The 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident caused the world’s attitude towards nuclear energy to become sharply polarised. While Western Europe turned against nuclear energy, Southeast Asia’s emerging economies remained keenly interested in the technology.
The need to sustain economic development amid global energy security worries – now compounded by plummeting oil prices and the devastation wrought by COVID-19 – means that policymakers must carefully evaluate options to future-proof against uncertainties. In practical terms, countries must meet rising energy demand caused by rapidly growing populations while preserving the environment. Nearly a decade after Fukushima, Southeast Asian governments are increasingly considering nuclear energy as a clean option while decoupling the region’s growth from fossil fuels.
Several members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) started nuclear research programmes back in the 1960s. The Philippines was the first country in the regional bloc to build a NPP in the mid-1970s—though after Filipino regulators became skittish following the 1979 Three Mile Island incident, the plant never went into operation. There continue to be proposals to revive the plant—an indication that despite political turbulence, diverging national priorities and Fukushima, ASEAN’s taste for nuclear power is growing again.
In 2014, Indonesia’s National Nuclear Energy Agency (BATAN) announced a plan to build a small size 10 MWt experimental High Temperature Reactor (HTR) – a Generation IV reactor technology with “Fukushima-proof” safety features – with Russian-Indonesian consortium RENUKO as the consultant for the design phase. In 2016, China Nuclear Engineering Group Corporation signed a cooperation agreement with BATAN to jointly develop the HTR pebble-bed module (HTR-PM).
ASEAN’s pre-feasibility report on establishing NPPs in the regional bloc, released in 2018, re-affirmed the group’s collective ambition towards reaping the benefits of nuclear power by 2030 and 2050, especially among the regional frontrunners: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Considering that the IAEA and ASEAN Secretary-General Dato Lim Jock Ho signed a number of Practical Agreements in 2019 to increase technical and scientific exchanges, ASEAN is now arguably experiencing another nuclear renaissance.
With ASEAN likely missing its own renewable energy targets in 2020, it is only a question of when rather than if nuclear will enter ASEAN’s energy mix. Now is the time for ASEAN to determine the success factors for nuclear energy deployment in the region.
Grid capacity and distribution of demand
ASEAN’s electric grids are relatively small compared to most parts of the world, and there is a huge disparity in electrification of cities around the region. A large reactor requires the identification of suitable strategic locations, not just in terms of safety and security, but also with connectivity to nearby cities and/or industrial facilities in mind to provide “baseload”. Compared to conventional reactor models, small modular reactors (SMRs) are much more flexible in terms of siting and capacity planning, making them more suitable for smaller grids and crowded areas. Advanced technologies such as the HTR-PM could even be collocated within industrial facilities to provide industrial grade heating.
When electricity demand rises, SMR modularity allows for module “add-ons” within the same site, obviating the need for new construction project, potentially even at a new location. Another option could be floating SMRs, which would facilitate safeguard and operational management. Indeed, with the deployment of Russia’s floating nuclear power plant, the Akademik Lomonosov (KLT-40S), the idea of having floating nuclear reactors off Southeast Asia’s coast is quickly becoming a reality.
Managing new types of project risks
A typical nuclear power plant project is like any large complex construction, but with incomparably higher safety requirements. It usually involves a battalion of architects, engineers and project managers, along with an army of suppliers down the supply chain, who must overcome a multitude of hurdles from regulators, financiers and the public – all while under pressure to complete the NPP on schedule.
Furthermore, batch-production of SMR modules in factories would reduce on-site construction work to a minimum. While this could contribute to reduced construction times, nuclear operators would also face a unique challenge not seen in the nuclear industry or the electricity industry in general: the challenges of “plug-and-play.”
In the energy storage or computing businesses, for example, more battery containers or server racks can be added to ramp up the capacity at the same site. SMRs are the nuclear equivalent of “plug-and-play”, with each module likely a project on its own. This leads to two critical questions for planners: (1) how many modules are expected on the same site? and (2) how can the potentially compounding uncertainties and risks of each add-on project be managed effectively?
Building a pro-nuclear environment through regional cooperation
Nuclear power’s benefits are not limited to energy production alone, and can have wider economic effects. Immediate benefits could lie in economic revitalization, as local companies could turn to the production of nuclear-grade materials such as concrete and steel for new build and maintenance. Whether it is for a land-based SMR or a floating NPP, a great number of business opportunities can be created beyond the nuclear reactor. However, using nuclear for other economic sectors requires close cooperation with regulators to ensure technical requirements and economic needs are balanced.
Indeed, agreeing on a homogenous regulatory framework is key for ASEAN. Because of the geographical proximity of the bloc’s member states, a nuclear accident in one country would not only affect that country’s safety, but that of the entire neighbourhood. The flip side of this coin is that the benefits of nuclear energy in one country must also stretch beyond territorial boundaries towards a mutually beneficial arrangement between stakeholders.
These shared benefits would inevitably require shared responsibilities and, hence, risks. ASEAN’s current geopolitical landscape poses a great challenge for regional cooperation in nuclear energy. What’s more, these challenges have heretofore been debated only in the context of large conventional NPPs, not SMRs. As such, a greater level of regional cooperation among concerned countries would go a long way towards maintaining regional harmony.