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ASEAN must learn from the Fukushima disaster

fukushima_nuclear_reactor

14 May ASEAN must learn from the Fukushima disaster

On the third anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the tragic events of March 11, 2011, continue to cast a shadow over Japan’s environment and politics. Despite efforts by the authorities in the past few years, reports of contamination from the crippled plant continue to emerge — a new radioactive water leak was found at the site just last month.

Tokyo also held elections last month to choose a new Governor. There was an attempt by anti-nuclear candidates to turn the race into a referendum on the use of nuclear power. Ironically, it was a pro-nuclear candidate — former Health Minister Yoichi Masuzoe — who emerged victorious. Mr Masuzoe is not the biggest fan of nuclear energy, but he shares Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s view that Japan must continue operating its nuclear power plants for the sake of its economy, at least for the foreseeable future.

According to Japanese media reports, Mr Abe’s Cabinet is currently considering approval for a new national energy policy, which continues to include nuclear power as a source for Japan’s electricity in the medium and long term.

Vietnam’s Nuclear Plans

In Japan, it appears that concerns about the safety of nuclear energy are being tempered by pragmatic considerations. A similar story is playing out in Vietnam.

Like Japan, Vietnam is feeling the effects of electricity shortages. To fuel its industries and economic development, Vietnam is investing in a range of power sources, including renewable technologies such as hydroelectric dams. However, the authorities believe renewable energy is not completely reliable, and nuclear energy is necessary to provide a stable baseline electricity supply.

Vietnam was scheduled to start building its first nuclear plant this year, but construction has been delayed until closer to 2020. In theory, this is to allow more time to raise Vietnam’s safety standards, though some observers say the delay has more to do with negotiations on financing and technical matters.

Vietnam is serious about its nuclear plans. Last week, United States President Barack Obama approved a new bilateral deal that will allow America to sell nuclear fuel and technology to Vietnam. Vietnam already has in place similar agreements with Japan and Russia.

Lessons for ASEAN

In Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, national plans to go nuclear have been in limbo since the Fukushima disaster. But once Vietnam begins building its nuclear power plants, other countries could revisit their plans.

Within the next decade, we could see more plants being constructed. But regional cooperation in South-east Asia on nuclear safety issues is still in its infancy.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has established a Nuclear Energy Cooperation Sub-Sector Network (NEC-SSN) among government officials, but thus far the network has only collaborated in modest ways, such as drawing up a framework for public education.

Although Singapore and many other nations in ASEAN have no current plans to run their own nuclear reactors, they do have a vested interest in ensuring that plants constructed in this region are safe and secure — nobody wants to see a nuclear accident with transboundary effects.

In addition, with ASEAN states moving towards connecting their power grids and transferring electricity across borders, all countries stand to benefit if successfully-run nuclear plants are created and operated.

While Singapore and other countries may not plan on hosting their own nuclear reactors, there are ways they can be involved, such as helping with technical expertise and capacity building. At the same time, it is important for them to have experts who are able to monitor and assess the regional nuclear developments as they progress in the years ahead.

Right now, there is no widespread sense of urgency over nuclear safety and other related issues in ASEAN. But it is important that both governments and the public start pro-actively discussing key issues such as how safety standards can be set to prevent accidents and how to cooperate in the event of an actual emergency. The anniversary of the accident at Fukushima underscores an important lesson on the dangers of complacency, both for Japan and ASEAN as well.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Nicholas Fang and Aaron Choo are, respectively, Executive Director and Researcher of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA). This article was originally published in TODAY on 14 Mar 2014, and also appeared in The Malay Mail.