclear industry’s joint efforts recall the kind of collusive ties that led to the Fukushima disaster. The government’s low-interest loans — taxpayers’ money — will benefit only politically-connected plant manufacturers, they say.
Japanese supporters of exports say that developing nations like Vietnam have the right to choose nuclear power to expand their economies, just as Japan did decades ago. New York Times

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