SINGAPORE (Reuters) - The need to meet surging energy demand without boosting already high fuel prices could see Southeast Asian governments push hard for nuclear power despite public safety concerns.
Some countries have announced plans to quit the industry after the March tsunami and earthquake in Japan triggered the world’s worst atomic disaster in 25 years, sparking doubts about nuclear safety.
But Southeast Asia’s power-hungry emerging economies cannot afford the alternatives, which are to import more fuel or invest in large scale deployment of renewable energy.
Industry and government officials in Singapore this week for an energy conference said countries such as Thailand and Malaysia, which initially called for a review of nuclear power plans after the accident in Japan, are coming around to the view that they cannot abandon it.
Regardless of how keen governments might be to trim costly subsidy bills and reduce dependence on natural gas and other fuel imports, it will be over a decade before the first nuclear plant could feasibly be ready.
“In the longer term, you cannot neglect the possibility of nuclear. We are pursuing and looking at it microscopically. But it will happen only past 2020,” said Idris Jala, Malaysia’s Minister in the Prime Minister’s office.
Six countries in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore, have expressed interest in building nuclear power stations.
Vietnam has committed to building a nuclear power plant, with the others at various stages of conducting feasibility studies.
S Iswaran, Singapore’s Second Minister of Trade and Industry, reaffirmed earlier this week that the nuclear option for the city-state was still on the cards.
“The reaction of most governments has been fairly pragmatic and mostly rational,” said Selena Ng, regional director, South East Asia and Oceania, at French nuclear firm AREVA SA.
“The fundamental drivers behind nuclear power post-Fukushima are the same as they were before Fukushima and most governments realize this.”
AREVA, which designs and supplies nuclear reactors, assisted Japan’s TEPCO in dealing with the Fukushima accident.
Ng said that construction of new plants continued in many countries, and only a handful of European countries, including Germany, Italy and Switzerland have, in varying degrees, rejected its use.
The latest to do so is Belgium, whose political parties reached a conditional agreement earlier this week to shut down the country’s two remaining nuclear power stations, owned by GDF Suez unit Electrabel.
But an expected power crunch in Southeast Asia may mean the region does not have the luxury of axing the nuclear option for political reasons.
“Moving away from nuclear to renewables to whatever is more costly, it means more imports, which means less energy security,” former International Energy Agency (IEA) executive director Nobuo Tanaka said in an interview with Reuters at Singapore International Energy Week.
“Germany can afford to cut nuclear, they have a lot of resources, but it’s different for Asian countries.”
Southeast Asia’s demand for power will grow to 163,000 megawatts in 2020, from about 92,000 megawatts now, according to data from energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie.
Public fears about nuclear safety have since March prevented Japanese authorities from giving utilities the go-ahead to restart reactors closed for regular maintenance. The country’s entire reactor fleet could be shut down by next summer, costing Japan around 3 trillion yen in additional energy imports.
It is not only Japan that is affected though. The country’s demand for gas to replace the lost nuclear capacity has pushed Asian LNG spot prices to around $17 per million British thermal units, from around $10 before Fukushima.
The rise in gas and power prices must be weighing on the minds of policy makers.
“Asian spot LNG prices will stay very firm because of the sudden jump in demand from Japan, and if Japan decides to switch off all nuclear capacity, the market for LNG will be even more tight,” said Tanaka.
Still, nuclear power is not likely to make an appearance in South East Asia for at least another decade.
“Even if governments make a decision now on nuclear, we won’t see anything happening before 2025 or 2026 at the earliest,” said Graham Taylor, head of Asia Power and Gas Research at Wood Mackenzie.
The process of getting approval from the International Atomic Energy Agency and securing qualified personnel to operate the plants will add to the timeline, apart from what it will take to actually build the infrastructure, he said.
Around 15-20 percent of the nuclear projects that are expected to come online by 2030 will be delayed due to additional safety measures being undertaken post-Fukushima, AREVA’s Ng estimates.
Additional reporting by Manash Goswami; Editing by Simon Webb and Michael Urquhart