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Paving ASEAN’s nuclear way with benign intentions

Updated On: Jan 09, 2007

The meeting of Asian leaders at the ASEAN Summit will see the light of day on Thursday, after the original schedule in Cebu last month was disrupted by the double threats of typhoon and terrorism.

It is therefore not coincidental that security issues and counter-terrorism will dominate the agenda of the summit.  One of the key resolutions will be a convention on counter-terrorism, but other non-traditional security concerns such as energy security will probably also rank high on the agenda. 

The region has witnessed a host of green ventures in a bid to address spiralling energy demand, soaring global oil prices, unstable geopolitics in the Middle East, and harsher global warming trend predictions. The need to undermine al-Qaeda-linked Jamaah Islamiyah’s influence in the region may also coalesce into the declaration of the ASEAN Convention on Counter Terrorism.

More should be done however, to consider how both policy tangents intersect, especially amidst the recent wave of nuclear development cum nuclearisation threats sweeping across AsiaOceania and the Middle East, and the worrisome scenario of an East Asia nuclear arms race prompted by North Korea’s nuclear bomb tests.

Favourable nuclear power economics – currently at 1.5 US (2.3 Singapore) cents per kilowatt-hour which is 50 per cent cheaper than the cheapest of fossil fuels like coal and natural gas – has pushed aside more expensive alternative energy options like solar power and the global spectre of Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl.

The drive to wean dependence off fossil fuels and to remain competitive in the global economy has spurred a discourse of ‘inevitability’ as the rationale for Southeast Asian governments to go nuclear. But the spotlights should be on Indonesia and Australia as a litmus test of how far the inevitability of the nuclear option should be extended.  

Indonesia’s revived progress on the nuclear energy front bears concern. The country’s US$8 billion (S$12.2 billion) investment to construct four 1000-megawatt plants by 2016 has recently received the helping hand of RussiaSouth Korea and Australia and even the endorsement of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).   

But environmental NGOs and other critics remain unconvinced that the country is prepared for nuclear power, raising questions of security, cost and waste disposal, especially given Indonesia’s record of natural and manmade disasters as well as terrorist attacks, and more importantly, their management by local authorities. The candidate sites of Muria peninsula and Gorontalo province are also vulnerable to such security threats and Indonesia’s persistent fertile ground for terrorist activities may result in the misuse of uranium enrichment and particularly spent waste for creating radiological devices (‘dirty bombs’).

Researchers at the American Geophysical Union's annual meeting last month built on the 1993 Australian National University findings of a nuclear holocaust for Southeast Asia by estimating that a nuclear conflict between two nations would affect 3 million to 17 million lives and bring about a marked cool-down of the planet with massive crop failures.

Meanwhile, Australia currently faces a watershed moment with plans to link uranium development and exports with its own nuclear development plans, both of which are set to occupy this year’s national elections’ agenda.  Externally, Australian uranium expoerts will help sustain the region’s nuclear ambitions – the Aussie-RI Lombok Agreement two months ago and exports of Aussie uranium to China worth A$1 billion (S$1.2 billion) in the coming months being cases in point.

Promising efforts are underway to manage risk, such as the decision to establish a new study panel for cooperation in nuclear energy in Asia at the Seventh Ministerial Meeting Forum for Nuclear Cooperation in Asia two months ago, and the inaugural regional seminar hosted by Japan and the IAEA to discuss measures against nuclear terrorism in Asia. October 30 last year also saw the landmark accedence of China to the Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon Free Zone.

Efforts to promote an accountable and secure nuclear-powered society – favouring regional cooperation over unilateralist manoeuvres and raising public awareness – should keep apace of nuclear power investment plans in Southeast Asia, especially in time with ASEAN’s apparent movement towards more rules-based norms, if recommendations by the Eminent Persons Group are heeded by the ASEAN heads of state.

Furthermore, other less risky alternative energy options and efforts to promote energy conservation and efficiency should still remain the order of the day, rather than riding on a singular discourse of the nuclear way that can easily lead to myopic policy decisions.

Sources:

Japan, IAEA to co-host seminar on how to strengthen nuclear security in Asia (AP, 1 November 2006)

China supports ASEAN to establish Nuclear-Weapon Free Zone (Thai News Service, 1 November 2006)

No reason to suspect RI developing nuclear weapons, IAEA says (ANTARA News, 7 November 2006)

Six Arab Countries Seeking Nuclear Power (The Straits Times, 8 November 2006)

Indonesia to press ahead with nuclear power despite protests (Japan Energy Scan, 20 November 2006)

Nuclear Power - Is Malaysia Ready For It? (Bernama, 22 November 2006)

World's nuclear material more secure now (Washington Post/The Straits Times, 23 November 2006)

Fear of fallout in Asia’s drive to go nuclear (The Straits Times, 27 November 2006)

Australia to turn to nuclear energy within 10 years? (TODAY, 27 November 2006)

Study Panel On Nuclear In Asia To Be Formed (Bernama, 27 November 2006)

Seoul offers to help Indonesia develop nuclear plants (AFP, 4 December 2006)

ASEAN Summit expected to tackle tough issues (Thai News Service, 6 December 2006)

Security to dominate in annual Asian jamboree (Reuters, 6 December 2006)

ASEAN fears NKorea will spark East Asia nuclear race - official (Xinhua, 7 December 2006)

'Nuclear winter' is still a threat, scientists say (The Oakland Tribune, 12 December 2006)

Small Nuclear War Could Lead to Cooldown (AP, 12 December 2006)

Briefing – Asia Energy (Asia Pulse, 29 December 2006)

Nuclear power `cheaper than coal' (The Australian, 1 January 2007)

Bold moves to turn Asean into rules-based group (The Straits Times, 5 January 2007)

AustraliaChina sign uranium sale deal (Reuters/The Straits Times, 5 January 2007)

The atom calls to KL, Jakarta (TODAY, 6 January 2007)

In Australia, battle lines drawn over uranium exports, N-power (The Straits Times, 6 January 2007)

ASEAN summit revives questions of relevance (Channel News Asia, 7 January 2007)