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Asia’s environmental woes and nuclear energy ambitions

Updated On: Nov 24, 2006

China reached its worst air pollution level on November 21 with a “hazardous rating”, amid the ‘green’ 2008 Olympic vision.  Flights were delayed by low visibility to a few hundred metres.

Beijing’s Environmental Protection Bureau advised the public to stay indoors, “especially in areas where...traffic is heavy,” indicating in part, a failure to attain its ambitious target of 'blue sky days' of level two air quality or better 65 per cent of the time. According to the Bureau, the city requires only an additional 25 more clean-air days by the end of the year to reach the target, but the months of July to September saw one out of every three days being classified as polluted.

Hong Kong also suffered a similar fate, with poor air quality reducing visibility to less than 1km on more than 50 days last year, rendering air pollution a sensitive political issue. The government’s 'Action Blue Sky' campaign to promote energy conservation also fell short of sufficient action, according to critics. Environmentalists also argue that the city's pollution index is 'outdated'.

The Financial Times reported on the same day as China’s unfavourable air quality rating an equally disappointing assessment from the chairman of Hong Kong’s stock exchange, Ronald Arculli, that the territory’s competitiveness will wane with the persistent air pollution.

Mr Arculli’s own two young grandsons had to be relocated to the Philippines on pollution-related medical grounds. International chambers of commerce have also raised the alarm of member businesses pulling out, as business leaders call for tougher government action before losing the city’s status as a major finance hub.

To add further gloom to the haze, US investment bank Merrill Lynch is advising clients to sell shares in Hong Kong office landlords in favour of Singapore's, based on a forecasted 5 per cent decline in Hong Kong office rents next year. The report also predicted that mass immigration would help double Singapore's population in the next decade, with a steady flow of financial service professionals coming from Hong Kong.

Much of the current woes faced by both China and Hong Kong come from coal-burning power stations and diesel-powered buses. Beijing for example, has 6,000 coal-fire heating furnaces and up to two million home coal burners. Hong Kong is afflicted by coal-burning factories in the manufacturing centres of the Pearl River Delta in southern China.

While Merrill Lynch’s general assessment is that of ‘Hong Kong's loss’ becoming ‘Singapore's gain,’ the latter is experiencing air quality lapses as well from the transboundary haze pollution in the region. Lessons drawn from Hong Kong’s investment flight may perhaps explain the city-state’s firm stance in forwarding both an ASEAN and international agenda on the haze.

One other preoccupation at the environment-investment nexus and ranking high on the policy agendas of Southeast Asian nations is energy security. A November 23 draft document for the December 12th ASEAN Summit revealed ‘regional energy security’ – such as a joint fuel stockpile initiative – to be taking centre stage on the agenda.

Summit host and Philippine President Gloria Arroyo also stated opportunities in the areas of biofuel development and other alternative energy initiatives, especially in discussion with other leaders participating from ChinaJapanSouth KoreaIndiaAustralia and New Zealand.

But the summit agenda should also address the recent wave of nuclear development cum nuclearisation threats sweeping across Asia and the Middle East, with the former led by North Korea and the latter by Iran, followed by the six Arab states of EgyptAlgeriaSaudi Arabia, the United Arab EmiratesMorocco and Tunisia.

In Southeast Asia especially, Indonesia received the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) ‘endorsement’ early this month that the country will not develop nuclear weapons and only utilize nuclear technology for power generation.

Just two weeks later saw Australia making a commitment to aid Indonesia’s nuclear energy programme as part of the Lombok Agreement on security cooperation between the two countries, even as environmentalists generate much outcry over the infrastructural instability and tenuous political relations elicited by terrorist threats.

Vietnam’s plans to install two nuclear reactors to sustain the country's power needs by 2020 should not be forgotten as well. But Malaysia’s recent moves are coming on strong as well, with the discursive linking of nuclear development with the country’s vision of becoming a developed nation by 2020.

According to Malaysian Nuclear Agency Director-General Dr Daud Mohamad, the country may have little choice but to use nuclear technology to generate electricity in the near future, as it would be the only way forward for the country to stay competitive.

The re-launch of the nuclear agency as ‘Nuclear Malaysia’ signified the new resolve, along with plans to cultivate human resources in nuclear technology, and a technical feasibility study to build two bigger reactors, with a capacity of 20 or 30 Megawatt, and which may be presented for inclusion in the Tenth Malaysia Plan.

Before crying wolf on the dangers of Southeast Asia’s nuclear development plans, a recent article by Harvard University-based authors of ‘Securing The Bomb 2006’ noted how much of the world's potential nuclear bomb material is notably more secure than it was before 11 September 2001, primarily through the Bush administration’s 2004 Global Threat Reduction Initiative, which led to the widespread conversion of highly enriched uranium (HEU) to low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuels that cannot be used to make a nuclear bomb.

The authors however, placed more emphases upon efforts in North America, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and left out analysing the threat potential of Southeast Asia, which may possibly require a different set of evaluation criteria, given the region’s unique history of nuclear power experimentation coupled with its political dynamic.

An environment panel – organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs – at the ASEAN People’s Assembly to be held next month and just days before the 12th ASEAN Summit, is seeking to address the above energy security issues more adequately from the perspective of human security.

Sources:

HK bourse chief warns: Air pollution bad for business (The Financial Times/AFP/The Straits Times, 21 November 2006)

Govt Does Not Rule Out Nuclear As Source Of Energy (Bernama, 21 November 2006)

Beijing's air quality hits hazardous level (Reuters/AFP/The Straits Times, 22 November 2006)

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

Ditch polluted HK, buy into S'pore, Merrill Lynch tells clients (Reuters/AFP/The Straits Times, 23 November 2006)

Asian nations to revive talk of joint oil stocks (Reuters/The Straits Times, 23 November 2006)

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