Southeast Asia going nuclear

Author: Barry Desker, RSIS

Southeast Asian states are moving to push ahead with nuclear power plants in an about-turn from the focus on safety risk in the search for energy security.

These plans are supported by generous terms provided by the governments of South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and France, which would provide the technology.

Singapore, however, has concluded that the safety risks are too high to embark on the use of nuclear power technology at the present time. This makes Singapore an exception in Southeast Asia.

Vietnam’s plans are the most advanced, with two Russian-built reactors to be completed by 2020 followed by two Japanese reactors in southern Ninh Thuan province. Another six reactors are proposed. In Thailand, two reactors are planned and four proposed. Malaysia plans to build two reactors in coastal areas of southern Johor. Indonesia is considering smaller reactors on Bangka Island and in West Kalimantan. The Philippines is debating re-commissioning a nuclear plant built in Bataan by the US corporation Westinghouse in the 1980s but never made operational because of safety concerns. It was built close to a seismic fault line near the then-dormant Mount Pinatubo and was at the centre of intensive corruption investigations.

These developments mark a major about-turn in the region. Like the rest of the world, there was a fundamental rethinking in Southeast Asia following the Fukushima tsunami and destruction of its nuclear power plants in March 2011. The safety risks of nuclear power led to a major shift in perceptions in developed countries. Germany took the lead in moving to close down existing nuclear power facilities. However, barely two and a half years later, the nuclear power lobby has been effective in getting Southeast Asian governments to reassess and to proceed with their original plans.

Such lobbying has been effective because of the shared interests of the builders of nuclear power plants, who are eager to replace vanishing developed-country consumers with new developing-country consumers; governments keen to reduce their reliance on imported energy; and domestic scientific lobbies eager to deploy cutting-edge technology. The search for energy security is at the heart of the turn to nuclear energy. Although there is consumer resistance because of the fear of nuclear accidents, consumers are unorganised, with critics of nuclear power usually in civil society groups at the margins of policymaking.

Ironically, this move to nuclear energy occurs at a time when the world of energy scarcity envisaged a decade ago is being overturned by the development of clean coal technologies, shale oil and gas discoveries, the exploitation of geo-thermal and bio-fuel resources and advances in solar and wind-power technology. These resources are abundantly available in Southeast Asia but there is a gap in awareness. Policymakers are driven by mental models of a world whose future seemed clearly charted a decade ago. Sharply increasing fossil fuel prices at that time made nuclear power an attractive policy option, especially as governments had to meet the challenge of growing budget deficits with rising fuel subsidies.

Energy security is identified with energy independence. While the cost of nuclear power remains high, the rapidly increasing exploitation of shale gas will drive down the region’s energy costs, especially as Australian sources come on-stream. Clean coal technologies pioneered by China and the United States will also reduce the carbon emissions of coal-fired power plants, although there will be a time lag before widespread adoption occurs. However, the mantra of energy security helps to drive policymakers to search for the holy grail.

Indonesia is a classic example. Policymakers backed by the National Nuclear Energy Agency (BATAN) are pushing nuclear power despite the country’s abundant renewable-energy resources.

While nuclear power advocates in Indonesia will take a back seat as the 2014 elections approach, as it is a vote loser, expect a replay of the 2009 scenario. Then, nuclear power advocates emerged soon after the elections even though the issue was absent from electoral debates and candidates of all parties sought to reassure voters in central Java that they did not support nuclear power.

Since the mid-1980s, BATAN has pushed for the development of a nuclear power plant on the slopes of the Muria peninsula, a dormant volcano in a seismically active area in north central Java. Its plans were first delayed by the 1997–98 Asian financial crisis, and later by the strong opposition of the local population in a newly democratic Indonesia. BATAN is now contemplating smaller nuclear plants in Bangka Island, just south of Batam, and in West Kalimantan.

However, neither proposal is cost-effective. As the main users of electricity are on Java, undersea cables would be used to transmit the power generated with a significant transmission loss. In any case, plentiful coal is available in Kalimantan and coal-fired plants using state-of-the-art clean coal technologies are significantly cheaper to operate than nuclear power plants with the latest technology.

While BATAN was fixated with the nuclear power option in 2011, Indonesia’s deputy minister of energy and mineral resources, Widjajono Partowidagdo, noted that Indonesia was not ready to build a nuclear power plant because of the country’s level of corruption and weak supervision. Indonesia’s asal bapak senang (‘keep the boss happy’) bureaucratic culture is a deterrent to developing a safety culture. Indonesia is not alone.

Significantly, Japan’s Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission report noted that Japanese cultural conventions such as ‘reflexive obedience’, ‘stick with the programme’ insular perspectives, cliquish behaviour and the tendency not to question authority could have an impact on safety management and governance. Such attitudes can also characterise Southeast Asian societies beyond Indonesia and highlight a major risk as nuclear power plant development moves ahead.

For Singapore, the commissioning of neighbouring nuclear power plants in southern Johor or Bangka would represent a significant risk, even if these sites are stable from the seismic perspective. Although advocates of nuclear power technology, especially the exporters of nuclear power plants, argue that the technology used will be more advanced than in the Fukushima reactors, they have not focused on Southeast Asia’s bureaucratic culture of obedience and deference, as well as the willingness to take short cuts and compromise on quality and efficiency.

These risks suggest Southeast Asia’s nuclear about turn could lead to a troubling and inefficient energy future in the region.

Barry Desker is Dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (NTS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

A longer version of this article was first published here as RSIS Commentary No. 226/2013.

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