SOUTHEAST ASIA: Despite Japan’s Crisis, Vietnam Aims to Win Region’s Nuclear Race

  • by Marwaan Macan-Markar (bangkok)
  • Inter Press Service

Led by the country’s ministry of science and technology, Hanoi has declared that the unfolding crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan - where desperate efforts are underway to cool the overheated nuclear complex - will not derail the construction of Vietnam’s first nuclear plant in the south- central province of Ninh Thuan.

'Vietnam is planning to build nuclear power plants,' Deputy Minister of Science and Technology Le Dinh Tien said at a press conference last week, according to the Vietnamese media. 'Information and assessments of the blasts at the Fukushima No. 1 plant will act as a foundation to help Vietnam’s relevant authorities appropriate nuclear power programmes in the country.'

A multi-billion dollar deal inked between Russia and Vietnam last October to build the Ninh Thuan plant triggered what some analysts describe as a race to tap nuclear technology to meet the region’s growing energy needs. By 2031, Vietnam hopes to achieve its goal of having eight nuclear plants in operation.

Other countries with similar blueprints for nuclear energy include Thailand, which aims to build five nuclear plants; and Indonesia, with ambitions for four nuclear plants. The Philippines, on the other hand, built the controversial Bataan Nuclear Power Plant in the early 1980s - it has never been commissioned and fuelled.

But unlike Vietnam, the governments in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines have appeared less strident with regards to their respective nuclear agendas following the grim news flowing out of Japan - the aftermath of the dual shocks of the most powerful earthquake to hit the country, followed by a tsunami, that damaged the Fukushima Daiichi plant on the country’s northeastern coast.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has captured the mood in some of the region’s capitals though his note of caution against the country’s first nuclear power plant due to begin operations in 2020. 'He has expressed concerns over safety at the nuclear plants, with accidents and terrorist attacks being the main worries,' Panitan Wattanayagorn, a spokesman for the government, told IPS.

Indonesian Environment Minister Gusti Muhammad Hatta has weighed in as well, telling ‘The Jakarta Post’ that 'there is no need to hurry to build a nuclear power plant except if we start running out of energy resources.'

Philippines President Benigno Aquino has been the most unequivocal - rejecting the need for nuclear energy in his country in the wake of the crisis unfolding in Japan. Aquino wants a greater push towards non-nuclear energy sources, according to the Philippines media.

Filipinos like Lotong Velasco are among a growing chorus of anti-nuclear activists in Southeast Asia who are using the crisis in Japan to raise their voices against the region’s race for nuclear power. 'The Bataan power plant is a structure full of defects and we do not want it to begin operations,' Velasco told IPS during a telephone interview from Morong, the seaside town where the plant is located.

'We need to avoid the nightmare in Japan happening in our own backyard one day,' added the Velasco, vice chairman of the Nuclear Free Bataan Movement Net. 'It has been built near the Pinatubo volcano.'

Little wonder why anti-nuclear activists are troubled by the emerging divide across Southeast Asia between Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, all of which have democratic cultures that offer space for public discussion over nuclear policy, and Vietnam, under the iron grip of the communist party, where criticism and opposition to public policies are tolerated selectively.

'Vietnam’s nuclear policy is a worry for the region,' says Tara Buakamsri, the Southeast Asia campaign director for Greenpeace, the global environmental lobby. 'They need to do more studies and need to set up an independent nuclear safety regulatory commission in line with requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency before proceeding further.'

Nuclear plants in Indonesia and the Philippines are worrying because both countries lie within the Pacific Ring of Fire - a belt around the Pacific Ocean prone to large numbers of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. 'People’s lives would be put at risk if nuclear plants are built and operate in such areas,' Tara argued.

The region is further hampered by the lack of a nuclear safety protocol in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a 10-member regional bloc that includes Brunei, Burma (or Myanmar), Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

For now, the only agreement ASEAN’s members have inked on nuclear safety is the 1995 treaty to keep the regional bloc a zone free of nuclear weapons. It not only limits the use of nuclear weapons, but also checks against member countries threatening to use nuclear arms against other members in the bloc.

'People are alarmed and if they don’t know what their governments are doing or plan to do, that sense of alarm can spread,' Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, told IPS. 'Governments should pause and evaluate and open up the process [of building nuclear power plants] for discussion.'

Southeast Asian governments need to draw lessons from Asian giant China. In China the events in Japan have prompted a 'stop at present [to their nuclear power programme] as they re-evaluate,' Tay said. 'Southeast Asian countries - with no experience in nuclear energy - should too.'

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service