Asean nations reconsider the nuclear option

Japan's hopes of selling nuclear power packages to SE Asia fast fading
Anthony Rowley Business Times 11 Jul 11;

ASEAN's flirtation with the idea of nuclear power may be coming to an end as a result of Japan's Fukushima disaster, and with it the hopes that Japan harboured until a few months ago of selling multi-billion dollar nuclear power packages in South-east Asia and elsewhere.

Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam are all taking a second and more critical look at the nuclear option while the Philippines may decide against reactivating a nuclear power plant built under former president Ferdinand Marcos, according to experts from across the region.

At what was termed an 'emergency dialogue' organised here at the end of last week, senior officials and academics argued that if countries do choose to take the nuclear route, they must be 'nuclear ready' and better prepare their citizens for possible accidents.

They also stressed the need for generally improved disaster preparedness and collaboration among Asian nations in the wake of the recent Japanese disasters and the earlier Indonesian earthquake and tsunami of 2005.

If Japan, as one of the more disaster-prone but also disaster-prepared Asian nations, could suffer catastrophes such as the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima, less technologically advanced countries need to think twice about going down the nuclear road, experts suggested.

Many Asean members were considering the nuclear power option before the Fukushima meltdown, noted Wan Hamzah, senior fellow at Malaysia's Institute of Strategic and International Studies, and 'debate had been ongoing' in Malaysia until the Fukushima incident. But since then, decisions have been deferred, she said.

Indonesia too, since becoming a net importer of oil, had decided to build at least one nuclear power plant, Ms Wan added. But the proposed plant was in a location close to a seismic fault line, and the Indonesian government has deferred the decision in the light of the Fukushima accident.

Vietnam is 'still considering the nuclear option', but the decision on whether or not to go ahead will need to be approved by the country's parliament as a result of increasing democracy there, said To Minh Thu, director at Vietnam's Institute for Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies.

The Philippines too 'is looking' at nuclear power as a means to reduce its heavy dependence on imported oil but 'there is a lot of opposition to the idea', Danilo Israel, senior research fellow at the Philippine Institute of Development Studies told the Tokyo seminar.

For Japan, this is bad news in view of its earlier plan to sell nuclear power plants to Asean as well as to countries such as Turkey. Japan had earlier announced a provisional agreement supply reactors to Vietnam, although it recently withdrew from bidding on a proposed Malaysian plant.

Proposed stress testing of Japan's 54 nuclear power plants announced by Prime Minister Naoto Kan has generated domestic controversy over its timing, which coincides with plans to restart 35 plants idled after the crisis. But the results could reassure Asean members, depending upon the outcome, some observers suggested.

There were calls at the Tokyo seminar (organised by the Japan Forum on International Relations and others) for greater awareness among Asian governments of the human and economic toll that natural disasters can exact, and for increased regional cooperation in this area.

'East Asian governments should set up or upgrade special agencies to cope with emergencies and natural disasters, particularly since earthquakes, tsunamis and floods in the region seem to be occurring more often these days,' said John Wong, a professorial fellow and academic adviser at Singapore's East Asian Institute.

'All governments need to be on constant alert and to sharpen their crisis-management capacity,' he added.