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Asia’s nuclear experiment: Implications and prospects

Updated On: Jul 11, 2006

Recent developments regarding nuclear energy have blurred the lines of proliferation and non-proliferation impulses, sending shockwaves around the world during a season of unconventional atomic deals and brinkmanship.

The changing geopolitical picture, the reactions to US hegemony, the thirst for energy, and several recent developments all contribute to this frenzy “proliferation” impulses.   The first is the controversial US-India proposed civilian nuclear deal. If the deal is passed by the US Congress, this will be an unprecendented deal that allowed India, a non-signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to gain access to nuclear technology.  The disregard for international conventions and US’ double standards will only “fuel” desire for more states to “go nuclear”. 

The second development is the new-found partnership between Iran and Indonesia, and at the regional scale, the 116-member state Non-Aligned Movement’s (NAM) support for Iran’s nuclear programme vis-à-vis the pressure tactics from Western powers (primarily the US and the EU-3, Britain, France and Germany).

Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Indonesia on May 9 revealed a healthy marriage between the world's fourth-largest oil producer and Southeast Asia’s only OPEC member for a US$600 million negotiation deal. NAM’s declaration for all nations to have “basic and inalienable rights” to develop atomic energy for peaceful purposes during the May 29-30 G-77 Ministerial Meeting have managed to turn the tables on the North Atlantic hegemonic influence over the global NPT regime.

Finally, the global energy race led by the rising economies, China and IndiaChina signed a landmark billion dollar uranium deal with Australia on April 3 as well as a nuclear energy deal with South Africa during Premier Wen Jiabao's seven-nation Africa tour that ended on June 24.  And as mentioned above, India is gaining headway in the nuclear deal with the US – in part due to the US desire to “check” or “contain” China by forming alliance with neighbours surrounding China

Yet at the same time, India is also exerting its strategic independence, and improving ties with China.  The silk-road for direct cross-border trade re-opened on July 5 this year. Nuclear energy collaborations between the two industrial giants will also come to pass, as China is expected to increase its nuclear capacity from 6.6 gigawatts to 40 gigawatts by 2020 with the addition of 30 nuclear plants, and India intends to move from just under 3 gigawatts to 20 gigawatts by 2020 with the addition of 31 plants (The World Nuclear Association).

The combination of these different factors, in particular China’s and India’s nuclear drive, has in turn spearheaded a new wave of interest in atomic energy development in Asia and exposed new dimensions to nuclear power politics. In addition, atomic giant Russia is expanding its nuclear industry by pursuing a theme of ‘bringing energy to developing countries’ under its chairmanship of the G8 (Group of Eight) nations.

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), an industry advocacy group based in WashingtonD.C., 18 reactors – occupying around 70 per cent of the world's total under construction – are underway in Asia, and 77 more in the works.

In a bid to fulfill domestic electricity demand, diversify the energy mix to cope with rising oil prices and environmental impact of fossil fuel dependency, countries inAsia are keen to embrace the nuclear option. South Korea aims to expand its nuclear capacity from 40 per cent to 60 per cent by 2035, while fellow veteran playerJapan is doubling its capacity to about the same level as Korea by 2050.

In Southeast Asia, the current alternatives of bio-fuels and even nuclear energy are attractive options on the table for Asean as a whole (even neighbour Australiawishes to come on board), to offer calm to the unstable geopolitics of oil.  Vietnam has recently announced plans to install two nuclear reactors to sustain the country’s power needs by 2020, with assistance from Russia, China, India, South Korea and Argentina (Vietnam News Service, 9 April 2006). Following close behind is Indonesia’s ongoing negotiations with South Korea on securing the latter’s assistance to develop nuclear power. Indonesia went further with Energy Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro announcing on May 15 the completion of nuclear power plants with a total capacity of 1,000MW by 2015 (as part of the 4,000MW overall capacity plan). Myanmar’s participation adds a sinister twist to the otherwise benign nuclear energy plot Asean has enacted thus far. An Australian report on July 5 purported of the Myanmar’s recent attempt to procure nuclear weapons from North Korea, following an unrealised deal with Russia in 2002, but which the junta had stepped up ties in April this year. 

Is going nuclear a long term solution to Asia’s energy needs?

Several concerns stand in the way of a successful nuclear option strategy. Being the third largest nuclear generation capacity in the world, Japan’s experience had not been picture-perfect, with the 1999 Tokaimura and 2004 Kansai incidents that saw problems with maintenance and falsification of safety records. Other pressing issues include nuclear waste (spent fuel) disposal, facility site, as well as infrastructure and institutional standards. South Korea took 19 years to properly dispose of its low-level waste, and Taiwan is experiencing similar problems. Indonesia faces strong resistance from the public and NGOs such as Environmental group Walhi for the country’s inadequate infrastructural and institutional framework, as well as protection mechanisms against natural disasters.

Greater press coverage, aside from lauding the merits of nuclear energy, is required to highlight the impact of atomic energy development and its longer term implications. Issues such as safety, disposal of nuclear waste, etc need to be thought through and debated to raise public awareness and to provide a more complete calculation of the cost and benefit of nuclear energy. .

Sources:

China, India sign accord on border dispute (Xinhua, 11 April, 2005)

Is Myanmar the next Iran? (The Daily Star, 11 March 2006)

Japan's shaky nuclear record (BBC News, 24 March 2006)

Australia, China ink uranium deal (The Straits Times, 4 April 2006)

Rice urges U.S.-India nuclear deal in Congress (Reuters/The Straits Times, 6 April 2006)

The Indian nuclear deal (The New York Times, 7 April 2006)

Calculating the costs of nuclear energy (The Southeast Asian Times/VNS, 9 April 2006)

Russia, Myanmar agree to step up ties (Zeenews.com, 9 April 2006)

Fuel-price crisis: Govt urged to form viable oil strategies (The Nation, 27 April 2006)

Indonesia plans to ration fuel as oil prices skyrocket (The Straits Times, 28 April 2006)

Energy crisis? Nuke it (The Straits Times, 29 April 2006)

Push for biofuels (AP, 1 May 2006)

Iran finds an ally in Indonesia (Asia times.com, 12 May 2006)

Indonesia plans to have nuclear plant by 2015 (AP/Xinhua, 14 May 2006)

Jakarta revives N-power plan (The Straits Times, 19 May 2006)

PM says Australia may develop nuclear power (Reuters/The Straits Times, 20 May 2006)

Non-aligned states support Iran nuke position (Reuters/The Straits Times, 30 May 2006)

US sets conditions for joining Iran talks (Reuters/The Straits Times, 1 June 2006)

Talks start on details of US-India nuclear deal (AFP/The Straits Times, 13 June 2006)

India seeks China's support for nuclear trade (AFP/The Straits Times, 15 June 2006)

Indonesia Mulls Nuclear Energy For Electricity Generation (Bernama, 28 June 2006)

US-India nuke deal a step closer to reality (AFP/The Straits Times, 1 July 2006)

Russia plans atomic energy expansion (AFP/The Straits Times, 1 July 2006)

India, China reopen historic Silk Road trade route (AFP/Channel News Asia, 6 July 2006)

Asia turns to nuclear power as global oil prices soar (AP/The Straits Times, 8 July 2006)