Southeast Asia is experiencing sustained economic growth and will continue to do so in the foreseeable futureA recent OECD forecast shows that the region is expected to achieve an annual average growth rate of 5.5 per cent from 2013 to 2017. With economic growth comes the need to meet growing energy demands, and to address this challenge regional countries are showing an interest in nuclear development — but Southeast Asia has a long way to go yet before nuclear power can be considered a safe and viable option.
Energy security is one of the biggest challenges confronting the countries in Southeast Asia as they continue to depend on energy imports to meet most of their energy needs. In terms of nuclear plans and nuclear development, Vietnam is at the forefront, with a government announcement in February 2006 that a 2000 MWe nuclear power plant will be on line by 2020. The Vietnamese government has also proposed to build an additional 14 reactors by 2030. Other countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand are also considering the implementation of a nuclear energy program. Feasibility studies are being conducted in these countries. The Philippines, the only country in the region with a built but not operational nuclear power plant: the mothballed 630-megawatt Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP), is also not discarding the idea of including nuclear power in the energy mix despite strong opposition from environmental and anti-nuclear groups. In a statement made by Philippine Department of Energy Secretary Jose Rene D. Almendras last year, nuclear energy remains a viable option for the country’s future power generation.
Thus, despite the Fukushima accident, some Southeast Asian governments remain determined to embark on a nuclear path, mainly due to concerns about climate change and sustainability, security of energy supply and energy mix diversification, and volatile fossil fuel prices. However, like any other newcomer to the nuclear energy field, Southeast Asian governments should deal with a number of issues relevant to the implementation of their first nuclear power programs. As the majority of the countries in the region are prone to natural calamities, site selection is of utmost importance. The prevalence of natural disasters in the region is among the main arguments of those opposing nuclear development. The Philippines is a classic example. The country’s BNPP was not launched because of safety concerns as the plant was built near major earthquake fault lines and close to the then highly active Mount Pinatubo volcano.
Site selection and finding the right technology that suits the local conditions go hand-in-hand. Various technological options are of course available but finding the appropriate technology is as taxing as choosing a proper site. Having trained and experienced workforces to operate the plants is also an important consideration. Nuclear science and engineering is an underdeveloped field in Southeast Asia, casting doubts on the technical efficiency and management skills of those who will be assigned to work at the nuclear power plants. Emergency preparedness or contingency planning is also requisite and the concerned government should identify and have an institutional organisation/body that is dependable, liable and able to manage a nuclear crisis.
Other considerably important non-technical factors are social acceptance and policy support, or lack thereof. The majority of the region’s 600 million people consider nuclear development socially unacceptable, largely due to concerns about safety. Anti-nuclear protests in Indonesia and the Philippines in recent years, for instance, have stalled government plans of setting up nuclear power plants. The role of the region’s vibrant civil society should never be underestimated. Anti-nuclear groups have participated in and will continue to play their part in the nuclear debate.
Given such outlying and considerable challenges, Southeast Asia has a long way to go: it is not ready to go nuclear — at least not yet.
Ms Sahara Piang Brahim is a Research Associate at the Energy Studies Institute, National University of Singapore.
This article was first published by Asia Times Online.