Living in a nuclear ASEAN

This is the second of a 2-part series in response to Kompas´ article ¨Nuclear Power Plant will be built in North Coast, Banten¨ dated 5 August 2008. Kompas is the most widely read newspaper in Indonesia and it has a reputation for high-quality writing and investigative journalism. Read Part 1 here.

Donaldson Tan / Guest Writer

Indonesia is not alone in ASEAN in the pursuit of nuclear power. On 3 September 2008, the Prime Minister of Vietnam announced the formation of a State council to assess the feasibility of a nuclear power plant project in the province of Ninh Thuan. The Electricity of Vietnam and other relevant agencies are expected to finalise their proposals and appraisals for submission to the National Assembly for approval. Thailand and Malaysia have also announced their intention to have 1 and 2 operational nuclear power plants by 2020 respectively.

The availability of nuclear power not only changes the security and environmental landscape within ASEAN, but also redefines the East Asian sphere of influence.

Implication for Singapore

Illegal traffic of nuclear material, components and know-how is an emerging problem. In 2005, IAEA investigation discovered that the AQ Khan’s network had infiltrated into Malaysia where local firms were unknowingly manufacturing centrifuges for clandestine nuclear weapon programs in Libya and North Korea. Dr AQ Khan is credited as the Father of Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons Program.

(Picture right: Illegal centrifuges made in Malaysia for AQ Khan’s Nulcear Weapons Smuggling Network – 2005.)

It is logical to expect such problems to grow if nuclear technology were to be made available legally in ASEAN. Regional cooperation in policing of such illegal traffic would be needed, on top of security measures to prevent theft of nuclear materials (including waste) and components at established nuclear facilities in ASEAN.

While the Treaty of Bangkok has made provision for the early notification of a nuclear accident, a need to collectively manage the risk of nuclear accident still exists. Although a modern-day Advanced Pressurised Water Reactor (APWR) System is one-tenth as likely as the Chernobyl Power Plant to go nuclear, there is still no room for complacency.

The establishment of a Nuclear Energy Safety Sub-Sector Network (NES-SSN) was announced during the 13th ASEAN Summit to explore nuclear safety issues in ASEAN. A joint-governance framework for nuclear safety and environmental management would be key to allow the peaceful proliferation of nuclear power generation in ASEAN.

Realistically speaking, the risk of a nuclear accident is actively managed by the plant operators, so it is essential that the plant staff are not only competent, but also adhere to international safety standards and culture. The Treaty of Bangkok confers the IAEA as the competent authority to assess the safety standards of the nuclear power plant and competency of the plant staff but it does not require the assessment report to be made public or joint accountability to the entire ASEAN region compulsory.

IAEA Regulations on Safe Transport of Radioactive Material and the UN Convention on Law of the Sea do not offer adequate environmental protection. IAEA Regulations also make no mention if the consignee of the radioactive nuclear waste must be a competent organisation, but leaves this to the domestic laws of the countries involving in the transfer. This is contrary to the Basel Convention on Trans-boundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, whereby the most stringent requirements of the country involved in the transfer (source, destination, or en-route) would be the default regulatory standard for the transfer. However, the Basel Convention excludes radioactive nuclear waste. Operators of nuclear power plant, nuclear waste disposal sites and nuclear waste transport vessels should be licensed by an ASEAN body to address this concern.

The Treaty of Bangkok attempts to answer this shortcoming by prohibiting the export of radioactive nuclear waste and requiring each state party to dispose radioactive nuclear waste in its territory on land but transferring of nuclear waste across internal waters will happen inevitably in archipelagos such as Indonesia and Philippines. This poses an environmental risk to the important shipping route linking the Straits of Malacca to the South China Sea. A unified ASEAN agency to govern the transfer of radioactive nuclear waste, whether within national boundaries or not, would be the best way to address all stakeholders. This perhaps could be an extended function of the Commission of the Treaty of Bangkok.

Last but not least, the Chernobyl Disaster highlighted the risk of trans-boundary pollution. For years to come after the incident, food import restrictions were in place in many EU countries to minimise the entry of radioactive pollutants into the human food chain. Accidents are not the only source of radioactive pollutants. Radioactive pollutants can also come from poorly managed nuclear waste disposal sites. The threat of trans-boundary pollution is very real. An ASEAN convention on trans-boundary pollution by radioactive substances and an environmental pollution liability directive should be implemented.

Strategic opportunities

MTI has stated that Singapore’s electricity consumption is expected to double by 2027 from 2007 level. Nuclear power generation may not be feasible in Singapore, but it does not necessary exclude Singapore from utilising it. Singapore would be connecting its grid to the Johor and Batam Island under Phase II of the ASEAN Power Grid Project. This is expected to be completed between 2009 and 2014. Through the grid connection, it is possible to receive electricity generated by a nuclear power plant in Batam. Under the Treaty of Bangkok, the national liability of nuclear waste generated by the nuclear power plant falls under Indonesia.

Given the capital intensive nature of nuclear power plants, there are emerging financing opportunities for nuclear power in Southeast Asia. Along with it would be opportunity for growth of vibrant nuclear industry in ASEAN to cover all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle, from mining uranium, producing yellowcake and synthesising uranium oxide pellets to fabrication of nuclear fuel elements, spent nuclear fuel reprocessing and nuclear waste management.

Distributing different stages of the nuclear fuel cycle all over ASEAN would alleviate suspicion of any illegal nuclear weapons program in ASEAN. To illustrate how this works, consider the following: Country 1, without any established uranium mine, would not be able produce highly-enriched uranium without importing uranium from Country 2. Country 2 would be aware of its yellowcake export volume and can make meaningful comparison to Country 1ś export volume of nuclear fuel element to look out for the existence of an illegal nuclear weapons program. If Country 1 has no nuclear power plants, then any investigation carried out by Country 2 to verify the existence of an illegal nuclear weapons program would be simpler. Meanwhile, Country 3, which may or may not has a domestic uranium mine, could import nuclear fuel element from Country 1 for its domestic nuclear power plants without incurring any suspicion for a nuclear weapons program since Country 3 does not have any capability to enrich uranium or produce nuclear fuel elements.

Contrary to popular opinion, stages from mining to fabrication of nuclear fuel elements are actually not hazardous compared to operating a nuclear power plant because nuclear fission and the handling of dangerous radioactive isotopes only occur after the nuclear fuel element has been consumed at the nuclear power plant. Singapore could house some of these operations as a nuclear fuel hub in Southeast Asia.


Nuclear technology provides a platform for ASEAN countries to work together and invest greater trust in each other. Taking a conservative attitude towards the proliferation of nuclear technology impedes progress, but progress comes at a price. While nuclear technology poses security and environmental risks, there are also associated environmental and economic benefits. Properly managing the risk and liability of the emerging nuclear power industry in ASEAN would be key to betterment for a shared nuclear future in ASEAN.


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