Lack of expertise complicates nuclear plan

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Vietnam hopes to resolve its power shortages by developing a series of nuclear plants.

Since the Fukushima debacle, a number of safety concerns have arisen. But Dr. Tran Dai Phuc, a science and technology consultant for the Vietnam Agency for Radiation and Nuclear Safety, isn't as worried about the plant's design features as he is about Vietnam's dearth of field-trained experts.

Thanh Nien Weekly: After the nuclear crisis in Japan, a number of countries have reassessed their nuclear development plans. Has Vietnam reconsidered its plans for the first plant in Ninh Thuan?

Tran Dai Phuc: The Fukushima power plants were built during what we call the early second generation of nuclear energy, between 1965 and 1975. Vietnam's first power plant will be designed and built by Russian experts; the second will be built by the Japanese. The current designs for these plants rely on the third generation reactors (which were first developed in 1996) and post-third generation reactors (which are only now being introduced). The latest technology features a series of fail-safes that the three Fukushima reactors do not have.

Vietnam's first nuclear plant is scheduled to be built in 2014, and come into operation in 2020. After each international nuclear crisis, nuclear safety control agencies, designers and operators review their design safety and operation protocols. As a result, Vietnam's first plant will be designed using the most highly-informed technology in history.

Has the recent accident slowed the implementation of the first nuclear power project?

It may set back the project for one or two years; that's up to Vietnam's nuclear control agency. After each major incident, safety control agencies all over the world revise their design and operation materials. Some countries only need two or three years to do this and pass on their findings to nuclear safety regulators around the world.

Based on these international findings, the Vietnam Agency for Radiation and Nuclear Safety will review the existing designs and update their safety protocols.

The length of the project's construction will depend on the capacity of Vietnamese subcontractors. If our subcontractors can't implement their portions of these projects, the primary contractor will build both plants alone, which will significantly raise the costs and extend the construction period.

Which technology is considered the safest for nuclear power plants? Will the technology be applied to Vietnam's first two plants?

The technology we're planning to use is the latest available. We refer to technology shifts as "generations" because they used to change every 20-30 years. The third and post-third generation technologies were designed to withstand earthquakes and floods. However, tsunamis were not factored into their designs.

What's going on right now with Vietnam's first power plant?

Following the nuclear incident in Japan, Vietnam is carefully considering the location of the project (currently Ninh Thuan, along Vietnam's central coastline). Related agencies have attached grave importance to studying the experiences of other countries and applying those lessons to site selection of Vietnam's first plant.

Why did Vietnam select Russia to build its first nuclear power plant?

Russia's technology greatly improved following the Chernobyl disaster. Nuclear agencies all over the world reviewed Russia's design and safety protocols. During the nearly 15-year review, they received some 2,000-3,000 safety recommendations (from European and American regulators). 

However, Russian nuclear power projects are not as good as those developed by other European nuclear power providers. State utility Electricity of Vietnam and the Ministry of Industry and Trade should pay close attention to this matter.

Which country has the most advanced nuclear technology?

France. In the future, France's nuclear technology may be applied in Vietnam. France has only one kind of reactor pressurized water reactors. Other countries, such as the US and Japan, use both pressurized and boiling water reactors, which use nuclear fission to boil water and generate power.

There is only one operator of nuclear power plants in France and it is quick to evaluate the plants' design and operation.

France's nuclear safety control agency exercises full control over their plants. In the event of a problem, the agency can decide to shut down a nuclear power plant without the government's permission. Our safety agency should have the same power.

Now, 25 percent of reactors in the world use boiling water, the rest are "pressure" plants. Vietnam's first reactor will rely on pressurized water.

What is the biggest concern when building nuclear power plants in Vietnam?

Vietnam is facing a huge human resource shortage.

The Agency for Radiation and Nuclear Safety expects to see a shortfall of 300-500 technicians and experts from now until 2020.

The agency began training experts to staff the plants two years ago. However, you need at least eight to 12 years to field train a nuclear technician and we just don't have enough time to do that. Right now, Vietnam has some 200 people who are knowledgeable about nuclear physics and nuclear technology.

Vietnam needs some 3,000-5,000 field-trained experts by 2020. The country is scheduled to build 14 nuclear power plants, each of which needs at least 300 staff and experts.

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