Source: globalinfo.org - Aug 17, VIETNAM (#31691)
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ENERGY: VIETNAM'S DOUBTS ON NUCLEAR PLANS GROW AFTER JAPAN MISHAP

By Tran Dinh Thanh Lam

HO CHI MINH CITY, Aug. 17, 2004 (IPS/GIN) -- The recent Mihama Nuclear Power Plant mishap -- Japan's worst nuclear accident to date -- has prompted many Vietnamese to question plans to develop the country's first atomic plant by 2017.

"The Mihama accident will turn the worries expressed by some Vietnamese experts into actualities," Hoang Van, a writer at the 'Science and Life' magazine told IPS.

In November 2003, Vietnam energy authorities completed a pre-feasibility study for the country's first atomic power plant, estimated to cost four billion U.S. dollars. A proposal was then submitted by the Vietnam Atomic Energy Institute (AEI) to the government to develop the nuclear plant by 2017.

According to AEI, Vietnam's electricity consumption has increased by 12 percent to 15 percent a year in recent years. Currently, the country produces 5,500 megawatts to 6,000 megawatts a year, 55 percent of which is generated by hydropower plants.

The institute said the country will need 20,000 megawatts to 30,000 megawatts of electricity by 2020, and nuclear power is needed to help meet that demand.

The AEI has selected six places in four central provinces as possible locations for a nuclear power plant - one in Quang Binh, one in Phu Yen and two each in Binh Thuan and Ninh Thuan provinces.

But many analysts have questioned why Vietnam, one of the world's poorest countries, needs to consider nuclear energy when it has plenty of natural gas and coal, and suitable conditions for hydropower.

The Japan accident occurred on Aug. 9 after super-heated steam leaked through a hole in a pipe that feeds steam in the turbine facility of the Mihama plant and killed four workers.

"Obviously there are questions about safety and whether we have the proper trained personnel to run the plant," said Nguyen Ngoc Tran, deputy chairman of the National Assembly's Foreign Committee.

"AEI says that we should put the nuclear power plant into operation by 2020 because at that time we will be in short supply of energy. I think it is not totally right," he said.

Tran said he had conferred with many scientists in the National Committee for Science, and they all rejected AEI opinion. "The time we need nuclear energy is still far away, maybe in three or four decades time," Tran told IPS.

This was also the opinion of Professor Dang Vu Minh, Director of Vietnam's Institute of Science and Technology.

"We need to find out if by 2020 there are no other solutions to solve the energy problem, then we will consider developing the nuclear plant," he said in an interview.

Japan is assisting Vietnam to build the nuclear power plant with the AEI working closely with the Japan Atomic Industry Forum or JAIF.

The construction date has also got the experts worried. The AEI initially planned the plant for 2017, but after consulting JAIF it decided to advance the construction closer to 2012.

"Why such a hurry?" asked Prof Pham Duy Hien, one of Vietnam's leading experts on atomic energy.

Hien has expressed all his reservations about the safety of the plant in an article on 'VietnamNet' last June.

"As one of the persons in charge of developing nuclear energy 25 years ago, I have no other dream than seeing a nuclear power plant built in Vietnam during my life. However, I believe that unless all the scientific and technological criteria were met, the construction of the plant would be not viable," he wrote.

In an interview with IPS, Hien said he doubted Vietnam would be ready for nuclear energy given safety concerns.

"Even by the year 2017, Vietnam will not be ready for nuclear energy. The country lacks necessary human resources as well as a legal infrastructure to address nuclear accidents if they happen," said Hien.

The atomic energy expert said it takes at least 15 years to train specialists to operate a nuclear reactor. "If we want them to manage and operate the power plant by 2020, we need to send them overseas to have some training now." Nguyen Ngoc Tran of the National Assembly's Foreign Committee also cautions the country not to hurry, and to wait for more reliable and environmentally friendly technology.

"We will adopt nuclear energy, but we will adopt it with care and safety. We should pick up the best and safest technology that has the less impact on the environment," he said.

Tran said that the technology currently presented to Vietnam, to build the nuclear power plant, is of the third generation type. This, he said, is not very secure.

He suggested waiting for the fourth generation of reactors, which are more secure and generate less nuclear waste. These reactors will only be available by 2025 at the earliest.

Dr. Nguyen Khac Nhan from Strasbourg, France, a former adviser at Electricite de France (EDF) was more categorical.

"Saying there is no other way than nuclear energy is rejecting the world's efforts in saving energy and developing other sources, especially renewable ones," he told IPS.

Nhan said out that by 2020-2030, renewable energies like wind and solar would be more economical and could compete with oil and gas - which by then could be scarce.

He stressed that safety of nuclear plants is an issue that needed serious consideration. "The Mihama accident should be an eye-opener for our planners