Asia-Pacific Analysis: Go green not nuclear

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Crispin Maslog says the region should follow the Philippines' lead and focus on renewable, not nuclear power.

A year after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, questions remain over the role of nuclear power in the developing world, including South-East Asia and the Pacific.

Nuclear power had a renaissance, driven by rapidly growing energy demands, and fading memories of high-profile disasters at Three Mile Island in the United States and Chernobyl, Ukraine.

But Fukushima triggered a re-think about the safety of nuclear power plants. South-East Asian countries, earlier inclined towards nuclear power (especially Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand), are now at the crossroads, quietly revisiting the arguments for and against nuclear plants.

Planning for power

The Philippines was the first country to build a nuclear reactor in South-East Asia — the Bataan Nuclear Plant, completed in 1985. But the US$2.3-billion Westinghouse light water reactor, which has the potential to generate 621 megawatts of power, was never used. Work on the facility stopped after a change of administration because of corruption and safety issues.

Before Fukushima, bills were introduced in the Philippine congress seeking either to restart the reactor, or to close the issue by allowing either conversion or permanent closure. These are now in limbo.

Vietnam seems sure, and has decided to push ahead with its plan for 14 nuclear plants by 2030. Vietnam has an ambitious nuclear energy plan to power 10 per cent of its electricity grid with nuclear energy within 20 years. Its first nuclear plant, Ninh Thuan, is to be built with support from a state-owned Russian energy company and completed by 2020.

But whether nuclear is the solution still needs answering for the rest of the region. Singapore is going ahead with a pre-feasibility study and Indonesia is discreetly proceeding with feasibility studies. Thailand and Malaysia have abandoned their nuclear plans.  

Nuclear drawbacks

Economic growth, industrialisation, the escalating price of oil, safer reactor design, and global warming are compelling countries to seek alternatives to fossil fuels.

Opponents of nuclear technology underscore the disadvantages: the high cost of building, running and maintaining nuclear power plants; problems with disposing of radioactive wastes; and difficulties with ensuring environmental and human safety. And although the fuel costs of nuclear plants have been lower than fossil-fuel plants, the construction cost is three times higher.

The risk of accidents is a big concern — their social and economic costs can be huge and long-lasting. For example, Belarus has estimated its economic losses over 30 years due to the Chernobyl disaster at US$235 billion. And 5–7 per cent of government spending in Ukraine still goes to Chernobyl-related benefit programmes.

More recently, Japan has estimated that the Fukushima nuclear accident could cost US$250 billion, including compensation for the 180,000 people moved from the area.

Disposing of radioactive waste remains dangerous and decommissioning the plant when it has reached the end of its useful life is also costly. Plans for storing the very long-lived radioactive wastes in deep geological repositories remain just that — plans. So far no such repositories have been constructed in the region.

And most developing South-East Asian countries still do not have enough expertise to deal with nuclear power safely.

Go for green energy

Until nuclear power plants become cheaper and safer, South-East Asia and the Pacific should choose to support renewable sources of energy.

Renewable sources including water, wind, tidal and solar already provide 20 per cent of global electricity (if hydropower is included), and could supply 77 per cent by 2050.  

At the 6th Asia Clean Energy Forum (ACEF) held in Manila in June 2011, Greenpeace suggested that renewable energy plants, particularly wind and solar power, grew in capacity faster than any other power plant technology since the 1990s. [1]  

It cited the Philippines as an example for the region. The country aims to make itself the leading geothermal energy producer in the world, to double hydropower capacity and expand the contributions of biomass, solar, and ocean energy.

It is already a leader in the region in harnessing geothermal and hydroelectric energy. In February 2010,The Philippine Department of Energy signed 68 mini-hydroelectric, 5 geothermal, and 17 wind energy contracts amounting to US$1 billion. These projects will generate an estimated capacity of 2,007.5 megawatts.

And one of the largest business conglomerates in the Philippines, Ayala Corp., has a long-standing interest in the renewable energy sector.

How did The Philippines get here? The government got the ball rolling with its Renewable Energy Act in 2008. Funding agencies — like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank — followed with huge energy loans. And private business then started coming in. This may well be a model for other South-East Asian countries to follow.

Crispin Maslog

Crispin Maslog is a Manila-based consultant for the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication. A former journalist, professor and environmental activist, he worked for the Press Foundation of Asia and the International Rice Research Institute.