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Southeast Asia’s energy diversification: A risky mix?

Updated On: Aug 15, 2006

The rate of Southeast Asian nations diversifying their energy mix is progressing at an unprecedented manner.

Following the July 12 Bernama report citing Malaysia's interest in using nuclear technology to generate electricity, Noramly Muslim, the chairman of the Malaysian Nuclear Licensing Board, revealed on August 8 that Malaysia would need at least two nuclear reactors to provide a sufficient substitute for fossil fuel to generate electric power. Speaking at the Hiroshima and Nagasaki Seminar at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), Dr Noramly opined that nuclear energy is deemed as the best alternative to depleting oil and gas supplies, the country’s current two principal sources for power generation.

Elsewhere, according to UKM's Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic and International Affairs) Prof Datuk Dr Sukiman Sarmani, scientists in Malaysia are simply waiting for the government’s “green light” to jump-start a nuclear programme.

Malaysia’s 2020 target of going nuclear currently stands on par with Vietnam’s plan to install two nuclear reactors as well. Currently fronting the nuclear energy race in the region is Indonesia and Thailand, which will be harnessing the new source in 2016 and 2018 respectively. Singapore on the other hand, has announced the building of a 3.3 million ton liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal to diversify the country’s energy sources, and which will be operational in 2012.

The region’s bio-fuel giants, Malaysia and Indonesia – both accounting for 90 percent of the world's palm oil output – have previously pursued individual development plans, but are now seeking ways to collaborate and synergise their efforts. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, at a recent visit to Malaysia, said that “both countries are in a strong position to determine their offers to the world market”.

Capturing the headlines most recently is Indonesia’s plans to exploit its uranium potentials, such as in the West Kalimantan village of Kallan in the district of Melawi. This was announced by the National Nuclear Power Agency (Batan) and supported by the Indonesian House of Representatives' Commission VII on August 11.

A member of the commission that deals with energy affairs, Tjatur Sapto Edy, explains that Indonesia “must not rely upon other countries for the raw materials for producing the strategic primary energy source as reliance will only make the country dependent”.

According to the World Energy Council, the National Nuclear Power Agency (Batan) has already begun exploring for uranium in the 1960s. While significant exploratory and drilling work was carried out in the late 1980s to early 1990s, the 1997 financial crisis halted its progress. Efforts picked up again in recent years, especially with the price of natural uranium ballooning from US$15 per kilogram last April to US$95 per kilogram at present, and foreign investment interest to cooperate with the National Nuclear Power Agency (Batan) in exploring uranium deposits.

According to a 2004 study conducted by the Stockholm International Peace Institute, Indonesia currently has two established mines in the West Kalimantan uranium district, called the Remaja-Hitam Ore Body (or Edo-Remaja prospect) and the Rirang-Tanah Merah Ore Body. Both reserves are touted to be able to meet the country’s domestic needs for the planned reactors.

While current uranium potentials remain more or less at the research and development stage, and have yet to become an economical raw material for producing energy, the National Atomic Energy Agency’s deputy for nuclear basic technology development, Karyono HS, remains optimistic that “uranium mining will be feasible by 2016”.

Indonesia’s current ‘uranium talk’ pose two worrisome scenarios. First, substantial uranium deposits, if discovered and mined in the region, would spark further resource competition at the global level (especially amongst the big regional powers). Second, as highlighted by the Stockholm International Peace Institute,Indonesia’s persistent hotbed for terrorist activities may result in the misuse of uranium enrichment and particularly spent waste for creating radiological devices (“dirty bomb”).

Sources:

Singapore to build its first LNG terminal to diversify energy sources (AFP/Channel New Asia, 7 August 2006)

Malaysia needs nuclear power: official (AFP/Channel New Asia, 9 August 2006)

M'sia Requires Two Nuclear Reactors To Generate Electricity (Bernama, 9 August 2006)

Indonesia Wants To Synergise With M'sia In Bio Energy (Bernama, 10 August 2006)

Legislators support study on uranium potentials in W Kalimantan (Antara, 12 August 2006)

Foreign investor interested in exploring uranium deposits in W Kalimantan (Antara, 12 August 2006)

Countries of Strategic Nuclear Concern – Indonesia (2004 Stockholm International Peace Institute Study, http://www.sipri.org/contents/expcon/cnsc3ins.html)

Survey of Energy Resources (2001 World Energy Council Study, http://www.worldenergy.org/wec-geis/publications/reports/ser/uranium/uranium.asp)