Monday, December 17, 2007

Soaring energy needs, oil prices push SE Asia to nuclear power

16 Dec, 2007

INDONESIA: As oil prices and energy demand soar in tandem in Southeast Asia, many nations are turning to nuclear power -- to the horror of environmentalists who say it is not a safe option.

Thirsting for energy to fuel their growing economies, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam have all put in place nuclear power strategies, aiming to build the first plants by 2015 at the earliest.

Thailand's energy minister, Piyasvasti Amranand, said energy demand per capita in his country was rocketing, and with the kingdom currently importing 60 percent of its energy, new sources were needed to maintain growth.

"We have to look at nuclear, which is proven technology," he said in an interview with AFP in the run-up to key climate change talks in Indonesia.

Governments are also citing climate change as a reason for their switch to nuclear power.

Some hail it as a clean energy that will help lessen the world's dependence on the polluting fossil fuels, gas, oil and coal, which spew damaging greenhouse gasses into the air and drive global warming.

In September, US President George W. Bush said rich countries should help developing nations obtain "secure, cost-effective and proliferation-resistant nuclear power."

"Nuclear power is the one existing source of energy that can generate massive amounts of electricity without causing any air pollution or greenhouse-gas emissions," Bush said.

But green groups dismiss that argument, and the row spilled over at Bali, where environment ministers from nearly 190 nations last week grappled over a plan to tackle climate change.

"Nuclear power is neither a clean nor viable option for any of these countries," said Shailendra Yashwant, climate change head with Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

"The hazard of radioactive leaks, Chernobyl-like accidents, lack of safe waste disposal mechanisms or facility and finally the humongous costs of building a nuclear power plant make it the least attractive or viable option."

Activists from around the world staged a protest outside the Bali conference centre, urging the ministers to shun nuclear power.

"Promoting nuclear energy to countries which are exposed to extreme weather events, seismic activity and other natural catastrophes is irresponsible," said Sabine Bock, of green group Women in Europe for a Common Future.

But boundaries have recently blurred between nuclear friends and foes. A number of gurus of the environmental movement, including Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore and scientist James Lovelock, have come out in favour of nuclear power.

The potential of nuclear energy to help reduce carbon dioxide emissions was mentioned in a May report by the Nobel-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN's top scientific authority on the issue.

But the report also mentioned safety concerns, the threat of weapons proliferation and waste disposal as problems.

Energy security and oil prices are also key concerns for governments. Crude prices have more than tripled in three years, while countries across Southeast Asia are seeing breakneck economic growth.

Greenpeace's Shailendra said energy efficiency and renewable energy such as solar and wind can meet half of the world's energy needs by 2050 while cutting global carbon dioxide emissions by almost 50 percent.

Piyasvasti said that for Thailand, renewables were part of the plan but would not meet their requirement of 1,400 more megawatts of energy per year.

"I think that new projects in renewable energy (will produce) 1,400 megawatts over the next five years," he said, adding that Thailand aims to have their first nuclear plant up and running by about 2020.

Indonesia, meanwhile, said it plans to reduce its dependency on oil from 24 percent of total energy supply now to 3 percent in 2025, when it aims to generate 4 percent of energy from nuclear power.

So far, the only country in Southeast Asia that has built a nuclear power plant is the Philippines -- with chaotic results.

Its 2.3 billion dollar Bataan nuclear plant was closed in 1987 without generating one watt of electricity after it was declared unsafe and inoperable.

Shifting sceptical public opinion in favour of nuclear energy also remains a mammoth task, experts say.

"Public awareness of the nuclear risks seems to outweigh its awareness of the benefits," said Hans-Holger Rogner, of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

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