Asean nuclear energy plans trigger concern, Major worries over safety and corruption

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Bangkok Post 27 August 2007

By Anchalee Kongrut 

Hanoi - The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) needs to address a new threat - the aspiration among some member nations to develop nuclear power, a member of the grouping's sub-panel on the environment, Simon Tay, has warned.

Speaking at a forum attended by regional youth leaders and investors in Hanoi last week, Mr Tay, who is also chairperson of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said Asean needs to come up with collective measures to deal with nuclear power aspirations, which will become a major issue in the near future.

Mr Tay expressed concern over the issue because, he said, safety standards in some of the countries coveting nuclear energy are questionable and rampant corruption could compromise safety standards and maintenance.

''The biggest problem is what we will do with radioactive waste which has a half-life of a thousand years,'' he said.

''Our countries are so interdependent. Look at the haze problem. Imagine what will happen if it is nuclear,'' he said.

Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam and Thailand have already commenced with plans to build nuclear energy reactors and the reclusive military junta of Burma is conducting research on nuclear energy with the help of nuclear superpower Russia. Oil-rich Indonesia also plans to build a nuclear energy reactor.

The region has therefore emerged as a potential new market for the nuclear business sector. And some say a fear of global warming has boosted interest in alternative energy sources.

''There are concerns about global warming and there is justification that nuclear energy is a zero-emission form of energy, but I don't think we should prioritise emissions above every other concern,'' Mr Tay said.

The region, he said, should reduce emissions by developing energy efficiency and less disastrous alternative energies such as energy crops from corn and other biomass products.

He said the supply of alternative biomass energy sources in each country was enough to fulfil the region's energy needs and therefore there was no need to consider the dangerous path of nuclear power.

Buranat Samuttharak, a member of the Democrat party and also a moderator in the forum in Hanoi last week, said that plans to build a nuclear reactor in Thailand were troubling.

''What worries me is that the nuclear project in Thailand may be adopted without a consensus from the people,'' he said. ''What we need is a public referendum on nuclear power and even small dissident opinions must be taken into account.''

Overseeing the party's environment and public health policy, Mr Buranat said the Democrats, if elected to government, will hold a referendum to determine if the country should go nuclear or not. Under the national energy development plan, Thailand aims to install a 4,000-megawatt nuclear reactor by 2020.

Asean energy ministers meeting in Singapore last week endorsed Singapore's proposal to set up a caucus on nuclear energy. The agreement on the caucus' work will be signed at the energy ministerial meeting in Bangkok next year.

Malaysia also announced plans to set up Southeast Asia's first nuclear monitoring laboratory funded by the International Atomic Energy for Peace.

Deputy permanent secretary for energy Kurujit Nakornthap said in the Asean energy business forum in Singapore that the Thai government needs seven years to develop safety standards, establish a regulatory framework and train the necessary personnel. Another six years would be needed after that to complete the plant's construction, he added.