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Avoiding a nightmare for S.E. Asia’s dreams of nuclear power

When the Government said earlier this year that it was reviewing whether to lift curbs on food imports from Japan’s Fukushima prefecture, it prompted a ripple of concern among the public, who wondered if it was too soon.

An aerial view shows the No 1 (left) and 2 reactor buildings at Kyushu Electric Power's Sendai nuclear power station in Satsumasendai, Kagoshima prefecture, Japan, on Aug 11, 2015, in this photo taken by Kyodo. Photo: Reuters

An aerial view shows the No 1 (left) and 2 reactor buildings at Kyushu Electric Power's Sendai nuclear power station in Satsumasendai, Kagoshima prefecture, Japan, on Aug 11, 2015, in this photo taken by Kyodo. Photo: Reuters

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When the Government said earlier this year that it was reviewing whether to lift curbs on food imports from Japan’s Fukushima prefecture, it prompted a ripple of concern among the public, who wondered if it was too soon.

A radiation leak at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which resulted from an earthquake in 2011, put fears of a nuclear fallout hitting the region on the consciousness of Singaporeans for the first time.

Until then, nuclear power and its risks were a distant concept. But lesser known is the fact that for decades, Singapore has lived alongside neighbours with small-scale research nuclear reactors, including Indonesia (three), Thailand (one), Vietnam (one) and Malaysia (one). The Republic, along with New Zealand, is the only Pacific Rim country with no research reactor, according to the World Nuclear Association, which promotes nuclear power.

Indeed, the appetite for nuclear power in South-east Asia is growing, unlike in North America and Europe. Vietnam and Indonesia have both engaged international partners with the know-how to work on their first power-generating nuclear plants.

But how prepared are countries and the region as a whole for the possibility that something could go wrong?

In recent years, experts have noted weaknesses within the countries, such as the lack of nuclear expertise and protocol that do not meet International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) standards. Regionally, there is also not enough nuclear accident response capabilities and information-sharing on the matter.


Among the key nuclear developments in South-east Asia is the Ninh Thuan 1 plant in Vietnam, which is expected to have a capacity of around 4,000 megawatts, meeting 3 to 4 per cent of the country’s total electricity demand. Vietnam is working with Russia’s state nuclear firm on the plant, which will start construction in 2020. It is also working with a Japanese consortium to develop a second nuclear plant.

In Indonesia, plans to operate four nuclear power plants by 2025 with a total capacity of 6 gigawatts have been shelved in the wake of public objection, but its plans for its first experimental 10-megawatt nuclear power plant in Serpong in Banten province remains on track to start construction next year.

Beyond South-east Asia, China, seeking to move away from coal power, is set to build 40 nuclear power plants over the next five years. This is on top of the 30 it now has in operation, and the 24 under construction, according to the World Nuclear Association. South Korea has 25 nuclear reactors providing about one-third of its electricity, while, more ominously, North Korea recently conducted nuclear and missile tests, prompting tough sanctions against the country.

Dr Michael Malley of the Naval Postgraduate School and Dr Tanya Ogilvie-White of the University of Canterbury noted that at a 2011 international conference on nuclear challenges in South-east Asia, participants, especially those from outside the region, felt South-east Asian governments “have not done enough to prepare for worst-case scenarios”.

What could lead to these worst-case scenarios?

Protecting nuclear material and facilities from terrorists is a key concern. Indeed, it was the impetus for United States President Barack Obama to initiate the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in 2009, the fourth edition of which begins today, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong among those in attendance.

Other concerns are whether nuclear power plants are being built, maintained and secured in a way that meets international standards. Are nuclear-related materials transported properly? How many shipments pass through the region annually? Have there been any breach of rules and has action been taken against those who do not observe the rules? Is nuclear waste being safely disposed of?

In 2014, a report by the Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University highlighted the risks in Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia’s nuclear ambitions. For example, Vietnam’s emergency protocol still did not conform to the IAEA’s standards, and it did not have a comprehensive nuclear power plant security plan as well as a management plan for spent fuel.

Indonesia is relatively better prepared, as it has been mulling nuclear power since 1956. The country has in place two agencies overseeing the implementation and regulation of nuclear power and inter-agency groups to coordinate disaster response. The IAEA also conducted an Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review in Indonesia in 2009, and while it was not made public, the Indonesian government has said it confirms the country’s extensive preparatory work. But the NTS Centre researchers noted objections, such as “distrust towards the government’s capability in dealing with nuclear emergencies, financial constraints, Indonesia’s vulnerability to natural disasters, and corrupt practices”.

Nuclear power has not been ruled out by Malaysia, but there has been “serious concerns over the safe disposal of nuclear waste and the independence and impartiality of the Malaysian regulatory body, Atomic Energy Licensing Board”, noted the researchers. An investigation at a radioactive waste management facility in Kuantan run by Australian mining firm Lynas found that the storage system there was inadequate and risked exposing workers to high radiation, among other lapses.

“The future implications this has for nuclear power plant development and the safe disposal of nuclear waste are significant,” they said.

While the intentions behind nuclear development in the region may be peaceful, the implications of inadequate implementation and management are anything but. South-east Asia is prone to natural disasters. Indeed, this has been central to objections from Indonesians in areas where proposed reactors are to be built (in Central Java and in the Bangka-Belitung Province).

Anti-nuclear groups have noted that the country, sitting on the Pacific Ring of Fire, is vulnerable to earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, even in areas the Indonesian government said are relatively safe from tectonic activity.


That nuclear power and its risks occupy a very low rung on the average Singaporean’s list of priorities has not escaped the Government. Although the Government decided not to pursue nuclear power as an option for the foreseeable future after a feasibility study, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has stressed the importance of nuclear security and safety to Singapore.

“We are small and densely-populated. Any nuclear or radiological incident would be a major disaster, perhaps an existential one,” he said at the last NSS in 2014. That year, Singapore amended the Radiation Protection Act so that it can accede to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and its 2005 amendments.

The National Research Foundation started a programme to train 100 nuclear experts in the next decade. These experts would, for example, be able to study the impact of radiation on Singapore in the event of a nuclear incident, so that the authorities can roll out precautionary measures. Experts would also be able to detect and trace radioactive materials that could be used to make weapons. So far, only nine experts have been selected in the last two years.

Mr Lee has attended all four editions of the NSS, underscoring the importance of nuclear security to the Republic. While North Korea and its nuclear tests could dominate the discussions over the next few days, countries, including Singapore, will be delivering progress reports on nuclear security.

Also on the table are possible actions the international community can take to strengthen the global security architecture. With this NSS being the last — in tandem with the end of Mr Obama’s term as President — countries are expected to adopt a set of documents on the road ahead to key security initiatives. The fallout from a nuclear disaster does not stop at international boundaries. On a regional level, countries can come together and adopt a common position to promote nuclear safety and non-proliferation. And as the Government ramps up the training of experts, the ordinary Singaporean will benefit from understanding the implications of nuclear power booming so close to our shores.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lin Yanqin is a deputy news editor at TODAY.

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