Power installations at the Phu Lac wind farm in southern Vietnam’s Binh Thuan province, April 23, 2019. Renewable energy continue to play a significant role in Vietnam’s energy security. (Photo: Manan Vatsyayana, AFP)

Vietnam’s Energy Future: Assessing the Nuclear Option

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Vietnam has recently floated plans to revive the nuclear power option. However, Vietnam does not need to develop nuclear power at all cost. Instead, it should focus efforts on developing renewable energy and gas-fired power plants, which are safer, more affordable and less controversial.

At a conference last month, experts from the Institute of Energy, which plays a key role in the planning of power development in Vietnam, proposed to include nuclear power into Vietnam’s energy mix after 2040. Speaking at a conference on the Power Development Plan VIII (2021-2030) organised by the Ministry of Industry and Trade, the Institute said it expects nuclear power to generate 1 gigawatts (GW) of electricity for Vietnam by 2040, and 5 GW by 2045.

By the end of 2019, Vietnam’s total installed capacity of power generation was 54.88 GW, comprising coal (33.2 per cent), major hydropower dams (30.1 per cent), oil and gas (14.8 per cent), and small hydropower dams and renewables (20.3 per cent). The country aims to more than double the capacity to 130 GW by 2030. In one scenario presented at the conference, the Institute of Energy projected that Vietnam’s total installed capacity would continue to increase thereafter to reach 268 GW by 2045.

As such, if Vietnam manages to have a nuclear power capacity of 5 GW by 2045, this will account for a mere 1.9 per cent of Vietnam’s total installed capacity – not a significant base load at any rate. However, it may be seen as a stable source of energy which helps to enhance the stability of the national power system. Developing nuclear power can also be a way for the Vietnamese government to build up national capabilities in nuclear power production and technology and to symbolize its vision to turn Vietnam into an industrialised nation by 2045.

Vietnam is not the only country in Southeast Asia with the ambition to develop nuclear power. The Philippines and Indonesia are also considering to revive their plans for nuclear energy. Vietnam previously prepared to build two nuclear power plants with the total capacity of 4 GW in Ninh Thuan province, but the project was shelved in November 2016 due to various problems, including lack of funding and safety concerns.

Vietnam still has plenty of time to carefully consider the nuclear power option. However, given the problems and controversies associated with nuclear power, Vietnam does not need to pursue this option at all cost. Instead, Vietnam should focus on other alternatives, such as renewable energy and gas-fired power plants, which are safer and more affordable while less controversial.

Renewable energy is emerging as an important source of energy for Vietnam. By end 2019, Vietnam’s accumulative solar installation reached 5.5 GW, accounting for about 44 per cent of Southeast Asia’s total capacity. Wind farms, both onshore and offshore, are also booming across the country. According to GWEC Market Intelligence, Vietnam had a total installed wind power capacity of over 4.87 GW by end 2019, turning it into the second-largest wind market in Southeast Asia.

In the future, renewable energy will continue to play a significant role in Vietnam’s energy security. The Institute of Energy estimates that Vietnam’s total solar power potential is 434 GW, while that of wind energy is 377 GW. The combined total is more than enough to power Vietnam’s economic development for decades to come. By 2045, renewable energy is expected to account for 43 per cent of Vietnam’s total installed capacity. This will dwarf the 1.9 per cent contribution planned for nuclear power.

As renewable energy sources are not very stable due to changing weather conditions, more stable sources of energy are still needed. However, even in this regard, nuclear power is not the best choice for Vietnam, given its limited capacity. A cleaner, more scalable and safer source of stable power is gas-fired power plants. Currently, Vietnam is building or planning a number of liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals and gas-fired power plants, the first of which will be operational by 2026. By 2028, these plants will have a combined capacity of 10.4 GW. If all gas-fired power plants under planning are constructed, their total capacity will reach 108.5 GW.

An equally important factor that may hamper Vietnam’s nuclear power ambitions is the negative perception of nuclear power among the public, especially following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The main weakness of gas-fired power plants is that they are rather expensive while more or less dependent on imported LNG. However, compared with nuclear power, they are still safer and more financially feasible. Due to the complex nature of nuclear power plants, the Vietnamese government will likely have to bear the dual burden of being the project owner and financier of such projects. This is not the case for gas-fired power plants, which can be built and run by private or foreign investors, thus saving the government from such concerns.

An equally important factor that may hamper Vietnam’s nuclear power ambitions is the negative perception of nuclear power among the public, especially following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. In 2017, when explaining Vietnam’s decision to shelve the Ninh Thuan nuclear power project, former President Truong Tan Sang acknowledged that the Fukushima incident had generated concerns among the local populace, leading to protests against the project. In fact, not only people in Ninh Thuan were worried; citizens in other provinces where nuclear power reactors are planned also shared similar concerns. As such, if the Vietnamese government decides to pursue such projects, social and political tensions may build up, adding more challenges to its endeavour.

As Vietnam’s economy grows, its demand for energy will keep increasing. Nuclear power, while appealing in certain aspects, remains a costly and controversial option. Renewable energy and gas-fired power might well provide better answers to Vietnam’s energy challenge going out to 2045, and beyond.

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