Southeast Asia's Nuclear Power Thrust: Putting ASEAN's Effectiveness to the Test?

Article excerpt

Nuclear power suddenly has come into favour among governments in Southeast Asia as a means of helping solve looming electricity shortages. While just three or four years ago nuclear energy did not feature in the medium- and long-term power development master plans of countries in the region, now Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand have plans for nuclear power generation while Malaysia and the Philippines are studying the option. As yet, there are no commercial nuclear power plants in operation in the region, though there are small research reactors. However, as in other parts of the world, both where there are established nuclear generation industries as in Europe, North America and Northeast Asia and also in regions and countries where there are not, such as in the Middle East, nuclear power's fortunes are on the rise. Nuclear is being turned to as a possible solution to the problem of meeting electricity demand at a time when the cost of the traditional fossil fuels used for power generation, essentially coal and natural gas, are rising steeply, and in ways that mitigate against the large contribution to the greenhouse effect and predicted global warming by the combustion of fossil fuels and their production of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

But plans and possibilities in Southeast Asia raise a gamut of economic, environmental and security issues and fears. Policymakers have only begun to grapple with these concerns. How, and to what extent, governments in the region go about implementing nuclear power programmes is still far from clear, though first plants are planned to come into operation towards the end of the next decade. This may, in fact, be an ambitious timetable even though the pressures to meet electricity demand are large and growing.

Optimal development from economic, environmental and security points of view would argue for a co-operative approach under the umbrella of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Some suggest that nuclear power in countries in Southeast Asia might be managed and regulated through a central ASEAN nuclear power authority. A guide and model here might be the European experience and the role of Euratom. Managing the development of nuclear power in Southeast Asia will be a major test of the organization's maturity and effectiveness. (1)

This article looks at the rise of nuclear power generation as an option in power expansion plans in Southeast Asia and the arguments for nuclear power and the concerns associated with its development. It then looks at how these might be best met. This leads to the argument for a regional approach under ASEAN. To begin, the region's power demand outlook is examined and why nuclear energy now seems appealing.

Power Demand and the Possible Role of Nuclear Energy

The challenge of meeting power demand growth in Southeast Asia is great. While much international attention is focussed on the huge, if not overwhelming projections, for China and to a lesser extent India, the electricity needs of Southeast Asia over the next two to three decades are also very large when considered in aggregate and also when looking individually at the larger countries and economies. Meeting future power demand on this scale has enormous implications for fuel choice, finance and the environment. And even where ambitious projections are met, on a per capita basis, Southeast Asian power production and consumption will still be low compared to current levels in OECD countries.

As far as fuel is concerned, while Southeast Asia does have reasonably generous energy resources, these are not as abundant as people often think, especially taking into account demand growth. For example, the region has been a net oil importer for some years and this dependency is increasing. Southeast Asia does have significant natural gas reserves, although these are often distant from demand centres and this raises the challenge of putting in place pipeline supply infrastructure. …