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Promises and Pitfalls of Nuclear Energy in Southeast Asia

Panjaj Kumar Jha was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • December 06, 2007

    In the recently concluded ASEAN Summit (November 18-22), apart from issues like Myanmar, ASEAN Charter and ASEAN Economic Community, nuclear energy was also discussed at length. A declaration on safeguarding the environment and the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes was agreed by the ASEAN members. This was, in spite of the fact that many non-governmental organisations as well as domestic pressure groups in some of the ASEAN countries have consistently raised apprehension about the safety of nuclear power plants which lie in the seismically active zones. The leaders also agreed on the establishment of nuclear safety regime with a proposed regional monitoring laboratory located in Pahang state in Malaysia that would help scientists of the region to study the safety of their respective nuclear power plants.

    The decision has given an impetus to many Southeast Asian states to draw a roadmap. Foremost among those are Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand. Vietnam has already installed a research reactor in Dalat and has been seeking the help of the US for producing power from low-enriched uranium. It has on the same footing sought technical know-how from France, South Korea and Russia for constructing a new nuclear power plant. On the other hand, Indonesia has envisaged a nuclear power plant near Mount Muria in Central Java and plans to start production from 2017. Though there has been active resistance to Indonesia nuclear power plant from Muslim organisations like Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) because of the vulnerability of the location to the volcanically active Mount Muria. This is in addition to the already planned nuclear power plant in Madura which is expected to be operational by 2024. Apart from these, Indonesia is also considering a ‘floating nuclear power plant’ in Sulawesi.

    The Electricity Generating Agency of Thailand (EGAT) similarly has been contemplating commissioning a 4-Giga Watt nuclear power plant by 2015 and hopes to start commercial production by 2020. Apart from these three Southeast Asian countries, Philippines has been looking into the carbon emission free electricity generation but its experience with the Batan nuclear power plant has not been particularly fruitful due to allegations of kickbacks and a backlash over the dangers of a nuclear power plant. However, realising the need for clean energy, Philippines is reconsidering to kickstart power generation from the Batan plant which had been closed since 1988. Even globally isolated country like Myanmar has proactively approached the issue of nuclear energy by seeking technical cooperation with Russia to build a 10 Mw light water reactor. Though discussion with the Russian federal Agency were initiated in 2003 but due to financial problems the talks were stalled. Recent reports confirm that negotiations have once again resumed.

    For fringe players like Malaysia and Singapore the issue of nuclear power generation has not yet featured in their planning process. Though Malaysia has been operating a research reactor, no policy guidelines exists on nuclear power generation. For Singapore, which is facing rising demand for electricity, setting up a nuclear plant is constrained by limited land area and an option for a ‘floating nuclear power plant’ is intensely debated.

    Nuclear power plant is a controversial issue. Enriched uranium used for power generation needs to be processed and the disposal of spent fuel requires huge investment and stringent safety procedures. Most of the Southeast Asian countries lack technical expertise for nuclear power generation and since some of the proposed power plants are situated close to international waterways, any radiation leakage would not only have a cascading effect on the population but also disastrous consequences on the marine ecology and maritime trade. Terror groups like Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah and the dangers of the dirty bomb falling into unscrupulous hands add to the fear. ASEAN has devised measures like Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (SEANWFZ) to thwart any nuclear weapon ambitions of its member states as well as monitoring ships carrying nuclear material with the exception of the US.

    Nuclear energy has positive advantages for countries in Southeast Asia. But the need for clean renewable energy does not necessarily mean a wholehearted consensus for nuclear energy. It would be interesting to see how far the plans for nuclear power generation fructify in Southeast Asia.