This post is a collection of notes and thoughts on a roundtable on nuclear power and safety in ASEAN held as part of Singapore International Energy Week 2016.
Nuclear power. The first thing that came to mind was images of that iconic mushroom cloud and the prospect of living in a Mad Max world. But then I remembered we’re in Southeast Asia, which has been declared a nuclear-weapon-free zone since 1995. Although ASEAN has declared itself to be free from nukes, the charm of harnessing atomic energy for civilian purposes is too hard to resist. I honestly did not know that Vietnam is planning to have up to 10 reactors in 15-30 years, and that the Philippines has the first nuclear power plant in Southeast Asia, but was never fuelled.
Despite knowing the destructive power of nuclear energy, I am also a firm believer that nuclear power is the way to power the future. As Asimov has shown in Foundation and Gipsy Danger in Pacific Rim, nuclear power is indeed the source of energy that people need to thrust themselves into the future.
The roundtable featured a variety of experts on nuclear power, such as Dr Olli Heinonen, Dr Tatsujiro Suzuki, Shah Nawaz Ahmad, Sabar Mohd Hashim, Siriratana Biramontri, and Dr Hoang Sy Than, who talked about the need to establish robust institutions to promote regional cooperation and information-sharing as a way to harness nuclear power in ASEAN.
I won’t be summarising their points individually. Rather, I collect some major points that the entire 3-hour session brought up.
But first, a bit of background, which was provided by Dr Olli Heinonen. Why should we even care about nuclear safety?
There are a bunch of these “nuclear newcomers”, that refers to emerging economies that are keen on developing nuclear power plants to address their increasing energy demands, while at the same time, seek environmental sustainability. Also, due to advances in technology, there are safer reactors being developed. These countries in Southeast Asia include, to name a few, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Of course, before they can be trusted with the destructive power of nuclear energy, they need to realise that what can go wrong, will go wrong. Since a potential nuclear disaster is too much for one sole country to handle, there needs to be an institution or regime to act as a platform to prevent or (God forbid) clean up the mess. Regional cooperation is thus an imperative in maintaining nuclear safety and security.
Having provided that background, we can now address the major points brought up during the seminar. Three points were brought almost consistently: nuclear safety, public opinion and the role of regional institutions.
1. How to prevent a nuclear power plant from going ‘boom’
The panel outlined the many potential security and safety issues that need to be dealt with when operating a nuclear power plant. These issues need to be dealt collectively. The following is a list of issues that need to be dealt with when operating a nuclear power plant (of course, this list is not exhaustive):
Cyber attacks and subsequently, sabotage. The panel provided an explanation that information systems are isolated, hence they can only be hacked if there’s a mole within the power plant. There is a slim possibility of Russian hackers getting inside the control system, unless they did so from the inside. Even Stuxnet was spread through a thumb drive, not from the World Wide Web.
Natural disaster. Perhaps the scariest issue, since we have no control over it. The Fukushima disaster happened because of a tsunami, which was unforeseen. Dealing with natural disasters is a collective effort, and even though we plan as hard as we can, we can only mitigate the damage and not prevent it from happening altogether.
Terrorism. Another salient issue that was brought up was terrorism. Of course, there’s no foolproof way to deter terrorists from either taking hold of a nuclear power plant or even destroying it aside from the threat of mutual destruction. There were many opinions flying around the room regarding this. Related to this is the issue of criminal acts.
Technical issues. This may include equipment failure, fail-safe failure (wow, that’s ironic), and other technical stuff.
Most of these issues are non-traditional, and as such, require a multi-faceted and often tailored approach to address them. Again, the panel emphasised the need for regional cooperation to collectively address the issues.
2. Nuke-phobia? Generating public opinion
The question that I raised during the session was related to public opinion in Southeast Asia. Previously, Dr Tatsujiro Suzuki was explaining about the decline in public opinion in Japan after Fukushima. There were anti-nuclear politicians and a considerable decline in support for nuclear power. The Japanese government also showed an ambiguous stance. On one hand, the Japanese government wanted to reduce dependency on nuclear energy. But at the same time, it wants to maintain the necessary level of nuclear energy. The panel highlighted the necessity of positive public opinion in building nuclear power.
Dr Hoang Sy Than then provided an explanation of the efforts done in Vietnam to inform and raise awareness of nuclear power. It took a considerable amount of time (roughly 10 years) to convince a small portion of the people that nuclear power was safe, cheap, and environment-friendly. However, whether or not those attempts can be replicated elsewhere remains a challenge. As I see it, the majority of the public still flinches at the mere mention of the word “nuclear”. One of the reasons may be related to negative media portrayal of nuclear power, highlighting the accidents and overlooking the positive effects. There is also a fear of meltdowns.
So far, the efforts that can be done is to continuously inform the public about the benefits of nuclear energy. Of course, this is not to say that nuclear energy is foolproof, but these efforts are required to provide a balanced picture of nuclear energy. Which leads me to…
3. Regional institutions: “Communication, communication, communication”
Operating a nuclear power plant isn’t a walk in the park; it requires a robust institutional network to monitor its practice. Luckily, ASEAN already has ASEANTOM (ASEAN Network of Regulatory Bodies on Atomic Energy), which is a sectoral body under the ASEAN Political-Security Community. It is a body that is supposedly responsible for establishing an ASEAN nuclear regime through enhancing regional cooperation on nuclear issues.
However, discussion of nuclear energy in ASEAN is still rather confined to the bureaucratic level. This means that it is still only being discussed within the confines of ASEAN energy ministers and a select few institutions and think-tanks. The discussion has yet to trickle down to the lay public. As such, I would think ASEANTOM’s duties in the near future would be to prepare a series of information-sharing sessions. In Malaysia, such events have already been held in forms of seminars. But I believe it needs to be expanded to include the lay person in the streets. Furthermore, it should be think-tanks at the forefront of the information dissemination, since political institutions tend to not be trusted by the people.
Regional institutions will also play a role in mitigating the damage of a potential disaster. By acting as a platform, the institution can bring together experts from across the world to address the failures. Fukushima was a tragic example, but it showed the constructive power of international organisations. As such, further cooperation should be the long-term goal.
So far, the issue of nuclear energy still seems to be murky due to negative public opinion in Southeast Asia. Despite ASEAN countries striving to incorporate nuclear power into their energy mixes, there are still a lot of people that suffer from nuke-phobia. I guess the way forward is to have more information sharing sessions about nuclear power hosted by governments.
Aside from public opinion, there still needs to be a regional institution to act as a platform for information and communication, and also to prevent potential disaster resulting from internal and external issues. Although a regulatory function might still be some ways in the future, the basics need to be laid down first. Currently, ASEANTOM is doing that part.
A nuclear-powered ASEAN may be a reality, but perhaps not right now. Maybe in the future, 30 years from now.