Side Views

Despite Fukushima, Southeast Asia still eyes nuclear energy — Nicholas Fang and Aaron Choo

MARCH 9 — A year after the triple tragedy hit Japan, the country still faces a potential energy crisis.

Nuclear energy once provided 30 per cent of Japan’s electricity. Now, only two of its 54 nuclear reactors are operating, and these are scheduled to go offline by May.

Japan has increased fossil fuel imports to compensate for the shortfall, but the authorities are now under pressure to slash oil imports from Iran. Japan has considerable oil reserves, but there are fears the country may soon face an electricity shortage unless its nuclear plants resume operation.

Despite the looming energy crunch, Japanese communities are still unwilling to restart reactors due to safety concerns.

Yet even as countries like Japan and Germany turn away from atomic power, several Southeast Asian nations are preparing to build their first nuclear plants. Singapore needs to watch this situation carefully.

Following the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, Malaysia and Thailand have delayed their nuclear programmes, though they have not cancelled plans entirely. But Indonesia and Vietnam have not been deterred.

Indonesia aims to build up to four nuclear power stations by 2025, while Vietnam intends to build 10 by 2030, plus another four after. The first of Vietnam’s plants will be ready by 2021.

Vietnam has already signed construction deals with Russian and Japanese consortiums, though critics in Japan have questioned the ethics of Japanese companies building new plants when Japan itself is increasingly wary of nuclear energy.

Last month, Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission chairman Haruki Madarame told a public hearing that Japan’s nuclear officials had been complacent for years, always “making excuses”. If this could occur in Japan, a country renowned for its safety culture, what are the prospects for Southeast Asia, where countries have poorer track records of safety?

Fukushima has underscored the dangers of complacency on the part of regulators and operators. It is not clear whether regulatory practices in prospective nuclear countries will be rigorous enough, especially given how rapidly countries are moving to open their first plants.

Notably, Indonesia is situated within the “Ring of Fire”, making it susceptible to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, though the authorities insist their country is safer than Japan. Meanwhile, there are concerns that Vietnam might not be able to train enough engineers and experts before their plants come online.

Further, many ASEAN countries have not signalled complete commitment to international norms. Only Indonesia has ratified all three major United Nations conventions on nuclear safety. Regional co-ordination also needs to be strengthened on this issue.

The Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty does have token provisions regarding civilian nuclear safety standards, and in 2007, the ASEAN Nuclear Energy Safety Sub-Sector Network was set up to explore matters such as joint emergency response. But actual outcomes have been low-key.

In June, Singapore will be hosting the 1st Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Seminar on Nuclear Safety, originally proposed by Foreign Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam to other ASEM ministers at a summit last year.

Singapore has no current plans to build a nuclear plant. The government is still conducting a pre-feasibility study on the issue. But as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel last year: “Even if we don’t do nuclear energy, our neighbours will do nuclear energy, and we need to understand the implications for us”.

Singaporeans must think carefully about what the republic can bring to the table.

Despite not being an oil-producing country, Singapore serves as a major refining centre.

Similarly, there are ways Singapore could contribute to the region’s fledgling nuclear industry.

One area of possible interest for Singapore is the developing of local expertise in the nuclear sector, not just in technology but also in areas such as policy research and crisis communication.

As the ASEAN region moves towards nuclear energy, Singapore has a vested interest in ensuring the highest possible standards of safety, security and accountability. A key part of this is developing the necessary experts able to contribute to regional conversations on the nuclear issue, who could offer objective analysis and observation of overall developments in Southeast Asia.

The Singapore government says it is considering all possible options for potential nuclear activities but is understandably cautious about its plans for the sector, given the small area of the country and the concerns of its population.

However, nuclear power plants near Singapore’s shores are now a pressing reality, not a distant dream, and it will be necessary for the country to be prepared for a nuclear future in the region. — Today

* Nicholas Fang is the director of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) and a Nominated Member of Parliament. Aaron Choo is a researcher at the SIIA.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.

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