Vietnam’s Amazing Nuclear Journey: Why It Ended, What It Means for South East Asia
By Jim Green
On November 22, Vietnam took the historic decision to scrap its nuclear power program, after many decades of nuclear preparations, up to a ground-breaking ceremony at the first proposed nuclear site in the country in 2014. Jim Green, editor of Nuclear Monitor, published by WISE (World Information Service on Energy), tells the amazing story of nuclear power in Vietnam – and discusses what the Vietnamese decision means for the prospects of nuclear power in South East Asia. Courtesy of Nuclear Monitor.
Let’s first imagine how this story might have unfolded, if the nuclear industry had its way. Construction would be underway on Vietnam’s first nuclear power plant, and plans would be in train to build a total of 14 reactors by 2030. Russia would be building Vietnam’s first reactor, giving it a foothold in south-east Asia (where it has nuclear cooperation agreements with seven countries). Japan and South Korea would also be gearing up to build reactors in Vietnam, a fillip for their troubled domestic nuclear industries and their ambitions to become major nuclear exporters. US nuclear vendors would also be heavily involved, salivating at the US Department of Commerce’s estimate of US$50 billion (€47.4 bn) of contracts for nuclear plants in Vietnam by 2030.
Nuclear vendor countries will have to look elsewhere for business. They will continue to try their luck in southeast Asia but they are wasting their time
It hasn’t unfolded like that. On November 22, Vietnam’s National Assembly voted in support of a government decision to cancel plans to build nuclear power plants. An immense amount of resources have been wasted on the nuclear program over several decades. Nuclear vendor countries will have to look elsewhere for business. They will continue to try their luck in southeast Asia but they are wasting their time: not a single power reactor is in operation or being built in the region and none will be built in the foreseeable future.
First, a brief history of Vietnam’s nuclear program:
1958: Vietnam acquires a research reactor under the US Atoms for Peace program. It was dismantled by the US as the Vietnam / Second Indochina War escalated.
1976: Vietnam Atomic Energy Commission formed.
Early 1980s: Two preliminary nuclear power studies are undertaken.
1995: A study concludes that nuclear power should be introduced around the year 2015.
2006: The government announces that a 2 gigawatt (GW) nuclear power plant should be online by 2020. This target is confirmed in a plan approved by the government in August 2007, along with a target of 8 GW by 2025.
2008: An Atomic Energy Law is passed by the National Assembly.
2009: The National Assembly approves a resolution on investments for nuclear power plants in Ninh Thuan province.
2010: The government announces plans to build 14 nuclear reactors (15 GW) at eight sites in five provinces by 2030 (about 10% of total electricity generation), and outlines an aspiration to increase the nuclear share to 20‒25% by 2050.
2010: Vietnam signs an intergovernmental agreement with Russia for the construction of two reactors (later increased to four) in Ninh Thuan province. Construction is to begin in 2014 and the first reactor is to be commissioned and connected to the grid by 2020. Russia’s Ministry of Finance will provide loans covering at least 85% of the cost (in November 2011, an agreement for a US$8 billion loan was signed). Progress is slow in the following years.
2010: An intergovernmental agreement with Japan is signed envisaging the construction of two reactors to come online in 2024‒25, also in Ninh Thuan province. The International Nuclear Energy Development of Japan consortium will build the reactors, and the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry will provide financing and insurance for up to 85% of the total cost. Progress is slow in the following years.
The decision to abandon nuclear power was primarily based on economics
2011: The government issues a master plan envisaging eight reactors at the two plants in Ninh Thuan, one reactor coming online each year from 2020‒27, followed by two more in 2029.
2012: South Korea and Vietnam announce plans for a feasibility study for the construction of four Korean APR-1400 nuclear reactors, and sign an intergovernmental nuclear cooperation agreement. A nuclear cooperation agreement was signed with Russia in 2002, and since 2006, others have been signed with France, China, South Korea, Japan, the US and Canada. Numerous utilities express interest in constructing reactors in Vietnam: Atomstroyexport (Rosatom / Russia), JINED (the Japanese consortium), Westinghouse (Japan/US), GE (US), EDF (France), KEPCO (South Korea), and China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group.
2014: Ground breaking ceremony at the Ninh Thuan 1 (Russian) site. But the Vietnamese government says the project will be delayed for up to four years, due to continuing negotiations on technology and financing. By 2015, the start-up date for the first reactor has been pushed back another four years, to 2028.
Early 2016: A revised National Electricity Development Plan confirmed the 2028 delay for Ninh Thuan 1, and reduced the 2030 nuclear target from 10.1% of electricity generation in the original plan down to 5.7%.
On November 10, Duong Quang Thanh, CEO of staterun Electricity of Vietnam, said the government would propose the cancellation of plans for reactors at the two Ninh Thuan sites to the National Assembly. He added that nuclear power was not included (or budgeted for) in the power plan which runs until 2030 and had already been approved by Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.
The National Assembly voted on November 22 to support the government’s decision to abandon plans to build nuclear power plants. Energy analyst Mycle Schneider said: “Vietnam is only the latest in a long list of countries, including more recently Chile and Indonesia, that have postponed indefinitely or abandoned entirely their plans for nuclear new-build.”
The decision to abandon nuclear power was primarily based on economics. Duong Quang Thanh said nuclear power is “not economically viable because of other cheaper sources of power.”
Vietnam does not have clear regulations for agencies to inspect and examine the safety of nuclear power plants
Le Hong Tinh, vice-chair of the National Assembly Committee for Science, Technology and Environment, said the estimated cost of four reactors at the two sites in Ninh Thuan province had nearly doubled to VND400 trillion (US$18 bn; €17.9 bn). The estimated price of nuclear-generated electricity had increased from 4‒4.5 US cents / kwh to 8 cents / kwh. Vietnam has spent millions of dollars on the project so far, Tinh said, but continuing the program would add more pressure to the already high public debt.
Another media report states that Japanese and Russian consultants said that the cost has escalated from the original estimate of US$10 billion to US$27 billion (€9.5‒25.6 bn). “The plants will have to sell power at around 8.65 cents a kWh, which is almost twice the rate approved in the project license and is not competitive at all,” according to the VN Express newspaper.
Vietnam’s rising public debt, which is nearing the government’s ceiling of 65% of GDP, was another reason for the program’s cancellation, said Cao Si Kiem, a National Assembly member and former governor of the central bank.
Another factor is that electricity demand is growing but not as rapidly as previously estimated. Duong Quang Thanh from Electricity of Vietnam said: “The latest survey predicted that power growth rate will be at 11% in the 2016-2020 period and fall to 7-8% in the 2021-2030 period. So there will be no power shortage in the country in the near future.”
Safety concerns have also influenced the decision to cancel the nuclear program. Tran Huu Phat, former head of the Vietnam Institute of Atomic Energy, said that Vietnam was not ready for project implementation and that the Atomic Energy Law need amendments.
He said: “The labor force is not prepared to ensure legal enforcement and operate a nuclear power plant. The Department of Radiation and Nuclear Safety, the agency which plays the most important role in state management, has not been ready yet, at least for the next five years.”
Vuong Huu Tan, the head of Vietnam’s nuclear regulator, the Agency for Radiation and Nuclear Safety (VARANS), said in early 2016 that there remains much work to do, that Vietnam does not have clear regulations for agencies to inspect and examine the safety of nuclear power plants, and that nuclear power management was not licensed and was not an independent entity in accordance with international norms.
In 2014, 344 Vietnamese undergraduate and graduate students were studying in Russia to prepare for the nuclear program, and 150 Vietnamese engineers were helping with the construction of the Rostov nuclear plant in Russia
The World Nuclear Association notes that the regulator VARANS is under the Ministry of Science and Technology, as is the Vietnam Atomic Energy Commission. Michiko Yoshii, a professor at Mie University in Japan, said in 2014 that concerns about nuclear safety in Vietnam became much more deep-rooted after the Fukushima disaster.
“The former head of the [Vietnamese] national nuclear energy research institute called for a 10-year delay in the construction plan from the standpoint of safety and the lack of human resources,” she said. “Quan, the science minister, has also repeatedly said the development of human resources would not keep pace with the construction plans.”
The absence of any clear pathway for the disposal of nuclear waste also influenced the decision to abandon the nuclear program. Le Hong Tinh from the National Assembly Committee for Science, Technology and Environment said: “Nuclear waste always poses environmental threats, even for developed countries which boast good technology for this waste treatment.”
Russia offered to accept spent fuel for reprocessing but separated wastes would be returned to Vietnam “eventually” according to the World Nuclear Association.
It’s impossible to quantify, but large amounts of time and resources have been wasted on Vietnam’s perpetually stalled nuclear power program over several decades. The opportunity costs are all the greater because Vietnam is a developing country that can ill-afford to waste money and human resources on a failed project.
“This is a big lesson for us in energy development planning and forecast”
One aspect of the wastage is that hundreds of students have been trained to prepare for the nuclear power program. In 2014, 344 Vietnamese undergraduate and graduate students were studying in Russia to prepare for the nuclear program, and 150 Vietnamese engineers were helping with the construction of the Rostov nuclear plant in Russia. A much smaller number of students were sent to Japan.
Le Hong Tinh from the National Assembly Committee for Science, Technology and Environment said that people trained for the nuclear program can be used for other power programs in Vietnam.7 Perhaps so, to some extent, but resources will nonetheless have been wasted. Commenting on the decision to cancel the nuclear program, Tinh said that “this is a big lesson for us in energy development planning and forecast.”
Vietnam’s electricity mix
In 2013, Vietnam produced 127 terawatt-hours (TWh) gross of electricity, mostly from hydro (45%), gas (34%), and coal (20%). There is some scope for new hydro plants, but many available sites are already being exploited. A March 2016 media report states that the government plans to reduce reliance on hydro following a review of hundreds of existing and planned hydro plants. The review came after media reports that in central Vietnam, crops and houses were damaged and floods were worsened by water released without notice from hydropower dams.
In mid-2016, the government increased the target for non-hydro renewables from 5.6% by 2020 to 9.9%. In addition to existing small solar systems, Quang Nam Province is working with investors to build the country’s first large-scale (100 MW) solar plant at an estimated cost of US$140 million.
There are many available renewable power sources in Vietnam including solar, wind, geothermal heat, biomass and ocean energy
Wind power is growing, albeit from a low base. Around 20 wind power plants are operating ‒ including a large plant in Binh Thuan province with 99 MW capacity ‒ and dozens more are planned. Vietnam’s Ministry of Industry and Trade estimates the country’s total landbased wind power capacity at 513 GW, which is 10 times greater than currently installed capacity from all sources.
A May 2016 report by WWF-Vietnam and Vietnam Sustainable Energy Alliance (VSEA) findsthat 100% of Vietnam’s power can be generated by renewable energy technologies by 2050. There are many available renewable power sources in Vietnam including solar, wind, geothermal heat, biomass and ocean energy. The report contrasts three scenarios: business as usual (with only modest growth of renewables), a Sustainable Energy Scenario (81% renewable power generation by 2050) and an Advanced Sustainable Energy Scenario (100%).
Nuclear power in South East Asia – or not
A 2015 International Energy Agency report anticipates that nuclear power will account for just 1% of electricity generation in south-east Asia by 2040.
The report states: “All countries in Southeast Asia that are interested in deploying nuclear power face significant challenges. These include sourcing the necessary capital on favourable terms, creation of legal and regulatory frameworks, compliance with international norms and regulations, sourcing and training of skilled technical staff and regulators, and ensuring public support. … The limited role for nuclear can be explained by the high upfront capital costs, limited access to financing, and uneven and tepid public support in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. Public opposition has been especially evident in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand.”
A June 2016 media article began: “Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear-energy agency, is bullish on the outlook of its business in Southeast Asia after the speedy development of a project in Vietnam and a range of agreements with every country in the region except Singapore, the Philippines and Brunei.”
Nikolay Drozdov, director of Rosatom’s international business department, said Rosatom is focusing a lot of attention on south-east Asia, reflected by the decision to establish a regional headquarters in Singapore.
It is clear that [former Rosatom head Sergey] Kirienko’s team has been excellent at drawing up and signing nonbinding nuclear agreements
Russia has nuclear cooperation agreements with seven countries in south-east Asia ‒ Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos. But not one of those seven countries ‒ or any other country in south-east Asia ‒ has nuclear power plants (the only exception is the Bataan reactor in the Philippines, built but never operated) and not one is likely to in the foreseeable future. Nor are other nuclear vendors likely to succeed where Russia is failing.
Drozdov said that after the (stalled) nuclear power project in Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia would likely be the next countries in the region to develop nuclear power. But Indonesia’s situation is much the same as Vietnam’s ‒ decades of wasted efforts with little to show for it (and the same could be said about Thailand).
Malaysia’s consideration of nuclear power is preliminary. Why would Russia be making such efforts in southeast Asia given that nuclear power prospects in the region are so dim? The answer may lie with domestic Russian politics. Given Rosatom’s astonishing industry in lining up non-binding nuclear agreements with over 20 countries ‒ ‘paper power plants’ as Vladimir Slivyak calls them ‒ we can only assume that such agreements are looked on favorably by the Russian government.
Slivyak writes: “These ‘orders’ are not contracts specifying delivery dates, costs and a clear timescale for loan repayments (in most cases the money lent by Russia for power plant construction comes with a repayment date). Eighty to ninety per cent of these reported arrangements are agreements in principle that are vague on details, and in the overwhelming majority of cases the contracts aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. … So it is clear that [former Rosatom head Sergey] Kirienko’s team has been excellent at drawing up and signing nonbinding nuclear agreements … Actually building nuclear plants seems to be beyond them.”