CHI MINH CITY - Pervasive and ongoing power
shortages represent perhaps the biggest hurdle to
sustaining Vietnam's fast economic growth and
attractiveness as a manufacturing base to foreign
investors. The country will need to add an
additional 4,600 megawatts of generating capacity
per year from now to 2016 just to keep pace with
demand, according to government estimates.
While other countries in the region
rethink their nuclear power plans in the wake of
the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed
nuclear power plants in Japan, Vietnam has stood
firm behind its ambitious designs. Vietnam plans
to build 14 nuclear reactors with Russian,
American and Japanese assistance over the next two
decades. The first, in Ninh Thuan province, is
Hanoi's decision to
pursue nuclear power dates back to the mid-1990s
when market reforms started to take root. Prime Minister
Nguyen Tan Dung has since
made industrialization by 2020 a key goal of his
economic development agenda, but drought-stricken
hydropower dams and diminishing coal supplies have
contributed to frequent power outages and put
Dung's industrialization ambitions in doubt.
Power outages are endemic across Vietnam.
Local news reports last year pointed to instances
where tourists had been stuck in hotel elevators
during electricity blackouts. Generators at luxury
resorts catering to foreigners and at other high
end businesses are also frequently overstretched.
Mattias Duehn, the European Chamber's executive
director, was quoted by Bloomberg saying "the
power cuts affect Vietnam's competitiveness and
may direct investment elsewhere."
these pressures will push the government's nuclear
plans ahead, there are concerns both at home and
abroad about Vietnam's capacity to safely manage
nuclear facilities. A shortage of technicians will
be one key issue, according to Carl Thayer, a
Vietnam expert at the Australian Defense Force
Disaster management is another.
In October last year, a bauxite mining accident in
Hungary reignited debate and criticism of plans to
establish bauxite mines in Vietnam's Central
Highlands region. The toxic red sludge had barely
reached Hungary's Danube River before many,
including several senior retired and still serving
Vietnamese officials, were calling for a
moratorium on the plans.
It's not apparent
yet that officials reacted the same way after
recent events in Japan that led to a nuclear
meltdown and raised safety concerns worldwide
about nuclear power. Indeed, the internal debate
over the costs and benefits of nuclear power have
been held behind closed doors and have had little
outlet in the local press.
nuclear disaster, state-controlled Vietnamese
newspapers have carried stories reaffirming the
government's nuclear energy development plans and
emphasized the differences between the "old"
plants in Japan and the more modern, safer
technology that would be deployed here.
This is because the local press was
reportedly told that the government's nuclear
plans are deemed a "sensitive" issue, meaning
journalists risked reprisals for straying from the
official line in their reporting. The news
blackout nonetheless stirred some panic. In March,
false reports that radioactive rain from Japan's
disaster had fallen in Hanoi sent parents rushing
to schools to collect their children.
Vuong Huu Tan, head of Vietnam's nuclear
energy institute, reaffirmed in an interview that
Japan's accident had not changed plans to build
several nuclear reactors in Vietnam. "We
understand the nature of the problem in Japan,"
said Tan. "They use the old type of reactor, built
40 years ago... the new generation of reactor has
improved on shortcomings."
He added that
the potential threats from earthquakes, tsunamis
and climate change would be factored into the
Climate change is a
particularly pressing problem, with environmental
scientists blaming it for a wide range of emerging
problems, including increased storms and inclement
weather such as drought, sea-level rises along the
country's long coastline, and salt water intrusion
into Mekong Delta areas where the majority of the
country's rice crop is grown.
International bodies, including the World
Bank, Oxfam and United Nations Development
Program, have all predicted Vietnam will be one of
the countries most affected by climate change.
That's arguably already contributing to the
country's rising power woes.
year and this have dramatically lowered levels in
hydropower dams, which account for 20% of the
country's total power supply, according to the US
Energy Information Administration. Other estimates
put that contribution as high as 40%. Meanwhile,
indigenous supplies of coal are depleting, forcing
the country to start importing power from
historical adversary China.
All of these
factors have driven the official insistence and
lack of open debate over nuclear power
development. Yet analysts warn Vietnam does not at
present have the infrastructure or expertise to
guarantee a smooth nuclear transition. Apart from
inconsistent power supplies, they note many roads
across the country remain in a parlous state and
drainage systems cannot handle heavy rains.
Across the country, accidents at oil
refineries, mines and factories are more common
than they should be, say industrial safety
experts. At the same time, Vietnam is one of the
most storm-affected countries in the region; the
Central Coast region in particular has been hit by
more and bigger typhoons in recent years.
While authorities tend to respond swiftly
to storm threats, the country's overall disaster
response mechanism is neither centralized nor
well-coordinated. For example, earthquakes are
covered by one government agency while petroleum
spills are handled by another. Nor is there a
central body or unified strategy for handling
The potential for
nuclear accidents and a haphazard government
response has already started to worry Vietnam's
non-nuclear neighbors - if not its own citizens.
An anti-nuclear rally was held outside the
Vietnamese embassy in Bangkok in April, when
protestors submitted a letter of concern that the
first plant to be built in Ninh Thuan would be
only 800 kilometers from the Thai border.
But with future economic growth and Dung's
industrial vision at stake, those concerns are
expected to fall on deaf ears.
Goonan, a pseudonym, is a Vietnam-based
Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights
reserved. Please contact us about sales,