Nuclear moves up the list of Vietnam’s power mix

A looming energy shortage and surging fuel prices have made nuclear power a more attractive option, although pricing and public concern remain obstacles

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April 18, 2022
Nuclear moves up the list of Vietnam’s power mix
A man working in a coal yard in Hanoi. Vietnam is promising to phase out coal, creating demand for alternative energy sources. Photo: Nhac Nguyen/AFP

An ever-increasing amount of power is needed to fuel Vietnam’s booming export-reliant economy. But as the country promised to phase out coal and fuel prices surge, new sources of energy must be found to maintain Vietnam’s status as a global manufacturing hub. 

As a drawn out debate on what will be included in the country’s energy mix is still in progress, Vietnam’s state-run electricity company EVN is warning of an imminent power shortage. 

With temperatures reaching peak high heats in southern Vietnam, EVN is calling on citizens to save energy by setting air conditioners at “appropriate levels,” turning off electric equipment while not in use and avoiding using too many appliances at once, Reuters reported. 

Several coal-fired power plants are running low on coal, EVN explained in the late-March statement. The Covid-19 pandemic has left many of the country’s coal mines understaffed. As a result, coal shipments to thermal power plants have fallen short of contractual amounts promised by more than 1 million tonnes. With many plants running under capacity, the national power grid was short 3 gigawatts of electricity last month, equivalent to approximately 330 million lightbulbs.

The potential scarcity of electricity comes amid discussion around what will be included in Vietnam’s eighth national power development plan, or PDP8. 

Some see a turn towards nuclear energy as a long-term solution for Vietnam to meet its energy needs while reducing fossil fuels. However, building nuclear power plants in Vietnam would be an expensive and time-consuming process and public support for nuclear energy is low in the country.

A suggestion by the Ministry of Industry and Trade (MOIT) to add nuclear energy into PDP8 must be approved by the Politburo, the central committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam.

The first draft of PDP8 debuted approximately a year ago with a plan set for 2021 to 2030 and a vision to 2045, but the plans are still not finalised. Vietnam pledged in November at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, to phase out coal by 2040 and reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, meaning the amount of carbon produced will be equally offset by emission removal efforts. 

In mid-March, MOIT proposed adding nuclear energy into PDP8’s post-2030 targets. Further, ongoing plans to build a 10-megawatt nuclear research reactor seem to indicate a renewed turn towards nuclear energy in Vietnam.

Ha Hoang Hop, a visiting senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, said the looming power shortage announced by EVN and skyrocketing fuel prices could be the impetus the country needs to turn to nuclear energy. 

“This will push for the development of nuclear power plants in Vietnam,” he said. “Vietnam will have no more coal, no more gas… So it must find a way today, not tomorrow.”

Electricity workers using a long bamboo ladder to fix an electrical cable in downtown Hanoi. Photo: Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP

Vietnam is one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia. The country’s gross domestic product is expected to grow 6.5% this year, the biggest surge among ASEAN member states. Manufacturing is expected to drive the growth with exports increasing more than 14% in March compared to the same month in 2021. 

More international manufacturers are setting up shop in the country’s industrial parks and Vietnam’s leading conglomerate, Vingroup, is expanding globally. Its auto unit, VinFast, is setting up electric vehicle production in North Carolina.

With the booming development, the country’s energy demand increases between 9% to 10% yearly, said Minh Ha Duong, founder of Vietnam Initiative for the Energy Transition. 

“We need to develop generation as fast as we can afford,” he stated. “We cannot afford to reject nuclear.” 

This isn’t the first time Vietnam has mulled nuclear energy. In 2009, the government approved plans to build two nuclear power plants in southeastern Ninh Thuan Province. A collection of Japanese firms led by the private corporation Japan Atomic Power and Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy corporation Rosatom were set to build the multi-billion dollar plants.

But by 2016, the nuclear projects were brought to a halt. After a vote at Vietnam’s National Assembly to abandon the plans, officials cited rising costs and safety concerns. 

Along with the expense, the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, in which an earthquake and tsunami led to radioactive contamination at a major Japanese power plant, increased concerns around safety. 

Protests from Vietnamese people and local governments were deciding factors in scrapping the plans, Le Hong Hiep, a fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said of Vietnam’s nuclear energy plans.

But today, the status of nuclear energy is rising. The European Commission decided in February to classify nuclear power as “green energy,” the BBC reported. Although some criticised the move as ‘greenwashing,’ Hiep said nuclear energy is considered a “near clean source of energy.”

Nuclear energy is growing as an enticing solution, Hiep explained, due to a massive hike in fuel costs. Previously, gas-fired power plants were considered an alternate power source once Vietnam dropped nuclear energy plans in 2016. While not as clean as nuclear, gas-fired power plants would be cheaper and not produce as much pollution as their coal-fired counterparts.  

Now the cost is becoming prohibitive for gas-fired power plants and is nearly on par with pursuing nuclear energy, Hiep noted, adding that the country’s path towards nuclear power will be a “long story.” 

There will likely be debate among interested parties around the desirability of including nuclear in the country’s power mix. From Hiep’s perspective, discussions regarding nuclear are likely delaying the finalisation of PDP8. 

Of those in favour of boosting nuclear energy in Vietnam, Hiep pointed to hundreds of Vietnamese who went abroad to garner expertise in running the nuclear power plants in Ninh Thuan before the plans were dropped. 

“A lot of people were sent to Russia to be trained for building or running nuclear power plants and suddenly, when the National Assembly scrapped the plan, they became unemployable,” Hiep said. “They don’t have relevant jobs to do so they are still keen to have nuclear power back in the national power development plan.”

We cannot afford to reject nuclear.” 

Minh Ha Duong, founder of Vietnam Initiative for the Energy Transition

Although it is still to be determined if nuclear energy will be added to the country’s power development plan as MOIT proposed, Vietnam becoming a regional leader in energy would not be outside the norm. 

Vietnam holds the highest installed solar capacity in Southeast Asia. The country saw a 25-fold increase in solar generating capacity in 2019 and plans to introduce offshore wind power. 

While the boom has been positive for the country in amping up its renewable energy sources, Hiep said it is an open secret that corruption is rampant in the energy sector, particularly around renewables. Part of the slow rollout of PDP8 is due to trying to weed out this corruption. 

“A lot of projects were proposed by investors who don’t have any track record, the technical capabilities, [or] financial capabilities. They just won the project through connections,” he said. “Now they want to fix it. I think they cannot remove it completely, but I think they are going in the right direction. But the downside is that PDP8 will be delayed.”

Although Duong believes Vietnam staying open to nuclear energy is important, he worries the approved technologies within PDP8 could be obsolete after “planning, fighting and delaying the plan for years.” 

“For PDP8, my recommendation would be to publish it,” he said. “If I wanted to bet, I bet it will take one year.”

A visit to Moscow in November by President Nguyen Xuan Phuc included discussion of the resumption of Vietnamese nuclear energy projects as part of the future of the close bilateral ties between the countries.

Vietnam is set to build a 10-megawatt nuclear research reactor with help from Rosatom, Nikkei Asia reported. Although relations have become more complex since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Hop of ISEAS said the project development is ongoing. 

“These plans are going normally since they are not only in conjunction with the sole Russian partners,” he said. The reactor has already passed a pre-feasibility study. 

While Hop stated the project is a step in the right direction for Vietnam, since nuclear power is a clean and much-needed energy source for the country, research does not show widespread public support in Vietnam for nuclear projects.

Shirley S. Ho, a professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said nuclear power plants are plagued by NIMBY syndrome, or “not in my backyard.” Simply put, nobody wants to live next to a nuclear power plant.

Southeast Asians in Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore were surveyed in a study co-authored by Ho to gauge public support for nuclear energy in the region. Vietnamese participants were surveyed in the summer of 2018. In a ranking system from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree), Vietnam received a value of 2.25. Thailand had the lowest support at 1.52, with Indonesia the highest at 2.87.

Views on nuclear energy safety were impacted by the Fukushima disaster. The spectre of the Japanese reactor accident and low levels of trust in governments, scientists and other experts generated little positivity towards nuclear energy throughout the region. Moreover, many survey participants feared nuclear plants could cause health problems such as cancer. 

Ho and the study’s co-authors noted policymakers need greater outreach to produce a positive view of nuclear energy, something she has not observed in Vietnam.

“They really need to engage the public and enhance the level of trust,” she said. “If policymakers want to engage the public, they have to address their misconceptions.”

Yet Hop is hopeful. He said the MOIT proposal to add nuclear energy to PDP8 is being taken seriously in Vietnam and the suggested nuclear plants would be small, modern and safe. 

With the country’s need for power to keep its economic upturn on track, he believes there will be public backing for future nuclear energy projects. 

“People need power, so they welcome and support nuclear energy,” he said.

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