This article was written by Viet Phuong Nguyen and was first published on The Diplomat on 9 Nov 2016
In the late 2000s, energy forecasts began to use the term “nuclear renaissance” to refer to the fast-growing nuclear power program of China, and to the emergence of the so-called “nuclear aspirants” embarking on their first nuclear power projects. Many among these newcomers are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). For this reason, nuclear suppliers like the United States, Russia, Japan, and South Korea have been particularly active in signing cooperation agreements with ASEAN nations or supporting these countries to explore the feasibility of nuclear energy.
However, after almost a decade of pondering the nuclear option, no ASEAN state has made the decision to go nuclear. This article will discuss the evolution of the nuclear endeavor in Southeast Asian nations in order to show that ASEAN may not be a potential market for nuclear energy as the major vendors hoped.
Under the authoritarian regime of Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippines became the first Southeast Asian country to build a nuclear power plant after the Philippine government awarded the American company Westinghouse with a 600-MW project in Bataan in 1973. Facing a fierce anti-nuclear movement and allegations of corruption, the construction of the Bataan nuclear power plant was only completed in 1984. With the overthrow of the Marcos regime in 1986, however, the ill-fated plant has since been mothballed without a single day of operation.
Having invested more than $2 billion for the construction of the nuclear project, and probably another significant amount to maintain it in good condition, the Philippine government has explored plans to revive the Bataan project or to convert it into a thermal power station. None of these plans were seriously considered due to the high projected cost and strong public opposition, particularly from the Catholic Church. Most recently, speaking at a nuclear conference in Manila, Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi proposed the idea of restarting the Bataan plant to cope with the energy demand of the country, only to be quickly rebuffed by the newly-elected Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, citing safety and security concerns.
Among the potential customers of nuclear energy in Southeast Asia, Vietnam been has been considered the most serious given its high-profile agreements with Russia and Japan on the construction of two plants in Ninh Thuan province, and its ambitious plan to build up to ten nuclear units by 2030. In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011, when neighboring states like China or Thailand decided to either slow down their nuclear programs or withdraw from the race altogether, the Vietnamese government still reiterated their commitment to follow through with the announced plan and even broadened the country’s nuclear cooperation by signing a nuclear agreement with the United States (commonly known as the “123 Agreement”) in 2014.
After several years of progress, the first signs of trouble in the Ninh Thuan nuclear project came in late 2015 when it was reported that the start of the first unit’s construction would likely be delayed for six years, from the initially planned 2016 to 2022, with the operation date moved further to July 2028. Later that year, Vu Ngoc Hoang, the second-in-command of the Vietnam Communist Party’s propaganda machine, surprised the media and the public with an article alluding to a disagreement among the Party’s leadership on the feasibility of the Ninh Thuan project and proposing to stop the nuclear development program for good. Although Hoang retired not long after the article’s publication, considering the Party’s consensus-driven process of policy making and Hoang’s seniority within the Communist Party as a member of the Party’s Central Committee, it is difficult not to wonder about a dire future for nuclear energy in Vietnam.
Signs of a possible moratorium on or even termination of nuclear development in Vietnam have become apparent since early 2016 with the promulgation of the revised National Electricity Development Plan. The updated plan confirmed the 2028 delay for Ninh Thuan, alongside a significant drop of nuclear power estimates by 2030 (from 10.1 percent in the original plan down to 5.7 percent). In October 2016, “issues related to the construction of the nuclear power plants in Ninh Thuan” were announced by the Fourth Plenum of the new Central Committee, implying that the public will hear soon about the fate of the nuclear project. One month later, the Japanese news agency Kyodo confirmed the Vietnam Communist Party’s decision to postpone both the Russian and Japanese nuclear power projects due to the current financial constraints of the country. Interestingly enough, this definitive confirmation came from a foreign outlet, whereas in recent months Vietnamese domestic media has still focused on debating the necessity of nuclear energy for the country or discussing the risks of the Chinese nuclear plants that have been built and operated near the border with Vietnam.
Other Southeast Asian States
Among the Southeast Asian states, Thailand was the first country to conclude the 123 Agreement with the United States, as well as the earliest contender in the nuclear race, with proposals dating back to the 1960s. After several dormant decades due to safety concerns and the abundance of natural gas, nuclear advocacy made a comeback in Thailand in the 2000s when the Thai government contracted the consulting firm Burns and Roe to study the feasibility of a nuclear power project in the country. However, this renewed interest in nuclear energy has met with intense public opposition, especially after the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, to the point that the Thai government has had to indefinitely postpone its nuclear endeavor. As a result, the Thai government did not seek to extend the 123 Agreement, when the agreement expired in 2014. Extending the 123 Agreement is a prerequisite condition if Thailand wants to import nuclear technologies of U.S. origin.
Having one of the more advanced nuclear programs in the region, Indonesia has considered introducing nuclear energy to decrease the country’s dependence on coal and oil since the early 1990s. However, a combination of precarious geological conditions, public opposition, and lack of political determination has made nuclear an undesirable choice in Indonesia’s energy planning. Lately, Indonesian officials reportedly emphasized that nuclear energy would only be considered beyond 2025 if the country’s renewable energy target cannot be met by other options.
The last potential nuclear energy user in the ASEAN community is Malaysia, where the nuclear option has been seriously considered since the late 2000s. Despite having a careful and well-organized development plan, the Malaysian government has continuously moved back the starting date of the country’s first nuclear project in order to gain public support and adjust the technical and financial feasibility of the project. Lately, the CEO of the Malaysian Nuclear Power Corporation stated that 2030 is the earliest date possible for the construction of the first nuclear plant in Malaysia.
Finally, despite once possessing a controversial nuclear research program, the reformed Myanmar has halted a major part of its nuclear activities in order to show its willingness for political transparency and international cooperation. Furthermore, together with Cambodia and Laos, Myanmar does not have the financial capacity, manpower, or necessary infrastructure for such a complex and expensive project as a nuclear power plant. On the other hand, the leading nation of ASEAN in these aspects – Singapore – has made an official decision to not explore the nuclear option, which is understandable given its limited landmass and environmental concerns.
In reviewing the history of nuclear development (or lack thereof) in Southeast Asia, one can identify the major obstacles for nuclear advocacy, namely the anti-nuclear sentiment, persistent safety concerns, and a lack of consistent political willingness from Southeast Asian governments. Even though nuclear energy has been considered an attractive option in the fight against climate change, which has emerged as one of the most important threats to the region, it is unlikely that those obstacles can be alleviated anytime soon. Rather, similar to the situation in South Korea, where nuclear acceptance has deteriorated significantly in the past two decades, the growing middle class in ASEAN nations will probably become more concerned about environmental issues, of which nuclear energy has always been one of the most poignant.
One example of the increasing power of the environmentalist movement can be found in Vietnam, where mass protests occurred at unprecedented scale in reaction to the large-scale fish kill in the coastal region due to chemical spill from a Taiwan-owned steel factory. Participants in these protests included local people, religious leaders, activists, and lawyers; a similar grouping was observed during the anti-nuclear activities that led to the shutdown of the Bataan nuclear power plant in the Philippines during the 1980s. Therefore, despite the news here and there about the conclusions of new nuclear cooperation agreements by ASEAN nations, it is very difficult to conceive that a nuclear power plant will actually be built in one of these countries, at least in the next one or two decades.
Viet Phuong Nguyen is a predoctoral fellow in the Belfer Center’s International Security Program and Project on Managing the Atom. He is a Ph.D. candidate in nuclear engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) after receiving a B.Sc. in nuclear physics from the Vietnam National University and a M.Sc. in nuclear engineering from KAIST.