Vietnam stays the nuclear course

Posted on May 12, 2011


Fukushima nuclear power plant explosion

Pervasive and ongoing power shortages represent perhaps the biggest hurdle to sustaining Vietnam’s fast economic growth and attractiveness as a manufacturing base to foreign investors. The country will need to add an additional 4,600 megawatts of generating capacity per year from now to 2016 just to keep pace with demand, according to government estimates.

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While other countries in the region rethink their nuclear power plans in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed nuclear power plants in Japan, Vietnam has stood firm behind its ambitious designs. Vietnam plans to build 14 nuclear reactors with Russian, American and Japanese assistance over the next two decades. The first, in Ninh Thuan province, is under construction.

Hanoi’s decision to pursue nuclear power dates back to the mid-1990s when market reforms started to take root. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has since made industrialization by 2020 a key goal of his economic development agenda, but drought-stricken hydropower dams and diminishing coal supplies have contributed to frequent power outages and put Dung’s industrialization ambitions in doubt.

Power outages are endemic across Vietnam. Local news reports last year pointed to instances where tourists had been stuck in hotel elevators during electricity blackouts. Generators at luxury resorts catering to foreigners and at other high end businesses are also frequently overstretched. Mattias Duehn, the European Chamber’s executive director, was quoted by Bloomberg saying “the power cuts affect Vietnam’s competitiveness and may direct investment elsewhere.”

While these pressures will push the government’s nuclear plans ahead, there are concerns both at home and abroad about Vietnam’s capacity to safely manage nuclear facilities. A shortage of technicians will be one key issue, according to Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy.

Chernobyl: Russian nuclear power plant explosion

Disaster management is another. In October last year, a bauxite mining accident in Hungary reignited debate and criticism of plans to establish bauxite mines in Vietnam’s Central Highlands region. The toxic red sludge had barely reached Hungary’s Danube River before many, including several senior retired and still serving Vietnamese officials, were calling for a moratorium on the plans.

It’s not apparent yet that officials reacted the same way after recent events in Japan that led to a nuclear meltdown and raised safety concerns worldwide about nuclear power. Indeed, the internal debate over the costs and benefits of nuclear power have been held behind closed doors and have had little outlet in the local press.

Since Japan’s nuclear disaster, state-controlled Vietnamese newspapers have carried stories reaffirming the government’s nuclear energy development plans and emphasized the differences between the “old” plants in Japan and the more modern, safer technology that would be deployed here.

This is because the local press was reportedly told that the government’s nuclear plans are deemed a “sensitive” issue, meaning journalists risked reprisals for straying from the official line in their reporting. The news blackout nonetheless stirred some panic. In March, false reports that radioactive rain from Japan’s disaster had fallen in Hanoi sent parents rushing to schools to collect their children.

Vuong Huu Tan, head of Vietnam’s nuclear energy institute, reaffirmed in an interview that Japan’s accident had not changed plans to build several nuclear reactors in Vietnam. “We understand the nature of the problem in Japan,” said Tan. “They use the old type of reactor, built 40 years ago… the new generation of reactor has improved on shortcomings.”

He added that the potential threats from earthquakes, tsunamis and climate change would be factored into the reactors’ designs.

Climate change is a particularly pressing problem, with environmental scientists blaming it for a wide range of emerging problems, including increased storms and inclement weather such as drought, sea-level rises along the country’s long coastline, and salt water intrusion into Mekong Delta areas where the majority of the country’s rice crop is grown.

International bodies, including the World Bank, Oxfam and United Nations Development Program, have all predicted Vietnam will be one of the countries most affected by climate change. That’s arguably already contributing to the country’s rising power woes.

Droughts last year and this have dramatically lowered levels in hydropower dams, which account for 20% of the country’s total power supply, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Other estimates put that contribution as high as 40%. Meanwhile, indigenous supplies of coal are depleting, forcing the country to start importing power from historical adversary China.

All of these factors have driven the official insistence and lack of open debate over nuclear power development. Yet analysts warn Vietnam does not at present have the infrastructure or expertise to guarantee a smooth nuclear transition. Apart from inconsistent power supplies, they note many roads across the country remain in a parlous state and drainage systems cannot handle heavy rains.

Across the country, accidents at oil refineries, mines and factories are more common than they should be, say industrial safety experts. At the same time, Vietnam is one of the most storm-affected countries in the region; the Central Coast region in particular has been hit by more and bigger typhoons in recent years.

While authorities tend to respond swiftly to storm threats, the country’s overall disaster response mechanism is neither centralized nor well-coordinated. For example, earthquakes are covered by one government agency while petroleum spills are handled by another. Nor is there a central body or unified strategy for handling industrial disasters.

The potential for nuclear accidents and a haphazard government response has already started to worry Vietnam’s non-nuclear neighbors – if not its own citizens. An anti-nuclear rally was held outside the Vietnamese embassy in Bangkok in April, when protestors submitted a letter of concern that the first plant to be built in Ninh Thuan would be only 800 kilometers from the Thai border.

But with future economic growth and Dung’s industrial vision at stake, those concerns are expected to fall on deaf ears.

M Goonan, a pseudonym, is a Vietnam-based freelance journalist.