Last April, the ASEAN Center for Energy (ACE) published a “Pre-Feasibility Study on the Establishment of Nuclear Power Plant in ASEAN.” The report was prepared by ACE with the support of the government of Canada under the Nuclear and Radiological Program Administrative Support (NPRAS) program.
This study may be the first official report produced by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in recent years to provide a comprehensive account of the state of play of civilian nuclear power development in the region in the mid- to long-term period. Previous accounts of civilian nuclear power development in ASEAN were published as research reports or articles by think tanks and academics.
The new report highlights three interesting developments. First, half of the 10 ASEAN member states — Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines — have been identified as frontrunners to establish civilian nuclear power programs in the region. These five states are considered frontrunners due to their more advanced legal and regulatory frameworks, nuclear energy infrastructures, and developed organization and human resources. These criteria are among the 19 nuclear infrastructure issues that are outlined in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Milestones Approach to nuclear infrastructure development.
Second, based on the current developments and progress that these five states have made, it appears that the region may have its first operational civilian nuclear power plant by 2030 and perhaps two more by 2035. Indonesia is expected to commercialize its first experimental nuclear power plant by 2030 while Malaysia and Thailand plan to introduce nuclear electricity into their respective national power mixes by 2035. The remaining two frontrunners, the Philippines and Vietnam, are committed to introducing nuclear energy in their long-term energy mixes.
Third, the report highlights Malaysia as having the most accomplished approach given the good progress that its nuclear energy program implementation office (NEPIO) has made. Malaysia’s NEPIO, the Malaysian Nuclear Power Corporation, was formed by the government in 2011. The role of MNPC specifically and any NEPIO, in general, is to plan, coordinate and lead the implementation of the country’s nuclear power program.
Of the remaining ASEAN member states, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar have not ruled out the use of nuclear power but they have not committed to any specific infrastructure development plans and implementation timelines. However, all three have signed bilateral agreements with Russia on nuclear power cooperation. Brunei and Singapore do not have any plans for nuclear power projects at the moment but Singapore’s government has committed significant resources to developing local capabilities in the areas of nuclear safety and science through the Nuclear Safety and Research and Education Program.
What Do These Findings Mean for The Region?
Civilian nuclear power development in Southeast Asia is not new. Initial development in the field began right after the end of World War II, through the United States’ Atoms for Peace program, which opened up civilian nuclear research and technology to non-nuclear states. As a consequence of that program and with the assistance of the United States, several TRIGA-class nuclear research reactors were constructed in Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand. These research reactors were built for medical and research purposes.
However, the development of a commercial civilian nuclear power plant is costly and it takes a long time. The average timeline is at least 10 to 15 years and the average cost is between $6 and 9 billion per unit. The costs could grow exponentially if there are construction delays, which is not uncommon in the industry. However, given strong political will and careful planning backed with the right technical support from established industrial players, the construction of a civilian nuclear power plant can be completed according to schedule with a minimal cost overrun.
One potential example is the construction of the United Arab Emirates’ $25 billion Barakah nuclear power station, which will have four nuclear reactor units, each with a generating capacity of 1,400 MW. The Barakah Nuclear Power Plant is expected to deliver up to 25 percent of the country’s total electricity needs. The construction of the first unit began in 2012 and was completed in March this year while the remaining three units are expected to be completed in 2019 and 2020. Therefore, the UAE government took just 10 years, from the initial publication of the White Paper in 2008, to complete the construction of the country’s first nuclear power plant and reactor unit, which is a remarkable feat for a nuclear newcomer.
On that note, it remains probable that among the five ASEAN frontrunner states, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand could be operating their first nuclear power plants by 2030 and 2035 — or earlier if certain conditions are in place.
First, one of the biggest obstacles to nuclear newcomer states is public perception and acceptance. Indonesia is an exception, but public perceptions and acceptance in Malaysia and Thailand remain low. The Fukushima Daichi nuclear power accident in Japan in 2011, which raised the issue of nuclear power safety, remains the biggest bugbear for the general public in both states and the region in general. These states should continue to educate, engage, and consult the public and non-state actors. However, another Fukushima-like accident in the near future will clearly further erode public perception and confidence.
Second, a push toward nuclear power will hinge on whether these states can continue to justify the use of nuclear power as an alternative fuel option. Nuclear power makes economic sense if the alternative fuel options are too costly or unreliable to provide baseload electricity demands during peak periods. Vietnam, for example, halted its plan to construct its first nuclear power plant for economic reasons, given that there are cheaper fuel options and projected lower energy demands in the future. However, it should be noted that the recent resurgence of interest in nuclear power in the region came just after the global energy and financial crises between 2007 and 2008. Another such crisis would provide the impetus for the ASEAN frontrunners to prioritize nuclear power compared to other fuel alternatives.
Finally, while the ASEAN frontrunners have shown progress in their nuclear power infrastructure development, they should continue to meet the global safety, security, and safeguard standards that are expected of any nuclear newcomer. While it is the sovereign right of every state to construct civilian nuclear power plants, they are obliged to do so as a responsible and cooperative member of the international nuclear community. Among other things, this means that nuclear newcomer states are expected to continue working toward implementing the relevant international legal instruments and standards, host regular peer reviews missions from IAEA, and conduct their affairs with transparency.
Civilian nuclear power development is an expensive endeavor, requiring a long-term commitment from the government, and nuclear power plants pose risks that could be managed through good governance. The ASEAN Center for Energy’s report itself is an indication that the ASEAN member states are working together and are open and transparent about their aspirations and state of nuclear power infrastructure development, which augurs well for the region.
Nur Azha Putra and Philip Andrews-Speed are Research Associate and Senior Principal Research Fellow, respectively, at the Energy Studies Institute, National University of Singapore.