Nuclear power and unanswered questions

Key Issues: 

VietNamNet Bridge 22 October 2009

By Mr Vuong Huu Tan

VietNamNet Bridge – A public consensus has formed on Vietnam’s need to invest in nuclear power, though many questions were not answered in the investment report.  Tien Phong newspaper raised some of these in a recent interview.

The nation’s first nuclear power project will be debated and almost certainly approved during the National Assembly’s autumn session.  Vuong Huu Tan, director of the Vietnam Atomic Energy Institute, talked with Tien Phong newspaper about this great project.

Tan says the first unit of the nuclear power plant will go into service in 2020.  Construction of the first turbine will begin in 2014 or 2015. Thus Vietnam has around five years to prepare for the construction.

The investor of the first nuclear power projects is the state power monopoly, Electricity of Vietnam (EVN).

Tien Phong: US$12 billion is a huge amount of money, about 13 percent of the country’s current annual gross domestic product (GDP). Is it necessary to invest that money to build a nuclear power plant when Vietnam can develop hydro, thermal and wind power at cheaper cost prices?

Tan: The investment capital in the first nuclear power plant will be $12 billion assuming the Incremental Capital - Output Rate (ICOR) is $3000/KW. Certainly we have to absolutely exploit hydropower because it is a renewable source of power. But after the Son La hydropower project, we hardly  have any more sites suitable for big hydropower projects.

TP: How is the rate of return on nuclear power compared to hydro and thermal-power?

Tan: Nuclear power can compete with power produced from imported coal, oil or gas. In the long run, the advantage of nuclear power is that the expenditure for operation and maintenance is low, less than 25 percent of the cost price of power compared to 60 to70 percent for thermal power.

Once investment costs are paid back, nuclear power is the cheapest.  The lifespan of nuclear power plants is very long.  The new reactor designs can operate for 60-80 years. Investors can recover their investment within 20 years and then they only have to maintain nuclear power plants for the next 60 years.

When we put two turbines into operation, each with a capacity of 1000 megawatts (MW), we will have only 6-7 billion kilowatt-hours (KWh) a year.  Meanwhile, Vietnam will need hundreds of billions of KWh of electricity. So the current nuclear power project can help a little. In the long term, when we build many more turbines, we can basically solve the country’s shortage of electricity.

TP: How will we run the first nuclear power plant?  Don’t we lack human resources in this sector?

Tan: That is the common problem of countries when they begin building their first nuclear power plants. We will build the plant while training staff. For example, we only need to train workers to run the nuclear power plants two years before the plant is put into operation. If we train them right now, they will be unemployed.

We are working on a decree to implement the Law on Atomic Energy that emphasizes steps to secure human resources for this sector. I hope that before year’s end the Government will approve that decree.

TP: How many staff are enough for the first nuclear power plant?

Tan: Many for the whole project, but not so many for the nuclear part. For example, a plant with two turbines needs around 800-1000 workers but only 10-20 percent of them are nuclear technology specialists. The nuclear safety agency needs around 80-100 people.

 

Ta Van Huong, head of the Energy Department at the Ministry of Industry and Trade, explains that “according to Vietnam’s bidding law, price is the most important factor, but  nuclear power is different.

“There is a foreign relations element.  We have to consider political, social and cultural relationships and traditional cooperation in choosing our provider of nuclear technology.

“Financial assistance to Vietnam is another criterion. Japan, Russia and China are all potential partners.”

TP: What about safety?

Tan: Because of accidents like Chernobyl, people worry about the safety of nuclear power plants but the modern reactor designs will ensure no such accident like Chernobyl. Even in the worst case, radioactive substance will never get out to the environment, but will be contained within the reactor vessels.

TP: What will we do with nuclear waste?

Tan: This is a world-wide concern.  We will import nuclear technology and radioactive waste treatment technology from the same source.  For low and medium-level nuclear waste, the treatment technology has been popularized and commercialized. It is safe and used by many countries.

Highly radioactive waste, the spent fuel rods, can be reprocessed into new fuel.  Recycling this kind of waste is a highly sensitive issue because it can also be converted into weapons.  Thus its disposition will be strictly controlled by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Masahiro Yagi, director of Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), has been advising us.  It is necessary to issue strict regulations in this field.

TP: How have we prepared the legal foundation for the first nuclear power plant?

Tan:  In June, 2008, the National Assembly approved the Fundamental Law on Atomic Energy in Vietnam. Based on this law, we are developing specific legal documents, including three decrees.

The first decree will guide the implementation of some articles about nuclear power. The second is about nuclear power plants. The third will establish administrative penalties in the nuclear power sector. There are also decrees of the Prime Minister and ministerial circulars relating to the project.

TP: What technology will we choose for our first nuclear power plant?

Tan: There are three major types of reactors: boiling water reactor, pressurized water reactor and heavy water reactor. Vietnam will use the most popular type, the pressurized water reactor.

We will choose the most modern technology currently available, so-called third or third-plus generation reactors, to ensure safety and economic effectiveness.

TP: Have we scrutinized possible contractors?

Tan:  We’re not tilting to any country yet. Japan offers an innovative pressurized water reactor design, Russia offers its third generation reactor, the VVR1000, and the US and France also offer reactors of the third or third-plus generation which can meet Vietnam’s technical requirements.

TP: Will we have to import fuel for this plant?

Tan: Yes, absolutely. In the long run, when we have enough nuclear power plants, we will consider the construction of a processing plant. We will import uranium to process into fuel bars.

TP: But Vietnam is said to have uranium deposits, so why we will have to import uranium?

Tan:  According to initial surveys, Vietnam has around 210,000 tonnes of uranium in the Nong Son area of Quang Nam province but the ore quality is not high. We need further research about this.

VietNamNet/Tien Phong


Since nuclear power was first given serious consideration, its projected cost has risen from $1500-1700 to $3500-3800 per kilo hour (KWh), said Ta Van Huong, director of the Energy Department under the Ministry of Industry and Trade at a Vietnam-China workshop on nuclear power on October 15.

At that cost per kilowatt hour, investment capital in each 1000 megawatt turbine will reach three to four billion dollars, three times the cost of an thermal power plant of the same scale. This is only estimation but the increase of investment cost is now a big challenge for Vietnam.

However, some officials still affirm that nuclear power plants will be cost-effective. Nguyen Hoai Nam, deputy director of the Energy System Research Centre said tht Vietnam has to accept high prices in the initial period because it has to import everything.

China, which now offers nuclear technology to Vietnam, had that experience.  In the 1980s, each KW of nuclear power cost China around $2700, but now China is able to design, build, install, run and even manufacture 80 percent of the equipment it uses so its production cost of nuclear power has fallen remarkably.

In Vietnam, officials said that the cost price for nuclear power will be higher than for thermal power because our internal coal price is still low.  That will not continue.  In the next several decades, when Vietnam must import coal, nuclear power can compare with thermal power.

“In the years to come, thermal-power will account for a big part of Vietnam’s power structure,” said Huong. “Along with investment in the nuclear power project, the electricity price in Vietnam will be higher in the future. However, we will manage the price to avoid shock for consumers. The price for nuclear power in 2020 will not more expensive than the price for thermal power using imported coal as fuel,” he confirmed.

 

The investor of the first nulear power projects is the state power monopoly, Electricity of Vietnam (EVN).

Two separate plants are planned to be built on the coast of Ninh Thuan province.  Each plant will have two reactor units.

The first plant will be based in Phuoc Dinh commune, Ninh Phuoc district and the second in Vinh Hai commune, Ninh Hai district.

The two first nuclear power plants will have a total capacity of 4000 MW. Each plant will cover 400 hectares.

The capacity of the largest  power plant in Vietnam at present, the Hoa Binh hydroelectricity plant, is 1920 MW.