Vietnam: A Nuclear Future?

2000

Professor Richard Broinowski

In the 1970s and 1980s, several countries in South East Asia were nurturing plans to develop nuclear power industries. They were encouraged by their own small nuclear energy research organisations, each of which had procured at least one research reactor from the United States under President Eisenhower’s original 1953 ‘Atoms for Peace’ program. Indonesia had three such reactors, and Malaysia, the Philippines and South Vietnam one each.

The most ambitious nuclear energy plans were those of Indonesia, which aimed to have its first power plant in commercial operation on the Muria Peninsula on the northern coast of central Java by 2003, with twelve 600 MWe units on line by 2115. In 1977, Thailand had examined six sites for reactors near Bangkok, and a construction schedule was drawn up in anticipation of high energy growth demands. In 1980, Malaysia deferred plans for its first power reactor, but studies continued for the possible introduction of nuclear energy beyond 2000.

The Philippines was the first country actually to proceed with the construction of a power reactor. By 1985, a Westinghouse 600 MWe pressurised water reactor was completed at Bagac on the Bataan Peninsula across Manila Bay from the capital, but in the murky corruption and environmental backwash of the Marcos legacy, the Aquino Government refused to start it up.

The regional economic meltdown of 1997 and 1998 inhibited all regional nuclear energy plans almost, it seemed, to the point of extinction.

Now, according to news reports, Vietnam is about to rekindle its own plans for a nuclear power industry. The Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment has been studying a proposal of the Vietnam Atomic Energy Commission to build a reactor, possibly at Phan Thiet, capital city of the southern province of Binh Thuan, approximately 150 kilometres east of Ho Chi Minh City.

The Ministry seemed not to want to move precipitately, having been considering the nuclear power option over at least the last nine years, but a Japanese conglomerate is now putting it under pressure to make a decision. On 2 August, three Japanese energy companies - Hitachi, Mitsubishi and Toshiba - announced that they were going to make a joint bid to construct the plant. As an inducement, the Japan Atomic Energy Forum has been providing training for Vietnamese scientists and technicians both in Japan and Vietnam, and a package to finance the $US2 billion project is in the offing. (There is nothing novel in this - American, French, Belgium, German and British nuclear reactor companies used the same kind of inducement packages to customers during the world-wide expansion of nuclear power in the seventies).

Given the uncertainty of nuclear power economics, the Vietnamese Government’s reasons for proceeding with a nuclear power reactor at this stage are unclear. Its coal resources are said to be near exhaustion, but it can import cheap coal and has a growing oil extraction industry. Also unclear are the effects of the decision, if it is in fact taken, on other ASEAN states. Will it encourage Indonesia, Malaysia or Thailand to revive their own plans? If it does, will the members of ASEAN be encouraged to develop some kind of regional environmental monitoring regime? Will the activity revive the world’s uranium industry from its current slump, and will Australia find new market for its uranium? And although Vietnam inherited the old South Vietnam’s adherence to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, what are the proliferation consequences of a new and expanding nuclear industry in South East Asia?

WATCHPOINT: Unanswered questions remain, but Vietnam’s nuclear plans may have wide ramifications.

 

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