Vietnam forges ahead with nuclear plans as neighbors slow their pace

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Personnel shortage could hinder ambition to become first nuclear nation in Southeast Asia

Japanese police at a checkpoint near the edge of the contaminated exclusion zone around the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power station. After the Fukushima disaster, many Southeast Asian nations are slowing their nuclear pursuits as Vietnam charges ahead.

Vietnam is more committed than ever to meet its growing energy needs with nuclear power while its energy-hungry neighbors have become more cautious about the energy source after the Fukushima meltdown.

Construction of a two-reactor nuclear power station in the south-central province of Ninh Thuan is slated to begin next year, using Russian technology.

"Vietnam is steadfast in its plans to build nuclear plants," Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said at a meeting with the Ministry of Science and Technology last month.

"Otherwise the country will face a dire power crunch in 2020," Dung said.

Vietnam has chalked out an ambitious plan to supply 15-20 percent of its electricity needs from nuclear power by the year 2030. With the first nuclear plant set to come on-stream in 2020, the country envisages having another 14 reactors by 2030.

If things go as planned, Vietnam will be the first Southeast Asian nation to commission a working nuclear plant, though other neighbors have talked about the idea for years.

Cautious neighborhood

Southeast Asia has no working nuclear power plants, but more than half of the countries in the region plan to develop nuclear power as a solution to looming energy shortages. Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines are also looking to build nuclear plants or start up non-operational ones in the next few decades.

But after Japan's Fukushima nuclear meltdown that left at least 20,000 people dead or missing and created the world's worst nuclear disaster in 25 years, some officials and activists in the Southeast Asian region are asking that the pursuit of nuclear power be rethought.

Indonesia has been operating three research reactors for over 40 years and grooming qualified personnel, but the country has trailed far behind its own schedule of opening a working nuclear plant.

"There are many interest groups who are pushing the central government to delay the nuclear energy decision, either for economic reasons or political reasons, at least for the time being," Ferhat Aziz, a spokesman for Indonesia's National Nuclear Energy Agency, told Vietweek.

"Generally the main reason is for fear of safety, while mentioning that other renewable energy sources are not fully utilized yet," he said.

Indonesia originally planned to begin using nuclear energy for electricity between 2015-2019 and the plans stated that decisions on the matter needed to be made at least 8-10 years before that.

"So, actually we are now well behind the preordained schedule," Aziz said. "The decision cannot be delayed further."

Singapore has also confirmed that any decision on whether or not to have nuclear energy in the city-state is a long way away.

S Iswaran, Second Minister for Trade and Industry, said his ministry is leading a multi-agency pre-feasibility study on nuclear energy.

"The study is looking at key factors such as technological developments, safety and security issues, as well as the economics of nuclear energy," Iswaran said.

"The aim is to inform the government's understanding of the risks and possibilities arising from nuclear energy, given the global and regional developments in this space."

Elsewhere, Thailand announced last April it would delay the commercial startup of five planned nuclear-power plants by three years because of safety concerns following the Japanese nuclear crisis.

In March 2011, the Filipino government jettisoned plans to activate the shelved Bataan reactor, which was built in the late 1970s but not commissioned because of "litigation concerning bribery and safety deficiencies."

Also in March last year, Malaysia's Energy, Green Technology and Water Minister Peter Chin Fah Kui said that a proposal to construct nuclear power plants in Malaysia had not yet been decided upon by the cabinet, according to a Journal of Energy Security report. He suggested a pause in any final decision until a full report on the Fukushima case is presented by Malaysia's nuclear development agency under the Prime Minister, the report said.

Personnel puzzle

The Vietnamese government has pointed out that the biggest challenge facing the country is finding enough qualified personnel to manage reactors and regulate them.

"The human resource issue is the most crucial factor to warrant the operation of a nuclear plant," PM Dung said. "If Vietnam cannot guarantee the supply of human resources, it cannot go ahead with its nuclear development plans."

Experts in the field have sought to allay such fears.

"Other countries have faced similar challenges with qualified personnel, and Vietnam is addressing this with the help of Russia and Japan," Ian Hore-Lacy, director of public information at the London-based World Nuclear Association, told Vietweek.

"In fact the challenge is less now than in 1950-60s, when less was known about the technology and no-one had any real experience."

Joonhong Ahn, a nuclear professor at the University of California in Berkeley, cited the examples of Japan and South Korea which did not have the necessary human resources nor institutional and regulatory systems for nuclear some decades ago.

"They developed such infrastructure, while they operated reactors," Ahn said.

But the analysts concurred that personnel training would not be achieved overnight.

"My suggestion is that a country should start small and grow gradually with support programs for human development and social development carefully matched with growth of nuclear capacity," Ahn said.

A recent Reuters story quoted Richard Clegg, global nuclear director at Lloyd's Register, as saying: "In order to operate a nuclear plant those people in charge ideally require 15 to 20 years of experience, and 15 or 20 years of experience only comes with 15 or 20 years of work.

"You can't really fast-track that considerably."

In May 2010, Vietnam set up a steering committee for the Ninh Thuan nuclear power project led by a deputy PM.

Three months later, the government approved plans to develop human resources in the field of atomic energy through 2020. It established last year another committee and assigned a deputy PM to be in charge of the implementation of the plans.

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