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ASEAN Going for Nuclear Power

By Ernest Z. Bower, Senior Adviser and Director, CSIS Southeast Asia Program

Anyone near the corner of 18th & K Streets today would immediately align themselves with remarks attributed to Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew regarding air conditioning’s role as the breakthrough technology that helped transform Southeast Asia’s post-colonial commodity-dominated economies into some of the world’s fastest-growing financial and industrial markets. In addition to enabling ASEAN leaders’ economic plans to be realized, nuclear power can play a significant role providing electricity for running those air conditioners. Adopting safe new-generation nuclear power plants should be a major area for U.S.-ASEAN cooperation. It is an effort that supports our mutual economic and national security interests.

There is no operational nuclear power plant in ASEAN today. However, of the 10-member nations comprising ASEAN, all except Brunei and Laos have active plans for adding nuclear power into the electricity generating mix. In terms of scale, Vietnam has the most aggressive nuclear power ambitions. It recently announced plans to build eight plants by 2030, producing 15,000 to 16,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity. Indonesia plans to have four nuclear plants producing 6,000 MW by 2025. Thailand has plans to develop two nuclear plants to generate 2,000 MW by 2022. Singapore, which generates the majority of its power from increasingly scarce gas, has a feasibility plan for nuclear power under way. Other countries are developing similar plans.

Nuclear power is an important option for ASEAN, whose electricity demand is estimated by the International Energy Association (IEA) to increase 76 percent between 2007 and 2030 at an average annual rate of 3.3 percent growth, compared to an estimated 2.5 percent annual growth in demand in the rest of the world over the same period. Meeting the ASEAN countries’ electricity demand will require investing more than $1.1 trillion in the next 25 years.

Contemplation of nuclear energy for ASEAN countries is not new, but today, with growing demand for imported fossil fuels and concerns over the environment, it is much more serious. ASEAN nations are bound by the Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone signed in Bangkok, opened for signature on December 15, 1995, and entered into force on March 28, 1997. The treaty states that there will be no prejudice toward the peaceful use of nuclear energy (Article 4). It also states that prior to embarking on nuclear programs, political buy-in is needed from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and from other ASEAN nations.

Nuclear nonproliferation concerns and safeguards will be very important as ASEAN proceeds in developing its nuclear power capabilities. Only one ASEAN country, Burma/Myanmar, is alleged to be developing any plans for nuclear weapons. Those allegations are being investigated by the IAEA and are denied by Burma’s military leaders.

Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the IAEA established safeguard standards suitable for application to both simple nuclear activities and to complex nuclear fuel cycles, i.e., a system applicable to reactors and to conversion, enrichment, fabrication, and reprocessing plants that produce and process reactor fuel. Under IAEA guidelines, when a safeguards agreement enters into force, a state has an obligation to declare to the IAEA all nuclear material and facilities subject to safeguards under the agreement. The state must update this information and declare all new nuclear materials and facilities that subsequently become subject to the terms of the agreement. (Source: Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons entered into force on March 5, 1970, as amended and date signed).

The IAEA has clear accountancy and monitoring rules for tracking declared nuclear material. To be effective, this system requires a high level of confidence, trust, and transparency. These are guidelines ASEAN governments would have every interest in following, but strong engagement from the international community would be helpful. In fact, there is already a strong alliance between the United States and Japan in the new nuclear power plant designs.

ASEAN nations must also negotiate bilateral civil nuclear cooperation agreements with the nuclear supplier countries (including the United States, Japan, France, Russia, Canada, and  Australia, among others)  before they can receive nuclear reactors, fuel, equipment, services, and technology. Some ASEAN countries already have such agreements in place. As part of this process, ASEAN countries will need to demonstrate their commitment to maintaining international standards of nuclear safety, security, and nonproliferation.

Given the Obama administration’s interest in building international partnerships and consensus on nuclear nonproliferation and climate change, and the president’s commitment to engage ASEAN at new and substantive levels, the nuclear energy field seems a logical area for immediate and expanded cooperation. This engagement is also consistent with the Obama administration’s goal of doubling U.S. exports in the next five years. American companies are among the world’s leaders in various aspects of nuclear power from design/build to energy-related services, but face stiff competition from France, Russia, and Japan. Further, the president has capable leaders to lead this effort. Dr. Stephen Chu, the U.S. secretary of energy, has a strong technical background and mandate to work on related issues. President Obama could initiate this process in the broader context of U.S.-ASEAN energy cooperation, which could include a wide range of issues from renewable energy to energy conservation. One format for such cooperation could be a U.S.-ASEAN Energy Bilateral that would be a step toward the U.S. energy secretary participating in the annual ASEAN Ministers for Energy Meeting (AMEM).

As the mercury rises inside the beltway, U.S. policymakers would be wise to take the opportunity to stay indoors, hydrate aggressively, and open a new chapter of U.S.-ASEAN cooperation on nuclear power. The initiative would serve both ASEAN’s and America’s economic and national security requirements.

This article is originally published on Jul 7, 2010.

(CSIS Southeast Asia has more detailed information on ASEAN countries’ nuclear plans and intends to conduct more focused programming and research on this sector. Interested parties should reach Ms. Ai Ghee Ong, Research Associate, CSIS Southeast Asia Program, at aong@csis.org).

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