NUCLEAR SAFETY AND COOPERATION IN ASEAN
The S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, in collaboration with the Energy Market Authority, organised a roundtable on “Nuclear Safety and Cooperation in ASEAN” at the Singapore International Energy Week (SIEW) on 28 October 2016.
Roundtable panellists included Dr Olli Heinonen, RSIS S Rajaratnam Professor of Strategic Studies and Senior Associate at Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs of Harvard University; Dr Tatsujiro Suzuki, Vice Director and Professor, Research Centre for Nuclear Weapons Abolition, Nagasaki University (RECNA); Mr Shah Nawaz Ahmad, Senior Adviser, World Nuclear Association; Dr Hoang Sy Than, Deputy Director of the Department of R&D Management, Vietnam Atomic Energy Insitute (VINATOM); Mr Sabar Md Hashim, Special Officer, Economic Planning Unit, Prime Minister’s Department of Malaysia; and Ms Siriratana Biramontri, Special Consultant, Office of Atoms for Peace, Thailand and former chair of ASEAN Network of Regulatory Bodies on Atomic Energy (ASEANTOM).
The roundtable discussed the post-Fukushima nuclear safety and emergency preparedness in the Asia Pacific and examined the growing regional cooperation on nuclear energy governance in Southeast Asia. While thirty countries currently use nuclear power, about the equivalent number of newcomer states are considering, planning or actively working to include it in their energy mix. Asia has been recently driving the growth of the nuclear power industry with China, India, Pakistan and South Korea building new nuclear reactors. In Southeast Asia, Vietnam is scheduled to open its first nuclear power plant by 2028 while Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia are carefully studying the nuclear option. In this regard, regional issues and cooperation on nuclear safety and security as well as nuclear emergency preparedness and response need to be examined.
Post-Fukushima nuclear safety issues
The lessons of the Fukushima nuclear accident were revisited with special focus on new measures to enhance nuclear safety and emergency preparedness and response. Panellists reiterated that each state operating nuclear power is responsible for nuclear safety and hence needs to be prepared for radiological accidents and emergencies. But as the consequences – radiological and beyond – is trans-boundary in effect, all states have a role to play in preparation of contingency plans and develop a cooperative approach to a chain of emergency, response and recovery activities. It was emphasised that the Fukushima accident still lingers and entails not only technical dimensions but also environmental and socio-political implications for the Japanese public. For instance, the Japanese government still needs to negotiate with the Japanese public, specifically affected local communities, as to where to dispose the decontaminated soil and water. The evacuation of Fukushima residents also involves long-term social and psychological impact on them, with implications on local politics, highlighting the need to analyse the nuclear accident from the social science perspective.
But from the technical perspective of the nuclear industry, nuclear safety has been vastly improved since the Fukushima accident. Nuclear power is now the most regulated energy industry in the world with more stringent post-Fukushima safety standards. Serious nuclear accidents are very rare and nuclear energy has caused fewer deaths than any other major form of electricity generation. The panellist from the nuclear industry further claimed that the Fukushima accident is not expected to have any radiation-related public health impact. Even clean-up workers are unlikely to suffer any long-term health effects due to radiation.
The need for public communication and acceptance
However, despite the improvements that have been made on nuclear safety, there are still major issues that remain unresolved for nuclear energy. The compensation scheme for affected communities would definitely boost the cost of nuclear power generation; the disposal of high-level waste remains unaddressed; and more importantly, governments still need to develop and implement effective public consultation and communication strategies to address public opinion against nuclear power and concerns over the safety and security of nuclear power. In Japan for instance, 70.8 percent of the public opposed the re-opening of the country’s NPPs while 52.3 percent believed that NPPs are not safe. Meanwhile, in Southeast Asia, panellists claimed that public acceptance is extremely needed before making a national decision on NPP construction. In this regard, ASEAN countries interested in using nuclear power such as Vietnam are using various public communication strategies such as information centres, public seminars and community engagements to allay the fears of the local communities.
Regional cooperation in ASEAN
Panellists also deliberated on the importance of regional cooperation and the role of regional networks such as ASEANTOM in strengthening nuclear safety cooperation and emergency preparedness and response in Southeast Asia. Nuclear safety and radiological emergency are indeed regional issues that entail regional responses. Nuclear incidents can range from accidents with localised radiological impact to large-scale nuclear terrorist attacks or nuclear disasters with transnational spillovers.
There are vehicles to share best practices, know-how and resources through the IAEA, and, in particular, within the ASEAN framework. The ASEANTOM was recently given political recognition when it was designated as an ASEAN body under the ASEAN Political-Security Community Pillar in Annex 1 of the ASEAN Charter. ASEANTOM has been conducting nuclear security border exercises, co-hosted by Thailand and Malaysia, and implementing projects on joint emergency preparedness and response with the assistance of the IAEA and the European Commission. Vietnam also proposed the establishment of the ASEAN Network on Nuclear Power Safety Research that will promote research collaboration and sharing of knowledge and best practices on nuclear safety among nuclear research institutions, universities, and think-tanks of ASEAN member-states. With the increasing interest in nuclear power in the region, panellists stressed the importance of building capacity in the region to allow member-states to make use of technologies that will facilitate the implementation of nuclear projects in a safe and sustainable manner.