Nuclear power in Vietnam: challenges and alternatives

 

This article provides information regarding different issues which need to be carefully considered in various steps of nuclear power development, from the planning phase to the dismantling and waste treatment. It is based on scientific information and experiences from Germany, Japan and South Africa.

Recommendations proposed here are consolidated from existing research, a recent study-tour in Germany and two workshops on “Nuclear power development in Vietnam and worldwide”, organised in Hanoi in early October 2016 with different stakeholders, including members of Vietnam’s National Assembly, representatives of line ministries and experts.

Nuclear governance

As nuclear power is one of the most dangerous technologies ever invented, the strictest possible safety laws have to be adopted, and regularly updated, in order to prevent accidents. Beside the two “meltdowns” in Chernobyl and Fukushima, more than 30 accidents have been categorised according to the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES), and countless smaller accidents have not been recorded internationally.

Laws and regulations regulating security concerns have to be adopted before the concrete planning phase of nuclear power plants begins. They need to cover the whole nuclear life-cycle, including a comprehensive plan for nuclear waste storage. Special attention needs to be paid to policy coherency, i.e. consistency with other relevant laws.

A clear division of tasks is crucial to avoid overlaps and loopholes in decision-making processes. This division of tasks needs to be clear for the operation of nuclear sites (plants, transport ways, and waste storage) and a clear chain of command is especially important in case of accidents.

Decision-making

All major decisions need to be taken by an independent regulatory authority, whose utmost concern is security, not the promotion of nuclear power. An authority which is interested in its own economic benefit or in research, and therefore promotes nuclear power, is likely to underestimate costs and risks, and to overestimate the benefits of nuclear energy, as many international examples show.

Transparency by government in relation to the wider public is crucial, while citizens living close to nuclear facilities have to be informed continuously, and should ideally be involved in decision-making procedures. As many international examples show, if state agencies do not disclose all relevant information regarding nuclear power to the wider public, the trust in those institutions can easily be jeopardised.

Special attention has to be paid to information campaigns for citizens living close to nuclear power plants, nuclear waste storage, and transport routes of nuclear fuel and waste. They need to be informed about potential risks, and about emergency plans. In order to increase the trust of those citizens, participatory decision making models have proven successful.

Funding

Before nuclear power production is considered, sufficient funds have to be secured by the state as well as by private energy providers. Usually, the state will finance all necessary agencies involved in the political oversight of, as well as the planning, maintenance, and control of all nuclear sites (i.e. also the exploration of nuclear waste sites). The energy provider should – from the beginning of operations onwards – set aside funds to cover the full life cycle costs of nuclear power, including the dismantling of the power plants, and the transportation and storage of nuclear waste over centuries.

Those funds need to be secured in case of the possible insolvency of the energy provider. Whether the state, the energy provider, or both cover the interest payments on international credits for the construction of the plants, the training of staff, the information and emergency planning for the public, and of insurances and compensation schemes in case of accidents has to be clarified before a decision for or against nuclear power production is taken on a political level.

Even if all those national governance measures are in place, nuclear power means a dependency on foreign countries for many decades. Countries like Vietnam, which will not control the whole value chain of nuclear power production by itself, will always be depend on foreign investors in order to receive and reprocess nuclear fuel, or to educate staff members working in the nuclear power plants.

Social and environmental impacts

Strategic impact assessments on a policy making level to consider the social and environmental impacts of the whole life-cycle of nuclear power (including power plants, waste storage sites, and transport ways shall be conducted to decide whether nuclear power should be introduced or not. In case of a decision in favour of nuclear energy, comprehensive environmental and social impact assessment and feasibility studies for each project site, including meaningful public consultation, should be carried out.

These assessments must include the baseline study on health and environment. The impact on local economy is a crucial aspect of social impact. The negative impact on existing local industry and impact due to resettlement should be also assessed. A transparent social and environmental impact management plan should be disclosed for the public in advance and enforced during the whole life-cycle of a nuclear power plant.

Rigid safety standards should be implemented

Safety checks by an independent nuclear regulatory authority should continuously be conducted to prevent accidents. Health check-ups for workers and communities should be also mandatory.

Furthermore, continuous monitoring of the impact on the surrounding environment and radiation level is needed. The monitoring information should be accessible to citizens to ensure transparency and safety.

Strict safety standards should also be applied to the selection of reactor types – incorporating the principles of multiple barriers, diversification and redundancies for all parts of the building – and other construction work.

All nuclear facilities need to be secured against possible terrorist attacks. There is the dual risk of international terrorist networks stealing radioactive materials (possibly also from waste storage or during transport), and using it for so called “dirty bombs”; and terrorists trying to destroy a nuclear power plant, for example by crashing an aeroplane into a reactor. In fact, not even the very solid German nuclear power plants could withstand an attack by aeroplanes.

Training

Because staff at nuclear power plants have to be very well trained, very few local residents are usually able to work there. Even in countries with a very high academic education level, the training of staff for nuclear power plants takes several years, because of high safety standards.

This is after training facilities (simulators, research reactors, etc.,) have been created and trainers have been trained. If staff members are to be trained abroad, for example in Russia and Japan, difficulties could result because of the different languages and training styles in both countries. It should also be clarified when foreign investors will pull out, and hand over operations to local staff only.

Preparation for accidents, including the emergency plans, evacuation plans, and radiation protection schemes for victims should be approved, and made public, beforehand. There should be emergency plans including back-up solutions for loss of energy (also to prevent severe accidents in other power plants, if a nuclear plant suddenly goes off the grid), as well as radiation protection plans.

Specialised staff outside the nuclear facilities (such as specialised nurses or firefighters) need to be trained, and emergency equipment, such as iodine tablets, have to be stored, and regularly replaced. Staffs and local communities must engage in evacuation drills and evacuation plans should be effectively communicated to the local people.

These plans should reflect a thorough review of the previous accidents including Fukushima and Chernobyl. Continuous monitoring of the health of the affected citizens and environment after the accident is needed.

After severe accidents, sufficient funds for adequate compensation and for clean-up need to be secured. Once an accident happens, it would affect not only the nearby communities or workers but also wider economic activities, public health and the ecosystem.

Beside the funds needed for fixing the accident, covering the extra costs for power production (possibly by imports), and for decontamination, compensation schemes have to be set up to cover the costs associated with compensation for staff members of the power plant; citizens losing their livelihood, relocation, health checks and treatment (including future generations), the loss/severe injury of family members, as well as for affected industries which have to limit or stop production as a result of the accident.

Throughout the entire process of a nuclear power installation, people’s rights to information must be ensured and a grievance system should be created. At any stage, the safety of people and the environment must be prioritised.

Life-cycle costs

Nuclear energy requires a very large financial commitment by the state, creating financial burdens instead of benefits, if the whole lifecycle is taken into account. Many countries chose to invest in nuclear power, not for economic reasons, but for prestige or energy security. Accordingly, nuclear power production is heavily subsidised by the state1.

Countries which cannot create the whole value chain of nuclear production (development of plant technology, construction of reactors, training staff, production and reprocessing of fuel, etc.) will have even less economic benefits, and become more dependent on foreign support2.

But even technologically advanced countries such as the US or Germany, which tried to establish the whole value chain, greatly underestimated the lifecycle costs of nuclear energy, and are now confronted with huge financial burdens.

Overnight costs

The so-called “overnight costs” were underestimated, and other life-cycle costs were not taken into account. Reactor vendor companies only quote the overnight cost as the price of their reactors. Overnight costs include only what are called EPC costs, for engineering, procurement and construction, added to “owner’s costs” comprised of land, licencing, testing, training, and project management.

Overnight costs are essentially the costs spent up to the time of switching on the reactor: preparing the land, undertaking the construction and training the workforce. The two reactors being built in the UK by EDF with Chinese finance at Hinkley Point C are estimated to have a full cost of US$57-billion, of which construction accounts for $22,3-billion and finance at least $8-billion. Here, the estimated full costs are 255% more than the construction costs.

It should be noted that the nuclear construction industry is well known for cost overruns, and extension of time for construction. There are large differences in cost between the original and final quotes. For example, Areva/Siemens is building a nuclear power plant at Olkiluoto in Finland. Construction began in 2005, but the project is still under construction and is now running nine years overdue.

The cost began at $3,6-billion but is now estimated to be $9,5-billion. Currently the clients are in a $11-billion legal battle challenging the cost and time overruns. The example of Olkiluoto is typical of the nuclear industry.

In order to quote low overnight costs, vendor companies often offer comparatively cheaper models of nuclear reactors, thereby compromising security concerns, as underestimating future investment costs. Cheaper reactor models often do not fulfil the safety standards regarding multiple barriers, diversification, and redundancies mentioned above.

In addition to that, newer reactor types could generate energy for a period of more than 60 years – however, the older a reactor gets, the more often it must be taken off the grid for maintenance, and to be modernised in order to fulfil the latest (national or international) safety and environmental standards.

Because the reactors usually have to be shut down for several months during those periods, it is often more economical to shut down reactors permanently after a couple of decades. Reactor models with comparatively lower construction costs often turn out to be more expensive in the long run, because of higher maintenance and modernisation costs.

Overnight costs typically do not include twelve categories of lifecycle costs, which have to be covered by the state budget, and collected from energy consumers or tax payers. As mentioned in earlier, it is advisable to oblige the private energy providers to set up funds to cover at least a part of these costs by law.

  • Costs for establishing a policy framework: This includes costs ranging from setting up independent control agencies on a national level to specialised auditors working on the ground, as mentioned earlier.
  • Costs for financing the project: These are international loans and interest repayments. Most countries exporting nuclear technology (such as France, Japan or Russia) are currently facing economic difficulties, and are therefore unlikely to grant financially beneficial contracts for client countries. Apart from that, it should be highlighted that there are international loans for the construction of reactors, but no international loans for dismantling or waste storage, which could exceed the construction costs.
  • Costs for buying the nuclear fuel: Especially in this regard, Vietnam will always be dependent on the prices set by the global market. The contracts should regulate which country will cover the costs for transportation of the fuel to Vietnam, including all necessary safety measures for the transport.
  • Costs for operating the reactor for its lifetime: This includes the cost for technical equipment, as well as for human resources. The investment contract should clearly regulate whether any of those costs are covered by the investor, and if so, for what time span.
  • Costs for maintenance: As indicated above, all reactor types regularly, have to be taken off the grid for several months, and energy security for the country has to be secured by other means.
  • Costs for training specialised personnel: Staff at the reactor other nuclear facilities (waste storage, etc.,) need to be trained. As mentioned earlier, only highly skilled personnel, who, at least for the first decade, will have to be trained abroad, will be able to work in those facilities.
  • Costs for emergency preparedness and for informing the public: This includes costs for training specialised personnel for emergency situations, and for developing emergency plans, as well as for informing the public and local decision makers, as mentioned in part two. Those costs will arise at all nuclear sites (reactors, waste storage, and all transport routes for radioactive material).
  • Costs for insurance against possible accidents: However, no insurance company worldwide will fully cover the costs arising from accidents, and for the compensation costs listed in part two.
  • Costs for securing all nuclear sites against terrorist activities: Those are costs for policing and safeguarding all nuclear material against theft, and for securing all facilities against possible attacks (which is, however, not even fully technically feasible for most reactors today).
  • Costs for the decommissioning of reactors: These are typically equivalent to the construction costs. Unlike parts from a wind turbine or from a coal power plants, most parts of nuclear reactors are radioactive, and cannot be sold or recycled, but have to be dismantled very carefully (often by robots, as it would be too dangerous for humans), and stored as nuclear waste.
  • Costs for transporting radioactive materials to waste storage: Nuclear waste has to be transported in appropriate secure containers, for which the necessary infrastructure (safe roads or railways) have to be in place.
  • Costs for storing nuclear waste: Nuclear waste must be securely stored for more than 244 000 years3. Internationally, no long term storage for high-level nuclear waste has been found. There is some waste storage solution for low- and medium level-waste, which, however, are in most cases far more costly than previously estimated. Even the low-level wastes have to be insulated from the environment for hundreds of years.

All these costs will be incurred during the safe operation of a reactor, i.e. there will be considerably higher costs in case of severe accidents. If there are accidents or damaging incidents, the costs of clean-up will be considerable. Estimates given for the costs of clean-up of the Fukushima accident are currently about US$131-billion.

Against this background, is it impossible to calculate a realistic price for a kWh of nuclear energy today; this is only possible after the last power plant has been shut down (to see whether any severe accidents occurred), and after radiation of nuclear material has ceased (after up to 244 000 years).

This is a very different calculation from the costs for running coal-fired power plants (although, also here, the costs for social and environmental impacts, and costs arising from climate change can only be roughly estimated). The costs for renewables, which do not leave any costly waste, and where building materials (such as concrete and metals), can be easily recycled, are far easier to predict.

Alternatives to nuclear power

It is time to consider alternative energy solutions. What energy source would be the best alternative for nuclear power?

  • The new generation of nuclear power plants is not an alternative: Some nuclear energy experts affirm that the new generations of reactors (3+ and 4) are safer and can solve the shortcoming of old generations (1, 2 and 3). However, the construction of generation 3+ reactors has been considerably delayed due to unforeseen technical challenges in Finland and France. And up to now, there is no Generation 4 reactor connected to the grid, and this technology will be available in the 2030s at the earliest.
  • Coal power should not be a solution: Coal mining and coal burning cause severe environmental impacts, comprising water, soil and air pollution, which negatively affect the livelihoods and health of people4, the economy, and ecosystems. An increase in coal power production will also result in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, which is a severe problem for countries most vulnerable to climate change5. In addition to that, reliance on imported coal will also create dependencies, and threaten energy security.

Considering the disadvantages of both coal and nuclear power production, the cheapest and most sustainable kWh is always the one that does not need to be produced. So accelerating energy saving and energy efficiency should be the first and easiest measure to replace nuclear power in Vietnam.

Recent studies show that Vietnam has great potential for energy saving and energy efficiency. At the same time, the energy demand forecast has proven to be too high.

Therefore, realistic demand projection is required to avoid wasting investment on building new power plants and environmental loss. According to recent studies6, it is possible to reduce 208-billion kWh in 2030 thanks to energy efficiency measures combining with realistic power demand forecast.

These demand side management measures may help to reduce the need for installing of new power plants but still fully meet the energy demand in 2030. The total estimated capacity reduction may be ranging from 30 000 to 42 000 MW while the share of nuclear power will be only 4600 MW in 2030.

Applying energy efficiency solutions could have the potential to save $45- to 50-billion from investing in building new power plants.

In addition, restructuring the growth model towards low carbon development would also contribute significant added value for the success of energy efficiency solutions.

Last but not least, renewable energy (RE) is the best new energy technology for Vietnam. Because of technical feasibility, economical benefit and available finance, there has been a boom of global RE production in recent years.

Compared with both coal and nuclear power, RE has the following nine advantages for Vietnam:

  • Because of high RE potential especially for solar, biomass, and wind energy with an average capacity of 37 818 MW7, which is almost similar to the current capacity of the power system, Vietnam could become independent from energy imports and could ensure national energy security even when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine but batteries have improved.
  • RE is an innovative technology with very low risks of accidents.
  • There is very little negative impact on the environment, and on people’s livelihoods.
  • Because of its simplicity, renewable energy creates more jobs for people with lower education level from the rural areas as well as jobs in managing RE, possibly also in RE industrial production, installation and maintenance. For example, in Germany, many sustainable jobs were created in the RE sector with 380 000 against 38 000 in nuclear the sector since 2000.
  • Being a less complicated technology, renewables can be linked to the grid much faster than coal and nuclear energy, as its construction time is within about two years only.
  • This development can create local value chains and bring possibilities to develop rural areas which is in line with government efforts to achieve new rural development and Green Growth.
  • It is recognised in other countries that more investment from the private sector will invest in renewables with the right policy incentives, while for nuclear power, considerable state subsidies have to be granted on a long-term basis.
  • Rapid reductions in costs for solar (LCOE of 1 kWh solar power reduced by about 60% since 2008 and it is only $0,03 in a recent project in Dubai8) and wind energy that we have seen globally enable us to redirect our investments towards renewable energy sources.
  • RE is an effective mitigation solution to cut down carbon emissions. In sum, having multiple benefits for the economy, environment and people, this clean energy source just needs stronger political will to take off.

Conclusion

The disadvantages of nuclear power clearly outweigh its advantages – especially because some often-cited advantages do not hold true. A clear advantage of nuclear power is its high capacity to produce electricity in a relatively small area (if one does not take the space for waste storage into account). Nevertheless, in addition to the disadvantages described above, nuclear power does not have the advantages its proponents often emphasise.

An increase in nuclear energy production cannot mitigate climate change. Because the construction of nuclear power plants takes many years (about 10 years or more), and the time span to limit global temperature increase to 1,5°C is very limited, a drastic increase of nuclear energy production would simply come too late.

According to studies by the International Energy Agency (IAE), nuclear power could only contribute 6% of the necessary mitigation measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions until 2050.

Nuclear power does not provide energy security. Due to its complex technical features, nuclear power plants are susceptible to faults and errors. Even if no incidents occur over a longer period, the reactors regularly have to be shut down for maintenance, or to be partly reconstructed in order to abide by new security regulations. During those shutdowns, which can last for several months, the stability of the grid has to be secured and alternative power generated.

Nuclear power is not a source of technological innovation. Very little innovation in the field of science and technology has come from research into nuclear power. On the contrary, expenses for nuclear power production and research could have been used in far more productive fields of science.

In addition to the many disadvantages of nuclear power, its necessity seems questionable. The decision of many countries (such as South Africa and Germany) to start nuclear power production was based on high estimates of future energy needs, which later turned out to be exaggerated, because the increasing potential for energy efficiency and energy savings had not been taken into account.

In the case of Vietnam, the need for nuclear energy production has been considerably reduced in the revised version of recent power development planning (revised PDP VII). However, nuclear power is a “take it or leave it” decision: Even if only one nuclear power plant is built, all institutional and infrastructural measures mentioned above will have to be provided.

Against this background, the question should be raised whether nuclear energy production really pays off particularly when it will only generate such a small percentage of the country’s electricity needs.

Notes

1. Even in countries where there is private generation of nuclear energy, such as the USA, the private companies will only invest if they have considerable state subsidies. Without such subsidies, for example, there has been very little new building of nuclear reactors in the US since the late 1970s. In Germany, the state invested €15-billion to promote nuclear energy production (excluding costs for dismantling and waste storage). And in the UK, a feed-in tariff for nuclear power coming from the planned reactor in Hinkley Point has been guaranteed for 35 years, which exceeds today’s market-based tariff for wind power in the UK.

2. It is clear that Vietnam cannot create the whole value chain within its borders, due to IAEA regulations especially regarding the reprocessing of nuclear fuel, even if there was sufficient technological and human capacity to do so.

3. This is the number of years that it is estimated that the plutonium in the spent fuel takes to lose its radioactivity. As a comparison: Homo sapiens developed around 150 000 years ago, agriculture was developed around 12 000 years ago, and the first cities were built around 7000 years ago.

4. Harvard study in 2015 predicted that premature deaths per year caused by air pollutants from coal power plants in 2011 was 4300 people and this number will increase five times by 2030

5. Economic damages due to climate change induced by coal are from $1,2-billion in 2011 to $9-billion in 2030 according to power development planning No 7.

6. GreenID and WWF studies 2015-2016 on sustainable energy development for Vietnam

7. Nguyen Quoc Khanh, 2015

8. Vietnam Renewable Energy Strategy

Contact Nguy Thi Khanh, Green ID, ntkhanh@greenidvietnam.org.vn

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