ASEAN rethinking nuclear energy use

ASEAN leaders expressing solidarity

ASEAN leaders expressing solidarity

The nuclear crisis in Fukushima, Japan, has prompted ASEAN members to rethink their nuclear energy policies. Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam have said they will reassess the future construction of nuclear plants. Be that as it may, these countries, regardless of the potential nuclear risk, have very little choice because of their industrialization plans and energy demands. Worst of all, ASEAN citizens have not yet taken up the low-carbon conscience in their everyday life.

Before the current crisis in Japan, there was a growing consensus, in ASEAN in particular, that nuclear power was the cleaner, greener and better energy option. To use fossil fuels, renewable energy resources and other alternatives can be costly and greatly impact the climate. At this juncture, so the conventional wisdom goes, it is important ASEAN devise a policy with a diverse energy portfolio but also with a nuclear energy option. Other countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Cambodia have followed this path.

Despite this realization, ASEAN has been slow in putting together common protocols and standards regarding civilian nuclear use. In 2010, ASEAN agreed that the Nuclear Energy Cooperation Sub Sector Network would serve as the key body to assist the ASEAN members in their civilian nuclear energy cooperation but there has been little progress since then. This inertia has a long history.

In 1971 after ASEAN adopted the doctrine of Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) to protect itself from all possibilities of external interventions, the senior officials begun to work on a no-nuke treaty, known as the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (SEANWFZ). ASEAN was a latecomer. At the time, Latin America and Africa had already established a nuclear weapons free zone as part of their efforts to promote world peace and security.

Over two decades of political uncertainties in the region, the SEANWFZ treaty was finally ready for the ASEAN leaders’ signatures in 1995 during the fifth ASEAN summit in Bangkok. There was one major concern at that time—the U.S. attitude towards the treaty. The incident of 1984 between the U.S. and New Zealand was still fresh in the mind of ASEAN leaders, who did not want to strain their relations with the U.S. Wellington refused to allow the American aircraft carriers with nuclear weapons to enter its maritime territory. It took more than a decade to heal the broken friendship.

Although the treaty mentioned the peaceful use of nuclear energy and radiological safety regime, it was mainly focused on the intention of nuclear powers. Since the SEANWFZ came into force in 1997, ASEAN has been urging all nuclear powers to accede to the treaty. Some of them including China and Russia have expressed the readiness. Today, ASEAN and the U.S. continue to discuss the SEANWFZ terms, especially those focused on the exclusive economic zones and continental shelves in the no-nuke areas. Two years ago, the grouping made initiative contacts with India and Pakistan — the two Asian nuclear powers outside the non-proliferation regime.

Since the no-nuke treaty was focused primarily on preventing nuclear attacks and the introduction of nuclear weapons in the region, there is a renewed urgency to focus on the peaceful use of nuclear energy in ASEAN—to discuss the issue more openly to find common ground, policies norms and standards.

During the ASEAN foreign ministerial meeting in Hanoi last April, the report of Burma’s ambition to build nuclear bombs was discussed but without any major decision. Thailand wanted an assurance from Burma that any future use of nuclear power would be strictly for civilian use and could be monitored by international agencies such as International Atomic Energy Agency. At that meeting, Bangkok surprised ASEAN colleagues with a two-page list of peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Thailand urged the ASEAN members to be transparent with its nuclear power policies, and they called for an increased exchange of information among governments and energy regulators.

As part of the continued effort, dozens of energy regulators from six ASEAN countries (Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Brunei) met in Bangkok last week and agreed that from now on they have to coordinate more on their energy demand management and plans to ensure energy sufficiency and safety.

As is well known, the discussion on nuclear energy, especially the construction of nuclear power plants and their sites, remains highly sensitive and has been confined so far within the national boundaries. Vietnam has made the decision to build two nuclear power plants in the central region in Ninh Thuan with Japan’s assistance while Indonesia and Thailand, despite their huge and urgent energy demands, struggle over locations and providers. Obviously, in a more democratic country, there would be more political and geographical challenges that need to be addressed and overcome, especially from burgeoning civil society groups.

In the case of Thailand, the country’s Power Development Program has made clear it would need five nuclear power plants with a capacity of 1,000 megawatts each beginning 2020. In response to Japan’s nuclear crisis, Energy Minister Wattana Channukul said the program would be reviewed. Last week, the residents and environmentalists from Uban Ratchatani were first to react by writing a letter to Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva urging him to halt the construction plan. Uban Ratchatani is one of the five locations including Nakhon Sawan, Trat, Surat Thani and Chumporn selected for a feasibility study.

Thailand aside, ASEAN must get its act together on a common region-wide nuclear power plan in which all stakeholders in the ASEAN community of 600 million people get involved.

This article was first published by The China Post on 30 March 2011. Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand.