Flashpoints | Security | Southeast Asia

Anticipating Dual-Use Risks in an Atomic Southeast Asia

Once again, nuclear energy is knocking. Is ASEAN ready to prevent the misuse of nuclear material?

Anticipating Dual-Use Risks in an Atomic Southeast Asia

The unused Bataan Nuclear Power Plant in the Philippines, as seen in 2011.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Jiru27

Southeast Asia is at a critical juncture in energy policy. As one of today’s most rapidly developing and technologically dynamic regions, Southeast Asia’s power demand is projected to nearly double by 2050. Simultaneously, it is looking to reduce its reliance on coal use, which has expanded six-fold since the year 2000.

The ASEAN Center for Energy has long seen advanced nuclear power as a way to expand baseload energy supply in order to accommodate Southeast Asia’s burgeoning growth. Is the region ready for commercial nuclear energy, and are the opportunities worth the novel risks it would introduce?

Five years ago, the answer could be summed up as a tepid “perhaps, in due time,” on both accounts. At least four countries were building out the infrastructure for a nuclear power industry, but none had made any political commitments toward its adoption. The world was still only crawling out of the development freeze following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan.

However, under today’s shifting world order, and past the point of peak “green energy” idealism, the political atmosphere and popular opinion around nuclear power have thawed. Pointing to energy security and national self-reliance, emphatic proponents have reemerged, and with enough political support to bring Southeast Asia’s answer nearer to a full-fledged “yes.”

Last year, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. campaigned in the Philippines with the promise of reviving the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, a revenant of his father’s era that never saw a day in operation. Having successfully won the presidency, he is now in talks with U.S. firm NuScale to bring small-modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) to the Philippines.

Thailand recently announced an SMR capacity-building partnership with the United States during a visit from Vice President Kamala Harris, and Vietnam is entertaining a Korean-Danish consortium for the construction of floating nuclear power plants (FNPPs). The former is eager to diversify from natural gas, while the latter is anxious over its reliance on coal markets and hydroelectric dams subject to Chinese sway.

Indonesia, the giant of ASEAN, has pulled forward its timeframe for nuclear power deployment to 2039, riding the momentum of the $20 billion Just Energy Transition Partnership signed at last year’s G-20 Summit in Bali.

Nguyen Hong Dien, Vietnam’s minister for industry and trade, has called the development of commercial nuclear power an “inevitable trend.” But Scott Jones, a nonproliferation and export controls expert with the U.S.-based Stimson Center, cautions that Southeast Asia’s status as an “emerging source and trade hub” for dual-use technologies could present “unique nonproliferation challenges” if strategic trade controls (STCs) are insufficiently implemented before the gates are opened. Of the 10 ASEAN member states, only Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines possess these frameworks, which help to ensure that no materials are siphoned off to the black market, a plausible pathway for rogue states and terrorist groups to create weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

Most of the other member states are also moving toward STC adoption, but the highly disparate customs laws and enforcement between them are a shortcoming that contributes to the region’s notoriety as a hotbed for smuggling, piracy, and illicit industries. Introducing WMD-linked materials smuggling to the existing mix of trafficking of drugs, humans, wildlife, counterfeit goods, and conventional arms would be highly deleterious to regional stability and global security.

At a minimum, for ASEAN member states moving down the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) guardrailed path toward the peaceful use of nuclear technologies, regulatory clarity, stakeholder alignment, and diligent multilateral coordination are warranted. Bearing in mind ASEAN’s stated vision for eventual single market integration, Jones suggested forming a permanent committee for region-wide strategic trade controls, particularly for items carrying WMD proliferation risk.

A second field of threats stems from the possibility of nuclear power facilities themselves becoming targets of harm, be it through warfare, crime, or terrorism – whether by conventional means or cyberoperations. Every ASEAN member state except Singapore and Brunei has experienced civil war, transnational border war, or chronic insurgency within the last 50 years. Russia’s dramatic seizure of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhya in Ukraine last year illustrated how nuclear facilities can attract hostile takeover during conflict, not unlike other strategic infrastructure assets such as ports or airfields. Combatants should be deterred from weaponizing a nuclear power plant through induced meltdown by the fear of unbridled fallout, the weight of international condemnation, and the tremendous value of the intact plant itself – but terrorists may seek that very outcome.

Terrorists and organized criminals could also target nuclear facilities with the aim of stealing materials for subsequent sale or eventual weaponization, although a caper on this scale would require impressive capabilities in order to overwhelm security systems and handle radioactivity, never mind shepherd it to a worthwhile end use. Nonetheless, spent nuclear fuel is often stored on-site in cooling pools and dry casks for up to several years before being transported to more permanent secure facilities.

Furthermore, Southeast Asia’s fanfaring of SMRs as the next generation of reactor designs could also increase proliferation risks. While emerging SMR designs will make strides in safety over the current Gen III reactors, with passive safeguards and built-in redundancies, miniaturizing reactors downscales their output, presumably increasing the total number of individual sites and reactors. Ultimately, this multiplies the sheer number of vectors vulnerable to exploitation. Mobile reactors in the forms of floating nuclear power plants (FNPPs) or vehicle-portable microreactors may also add new dimensions of hazards stemming from nefarious actors, especially as some of these models are being marketed for use in “hard-to-reach and isolated regions” in the Indo-Pacific.

Finally, there is the age-old debate of the link between civilian-use nuclear energy and military development of nuclear weapons. It is hard to conclusively state that A gives way to B when dozens of countries today employ nuclear power peacefully in full compliance with IAEA oversight, and yet have no desire to develop weapons. But the progressions of “threshold” nuclear states and the intersections with commercial industry remain a vibrant area of study, in a field where every newly nuclearized state represents a colossal setback.

India, Pakistan, South Africa, South Korea, and Taiwan all famously derived their early nuclear weapons research in part from the U.S.-led “Atoms for Peace” nuclear power transfer program. Thankfully, the expansion of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) through the late 20th century helped prevent others from following, and convinced some to renounce their pursuits. As the world became unipolar with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the decision to comply fully with U.S.-endorsed norms and expectations became much clearer for many. In 1995, all 10 ASEAN member states signed the Bangkok Treaty, effectively declaring Southeast Asia a zone free from nuclear weapons in any shape or way.

As China’s ascendance gives rise to a new bipolar or even multipolar world order, the ground beneath the incentives for indefinite nuclear weapons disavowal is shifting, swiftly. Just as states are balancing relations between the great powers, states may hedge their bets with regard to nuclear weapons capabilities. A cynic may wonder if Southeast Asian nations, by flocking to nuclear power, are also reorienting themselves toward a goal of strategic nuclear latency.

Myanmar is already a standout to watch. As the civil war passes its two-year mark and the junta leadership continues to try to establish legitimacy, they have signed cooperative agreements with Russia’s Rosatom for the development of SMRs. Myanmar’s military has long been suspected of harboring ambitions for a nuclear weapons program, and back in 2009 was accused of working with North Korea to that end. Myanmar signed the NPT in 1992, but if North Korea and Iran show that states can successfully pursue nuclear weapons development despite crushing international pressures under a unipolar world order, then a state within the right crucible could certainly be incentivized to do so under a more uncertain one.

Despite the gravity of nuclear proliferation, the risks are manageable for now, and Southeast Asia simply needs nuclear energy in order to thrive without a continued reliance on coal and gas. Renewables cannot provide the expansion in firm power generation needed without grid-scale battery systems to manage variable power generation, which are not ready. With this outlook, ASEAN’s new-to-nuclear states should focus decisive efforts toward STC adoption, rigorous security prerequisites for plant siting, and studies to identify pathways for exploitation by bad actors.

Better yet, unified STCs and an upgrade to the existing ASEAN Network of Regulatory Bodies on Atomic Energy (ASEANTOM) could allow it to serve as a primary mechanism for enforcement against lax standards or misaligned stakeholders within individual nations’ regulatory agencies. Allowing a highly empowered, narrowly scoped agency for nuclear security and safeguards to manage the regional portfolio with IAEA support could overcome ASEAN’s structural weakness of consensus-based action, strengthen credibility, and build regional identity.

In contrast, if for one reason or another regional security and harmony deteriorates over the coming decades, today’s drivers behind Southeast Asia’s emerging interest in nuclear energy could become tomorrow’s justifications for nuclear armament.