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Fukushima fails to dim VN's nuclear ambitions

Update: March, 22/2012 - 09:23

by Hai Van

Last week, the whole world watched to see if Japan would make new moves to develop nuclear energy as the nation marked the first anniversary of the devastating tsunami disaster and the associated Fukushima nuclear crisis.

Japanese politicians are still undecided on future nuclear plans despite a series of debates with scientists. But at least one thing is certain: Japan won't re-open the nuclear reactors it was forced to close down, even if it has to suffer a shortage of power. "Talk about re-opening nuclear reactors is not convincing Japanese people," Japanese Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Yukio Edano told me last Thursday in Tokyo.

Japan is not alone when it comes to re-assessing energy policies. Germany and Switzerland are planning to phase out nuclear power altogether, and the Philippines has considered dropping its nuclear power plan. Yet unlike the rest of the world, Viet Nam, a new customer for the sophisticated technology, does not seem to shudder at the prospects of a Chernobyl or Fukushima melt down.

Preparations for Viet Nam's first ever nuclear power project have been rapid, and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung told the public on January 10 this year that Viet Nam would start building its first nuclear plant in two years' time. In the year of the disaster, Viet Nam shrugged its shoulders and took significant steps to have its first nuclear power plant operational by 2020.

Rosatom, Russia's state-owned nuclear energy group, has been selected as the contractor for the construction of Viet Nam's first nuclear power plant, Ninh Thuan 1, and Japan has won bids to build the Ninh Thuan 2 plant, each with two reactors with a total capacity of 4,000MW.

Under an energy co-operation agreement signed between the two governments, Rosatom will lend $10 billion out of the $12 billion needed for Ninh Thuan 1. But why is Viet Nam rushing to develop nuclear power? And why has Viet Nam not had a rethink after seeing what happened in Fukushima?

The answer seems to be that the nation is desperate to diversify energy sources to meet an ever increasing demand for power for production and home consumption so that it can continue with its economic growth. According to the Ministry of Trade and Industry, starting this year, Viet Nam has become an energy importing country because it buys a large amount of coal, gas and electricity from abroad.

Apart from the mainstays of hydro-power and thermal power, Viet Nam has tried to tap renewable energy since it apparently has huge potential for solar and wind generation. But developing renewable energy can be costly, even for wealthier countries. Viet Nam would also have to depend more on nature and overseas equipment and experts.

Taking all these factors into consideration, nuclear power seems an ideal secure and independent energy choice for Viet Nam. No wonder the Government has set an ambitious target to have up to 15-16 reactors operating by 2030, saying nuclear power development has been on its agenda since the 1980s.

However, with less than two years before work begins on the first nuclear power plant, it would be unwise to think the target is realistic. First and foremost is a serious lack of technicians. Rosatom estimates that about 1,150 trained staff, including 300 nuclear experts, will be needed to operate the two reactors at the Ninh Thuan 1 plant. Both Russia and Japan are helping train Vietnamese nuclear professionals, but the numbers are modest.

More worrying is the poor safety culture often surrounding the Vietnamese workplace. How devastating would it be in such a densely populated country if disciplines are not strictly observed!

To ensure safe construction of the first nuclear plant, nuclear lawyers say that the establishment of an independent regulatory body is a must, and that the roles of ministries and agencies have to be clearly defined.

Some local scientists are concerned about the selection of materials to be used to build the nuclear power plant, given the harsh and frequently changing weather conditions in Viet Nam. As announced by contractor Rosatom, the Ninh Thuan 1 plant will be built with the latest nuclear technology. This means it may combine hi-tech components imported from overseas and that repairing or changing these parts will depend on other parties rather than just the building contractor. Surely this will make maintenance work complicated.

The public is also concerned about the huge debt next generations of Vietnamese will have to pay. With a loan of US$5 billion at an estimated interest rate of 3 per cent a year to build a 1,000MW capacity nuclear power plant, Viet Nam will be forced to pay $12.5 million in interest every month. Resolving this whirlwind of doubts within two years will be an extremely difficult challenge.

While there may be nothing wrong with Viet Nam's determination to develop nuclear power, the right timing, the right technology, and the right human resources are prerequisites for work to go ahead. In the meantime, it might pay to study what Japan is doing to cope with future power shortages.

"We will maximise power efficiency use and power conservation before thinking of building smart communities using renewable energy, " Japanese Minister Edano told me last Thursday. I couldn't agree more. — VNS

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