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Vietnam poised to resume nuclear project a decade after Fukushima

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Vietnam says it will proceed with a project to build a 10-megawatt nuclear research reactor with Russian help, a move seen as a new step toward reviving plans to build nuclear power plants a decade after the Fukushima disaster.

Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc was escorted by Vietnamese nuclear experts when he visited Moscow for four days starting Nov 29.

The resumption of the nuclear projects was among the topics on the table during the bilateral talks, according to a source familiar with the matter.

Although the new research facility will mainly be used to develop medical treatments rather than for power, experts say building such a reactor could be a major stepping stone on the path to resuming Vietnam’s atomic energy programme.

Experts say the communist country is increasingly leaning toward nuclear to sustain the region’s fastest-growing as well as energy-hungry economy while meeting its zero-emission targets.

Unlike in democratic countries, where there is criticism of nuclear power programmes and public opinion tends to be divided, such criticism cannot easily surface in Vietnam with its single-party political system, making it possible to resume the nuclear programme.

The project has already passed the pre-feasibility study, Nguyen Nhi Dien, a member of the working team for the project, told the 14th National Conference on Nuclear Science and Technology on Dec 9.

After conducting a technical survey as well as environmental impact assessments, the construction site will be decided on, he added.

Vietnam and Russia signed a memorandum of understanding in 2011 to build a nuclear power plant within a decade, but the project was postponed due to rising safety concerns in the wake of the nuclear plant accident in Fukushima, Japan, in March that year.

The US$350 million project comprises Russian-designed research reactors and a multipurpose cyclotron as well as research laboratories, Vietnam Investment Review reported in October.

Total investment could be more than US$500 million, according to sources. Russian state company Rosatom Group will participate in the project with a goal of completing construction by the end of 2024.

If Vietnam’s leaders decided to return to the national nuclear programme, “the research reactor project would be the starting point for the programme development,” Gennady Stepanovich Bezdetko, Russia’s ambassador to Vietnam, said at a meeting with Vietnam Atomic Energy Institute officials in October.

The recent progress is the latest sign of Hanoi’s intention to return to the plans to build the country’s first nuclear power plants.

In July, the Vietnam Energy Science Council, an advisory group under the Ministry of Industry and Trade comprising 21 energy experts, proposed that the National Assembly and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh decide on including nuclear power in the new Electricity Master Plan.

“(Vietnam needs) to develop nuclear power as a clean, large-capacity and stable source of electricity to replace thermal power,” the council said in its proposal.

Vietnam’s electricity demand is expected to increase at a pace of 8.5% to 9.4% annually. The country must meet this growing demand while limiting thermal power, especially coal-fired power, due to greenhouse gas emissions and environmental pollution, the council said.

At the COP26 climate summit held in Glasgow, Scotland, Chinh announced the country’s commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

The Fukushima accident has dealt nuclear power projects a blow in Southeast Asia, forcing governments to freeze or abandon their plans.

But 10 years following the disaster, some governments in the region, including Vietnam’s, have started to revisit nuclear as a potential energy source to fulfill commitments to achieve carbon neutrality while sustaining economic growth.

Cambodia in July announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding with Chinese and Russian partners to build nuclear power plants but offered no detailed timeline.

The kingdom is still working on its atomic energy law, which is expected to be finalised by 2023. Laos in 2017 also signed a memorandum of understanding with Russia to build nuclear plants.

Indonesia, after abandoning its nuclear project years ago, simplified regulations to spur private investment in the nuclear power sector in an omnibus law passed last year.

But there remains no plan in the near future, and the energy ministry has repeatedly said nuclear will remain “the last option” in Indonesia’s electricity procurement programme.

Last year, the Philippine government also set up a panel to work on the possibility of joining a nuclear power plant network, but there has been no significant development on that since.

“While the draft of the eighth Electricity Master Plan is yet to include explicit words on nuclear power, Hanoi could decide on the development of nuclear power plants soon,” Ha Hoang Hop, a visiting senior fellow at Singapore’s Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, told Nikkei Asia.

Political and nuclear energy experts in Vietnam agree that if Hanoi resumes the plan for using nuclear power, Russia could be an initial partner in the projects.

By Tomoya Onishi – Nikkei Asia – December 19 , 2021

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