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Renaissance on Hold: Public Opinion and Nuclear Energy in Southeast Asia

Andrea Berger
Commentary, 23 September 2011
UK Project on Nuclear Issues, Proliferation and Nuclear Policy, Global Security Issues, Technology, Pacific
The Fukushima disaster earlier this year has raised many doubts about the feasibility of future nuclear energy programmes. This debate has been given greater prominence in Southeast Asia as developing states contend with the prospects of future energy shortages.

For many, the events of Fukushima placed a question mark behind assertions of renewed global interest in nuclear energy. Germany, having newly articulated its intention to phase out the country's reactors by 2022 (Atomausstieg), has rapidly become the poster child for public vexation with nuclear energy in the post-Fukushima world. An explosion in September at a Mixed Oxide Fuel production site in southern France magnified attention to nuclear safety in Europe. The effects of the Fukushima disaster have been felt far from Japan.

But they have been felt close to Japan as well. Often overlooked are the local reactions and government responses in those corners of the globe - particularly Southeast Asia - that are cited in the same breath as the supposed nuclear renaissance. In that region too, public interest in the nuclear energy industry and nuclear safety has peaked. As a result, clear pressure is being exerted on Southeast Asian governments with nuclear aspirations to spell out national energy policy in light of events in Japan. Not all have done so.

Those governments more curious than committed to the prospect of nuclear energy have stayed relatively silent. The Philippines, which is presently conducting a technical study of nuclear energy prospects, has not elaborated its intentions. The country's inactive 1970s-era reactor has been opened to the public for 'nuclear tourism'.[1] Proposals for retrofitting the plant into a coal-fired generator are under consideration, but discussion on atomic energy remains sporadic.

Singapore's interest in atomic energy is similarly in a fledgling stage. In April it acknowledged it was conducting a pre-feasibility study on nuclear power. Officials said the government wanted to better understand the risks of pursuing that energy option after Fukushima.[2]

Domestic Opinion

Thailand was the first regional state with concrete plans to succumb to calls for a nuclear re-think. The first of five 1,000 MW sites was scheduled to become operational in 2020 under the country's initial nuclear power development plan. In March, thousands took to the streets in Kalasin province to oppose the Electricity Generating Authority's planned construction of a nuclear plant there.[3] The Prime Minister - overtly opposed to nuclear power in Thailand - ordered the Energy Ministry to undertake a comprehensive review of the proposal.[4] A month later, the Energy Minister announced that construction on the first reactor would be pushed back by three years as a result of mounting public concerns following the Japanese crisis.[5] Against the backdrop of public resistance and internal divisions on the nuclear energy question, Thailand's decision could in time amount to the plan's abandonment. Efforts to expand national liquefied natural gas imports suggest the government may already be looking elsewhere to meet its electricity needs.[6] 

'Nuclear safety has become, and is likely to remain, an agenda item in public discourse not only in Europe, but in Southeast Asia as well.'

For Indonesia, Fukushima offered a staunch reminder of the vulnerability of nuclear infrastructure to natural disasters. One of the most seismically active regions globally, Indonesia has been affected by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions almost annually since 2004. Reactions of environmental groups and communities surrounding the proposed nuclear reactor in Bangka - between the islands of Sumatra and Borneo - have been acute. Proposals for another site in central Java were previously suspended when local citizens expressed concern at its proximity to a fault line. Yet despite domestic pressure, in the immediate wake of the Japanese crisis Indonesian officials claimed the country would stay on the nuclear course.

However, this too may have shifted. During his June visit to Japan, Indonesian Prime Minister Suilo Bambang Yudhoyono stated that national geological conditions render nuclear infrastructure vulnerable to damage. Jakarta should therefore 'explore ways to use other energy sources before building nuclear power plants.' Nuclear energy plans would not progress during his second term in office, he declared.[7]

Malaysia provides the freshest example of a Southeast Asian government reacting to domestic opinion. The population has recently become saturated with fears over radiation contamination from a proposed rare earth plant. The plant, operated by Australian-based Lynas Corporation Ltd, will be the largest rare earth refinery worldwide once completed this year. Its construction has been the target of nationwide protests which prompted the government to request a safety assessment from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Last month, a nine-member IAEA delegation visited the Lynas site and concluded that it met international standards. Nevertheless, 11 recommendations for improvement were outlined. The Malaysian government has publicly vowed to withhold regulatory authorisation until these are implemented. Despite IAEA approval, interest groups - namely the 'Save Malaysia, Stop Lynas' campaign - have continued to oppose the plant and the delegation's report. As a 'pro-nuclear' organisation, the IAEA was biased in its assessment, claimed one Member of Parliament. Others felt that the panel of experts did not appropriately consider the geological conditions surrounding the location.[8]  Illustrating the pervasiveness of domestic radiation concerns, the government of Pahang, where the plant will be located, now estimates that 15% of state civil servants have been influenced by the anti-Lynas movement.[9]

Broader fears of radiation contamination have borne implications for Malaysia's nuclear energy aspirations. In September it emerged that the Malaysian Nuclear Power Corporation had short-listed three international public relations firms for a project to raise national support for the government's nuclear power proposals. According to media reports, the bid aims to secure the 'mandate of the public' and make Malaysia 'nuclear-ready' by 2013 when a final decision on the site and development timeline is set to be taken. Outsourcing of the task highlights its magnitude. Widespread public concern over radiation fostered by the anti-Lynas movement and the anchoring of a large-scale regional nuclear incident in recent memory makes an opinion reversal challenging, if not insurmountable in the allotted time.

Vietnamese Indifference

However, not all would-be nuclear-capable states in Southeast Asia appear concerned. Vietnam seems to view the dwindling regional support as an opportunity to become the first nuclear state in the region. Like others on its doorstep, the country faces rapid growth in electricity demands that cannot be met by present generating capacity. 'The Japanese accident has made each country rethink its nuclear energy policy. But for Vietnam, the government has decided to go ahead and build nuclear power plants, a decision based on the long-term demand and supply outlook,' the Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister was quoted as saying during his recent trip to Japan.[10]

Last year Vietnam signed contracts with Russian and Japanese firms for the construction of its first and second nuclear reactors, respectively. Construction is set to commence in 2013, with operational capacity by 2020.[11] A bill for a nuclear cooperation agreement between the United States and Vietnam is also currently being debated in Washington. Coupled with stalled or strained nuclear development plans elsewhere, Vietnam's relentlessness effectively positions it to be the first indigenous nuclear producer in Southeast Asia.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, of the states in the region with genuine atomic power plans, the least democratic[12] is also the least inhibited by popular sentiment in the race towards operational nuclear capacity. The persistence of Vietnam notwithstanding, nuclear energy forecasts for Southeast Asia lack their pre-Fukushima strength.

Nuclear safety has become, and is likely to remain, an agenda item in public discourse not only in Europe, but in Southeast Asia as well. With key nations at the behest of uncharacteristically engaged populations, the progression of nuclear power development plans is in question. Whether governments choose to delay and hope for eventual public apathy will remain to be determined. In the interim however, energy shortages will force many in the region to turn to alternate sources. 

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI. 

NOTES

[1] 'Philippines opens Bataan nuclear plant to tourists', BBC, 25 July 2011,

[2] 'Singapore studying possible use of nuclear power', The Jakarta Post quoting AP, 11 April 2011

[3] 'Kalasin people rally against nuke plant', The Bangkok Post, 15 March 2011,

[4] 'Thailand freezes nuclear power plant plans', Eco Business citing the Business Times, 17 March 2011 <http://www.eco-business.com/news/thailand-freezes-nuclear-power-plant-pl...

[5] 'Thailand delays first nuclear power plant to 2023', Reuters, 27 April 2011,

[6] 'Thai PTT scraps Qatar LNG deal, plans expansion', Reuters, 7 September 2011,

[7][1] 'Indonesia leader in Japan sceptical of nuclear power', AFP, 17 June 2011

[8]'Cops, rain fail to douse anti-Lynas march', The Malaysian Insider, 20 May 2011, 

[9] 'Pahang civil servants warned over anti-Lynas protests', The Star Online, 8 September 2011 

[10] 'Vietnam holds on to nuclear policy to drive growth', Bangkok Post, 6 June 2011,

[11] 'Vietnam needs nuclear power', Saigon Daily, 19 August 2011,

[12] Vietnam was ranked 140 on The Economist Democracy Index for 2010, below all other ASEAN states excepting Myanmar.  See 2010 Democracy Index, Economist Intelligence Unit,

Author

Andrea Berger
Associate Fellow

Andrea Berger is an Associate Fellow at RUSI and a Senior Research Associate and Senior Program Manager at the James Martin Center... read more

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