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  Today Online 16 Jan 07
Atomic energy for a region that can't even handle haze?
Letter from Maryanne Maes

Today Online 12 Jan 07
We should heed the atom's call
The nuclear option is more feasible and viable than other energy sources
Letter from Paul Chan Poh Hoi

Today Online 10 Jan 07
Nuclear options seductive, but dangerous
Simon SC Tay and Gavin Chua Hearn Yuit

Security is high on the agenda when Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) and East Asian leaders meet tomorrow.

Fears of terrorism, it was rumoured, had led to a postponement of the meeting and the Filipino hosts have redoubled efforts to keep it safe from attacks. A Nov 23 draft document for the summit singles out the need for cooperation in counter-terrorism and a possible declaration of the Asean Convention on Counter Terrorism.

This is a timely reminder after the New Year's Eve bombings in Bangkok. Concerns also lurk over the nuclear weapon capabilities of North Korea and the reclusive regime in Myanmar.

But issues of security and terrorism are being unwittingly complicated by a related development.

As the demand for energy rises along with global oil prices and geopolitics in the Middle East remains unstable, more and more countries in Asia are looking at the option of nuclear power.

The economics of nuclear power seem favourable in the short term. Nuclear plants are calculated to currently generate power at 1.5 US cents per kilowatt-hour (2.3 Singapore cents). This is less than half of what coal and natural gas suck in.

The drive to remain competitive has led some to think that it is inevitable that South-east Asian governments will go nuclear.

Indonesia is perhaps at the forefront of this trend. The country plans a US$8 billion ($12.2 billion) investment to construct four 1,000-megawatt plants by 2016, with candidate sites on the Muria peninsula in central Java and in Gorontalo province on Sulawesi island. This plan has recently received the helping hand of Russia, South Korea and Australia and even an endorsement by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Environmentalists, however, remain unconvinced that Indonesia is prepared for nuclear power. There are concerns over possible natural disasters, given the seismic activity in Java and other parts of the country.

Moreover, there are issues of cost and waste disposal, and man-made disasters. Parts of Indonesia's main island, Java, are still affected by "mud flows" that are thought to be caused, at least in part, by nearby drilling without sufficient precautions.

Mistakes with nuclear plants have been made, after all, by the former Soviet Union, Japan and the United States, and safety concerns for plants in developing countries are real.

Another factor complicating matters in Indonesia and the region is that these nuclear plants would be prime targets for terrorist attacks. And the misuse of uranium enrichment and spent waste from the plants can lead to radiological devices known as "dirty bombs".

In this context, what Indonesia and Australia do in the coming months will be a litmus test. Australia faces a watershed moment with plans to link uranium development and exports with its own nuclear development plans. These look set to feature in Australia's coming national elections.

Australia's policies can heat or cool the nuclear ambitions of Indonesia and the region the Aussie-RI Lombok Agreement two months ago and exports of Aussie uranium to China worth A$1 billion ($1.2 billion) in the coming months being cases in point.

Given this, the nuclear power option should not be rushed.

More should be done to consider how policies for security, energy and the environment should best intersect. The recent wave of nuclear development sweeping across Asia and the Middle East makes this more urgent.

There is also the worrisome scenario of Asian nuclear proliferation, following North Korea's bomb tests, and the earlier Indian and Pakistani examples.

The risk of nuclear terrorism and weapons proliferation remains real. Researchers at the American Geophysical Union's annual meeting last month estimate that a nuclear conflict between two nations would affect three million to 17 million lives and bring about a marked cool-down of the planet with massive crop failures.

More efforts to manage risk are needed, and some have already started. These include the decision to establish a new study panel for cooperation in nuclear energy in Asia at the Seventh Ministerial Meeting Forum for Nuclear Cooperation in Asia two months ago and an inaugural regional seminar hosted by Japan and the IAEA to discuss measures against nuclear terrorism in Asia.

Asean has a strong record against nuclear weapons, in the South-east Asia Nuclear-Weapon Free Zone, which also outlines a regime to help ensure high safety and security measures for nuclear energy.

Such efforts favour regional dialogue and cooperation, with increased public awareness, rather than unilateral and hush-hush manoeuvres to hasten down the nuclear path.

East Asian governments can and must address energy needs to progress economically. But some of these efforts can attempt to be green and concurrently tackle concerns with local pollution and wider global climate change predictions.

More work is needed on alternative, clean energy. For larger countries like Indonesia and Vietnam, the issue often is also the efficiency and cost of distribution and the energy grid, and not simply its generation. Such efforts can potentially balance energy needs with security and environmental concerns.

Nuclear power can sometimes worsen the environment and increase insecurities. The greener path to energy security needs to be explored.

Simon Tay is chairman and Gavin Chua a researcher at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

Today Online 12 Jan 07
We should heed the atom's call
The nuclear option is more feasible and viable than other energy sources
Letter from Paul Chan Poh Hoi

Your front page story "The atom calls to KL, Jakarta" (Jan 6-7) makes interesting reading.

However, I don't share the experts' concerns that nuclear energy for the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) region may be too early or rather precarious at this point in time.

I find the desire of our Asean neighbours to go nuclear as an alternative energy source is the correct approach to prevent global warming and conserve their wealth for better use. We should work with them instead of worrying about the nuclear fall-out.

The explosion at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union 21 years ago did not deter the world from building more nuclear power plants. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as at December 2005, there were 443 nuclear power plants operating in the world, generating a total of 369,575 megawatts. There are 27 now under construction, and two units today still generating electricity after 42 years in service.

Heading the list is the United States with 104 reactors, followed by France with 59 and Japan with 56. The electricity generated supplies about 20 per cent of total US requirements, 78.5 per cent in France and 29.3 per cent in Japan. China has nine operating nuclear reactors with three under construction, and India has 15 with eight under construction.

The cost of building a nuclear power plant is one-time investment and the risk of nuclear accident is as remote as the few incidents so far. But the unit cost per kilowatt-hour of electricity will set the pace in view of the ever-increasing oil prices.

Compare the unit cost of electricity: Nuclear power plant--US 1.5 cents (2.3 cents); Natural Gas--US 3.8 cents and Coal--US 4.4 cents. The economic logic should prevail.

Some scientists from IAEA have pointed out that doomsayers exaggerate the effects of exposure to radiation. Figures of 9,000 to 100,000 deaths from Chernobyl-related cancers are typical.

IAEA scientists have also said that cancer caused by smoking or a polluted environment is far more common and potent than that caused by radiation from nuclear reactors.

New-generation nuclear power plants are more reliable and have better safety features to prevent accidents. With raw materials like uranium from a friendly country such as Australia or Canada, the nuclear option is more feasible and viable.

Taking care of the small quantity of nuclear wastes has never been a problem. What does it matter if the wastes are stored properly under the sea for 200 years? If new and cheaper ways of recycling the wastes are found and more uranium mines are discovered, the threat of higher fuel costs will be lessened.

The best part will be the reining in of oil prices. One day all electricity generation will come from nuclear power reactors. Every country should be encouraged to reduce harmful gas emissions; the earlier we go nuclear the better our chances to avoid the prospects of countries submerging under water.

Today Online 16 Jan 07
Atomic energy for a region that can't even handle haze?
Letter from Maryanne Maes

There are several points in Mr Paul Chan's letter "We should heed the atom's call" (Jan 12) which make a good case, but some of them cannot be adopted in the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) context.

Although developing regional nations such as Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia have the desire to go nuclear, the reality is that they are still under-developed when it comes to faithfully enacting safety regulations, apart from lacking adequate technology and manpower to follow the nuclear path.

Ten years into the haze problem, Indonesia is still not equipped with the basic fire-fighting equipment necessary. This is testament to the low level of environmental safety consciousness and weak political will.

Mr Chan also gave a few examples of some countries that rely on nuclear energy. My view is that many are not European Union (EU) nations, which tend to be more attuned to possible adverse environmental impacts of policies.

In fact, many EU countries have long started to decommission their nuclear plants and gradually ceased to build new ones, in their commitment to seek alternative sources of energy other than nuclear and fossil fuels.

Mr Chan's list of nuclear-loving countries seems to include economic powerhouses that have a history of disregarding environmental health in the name of industrialisation and higher Gross Domestic Product.

Although the risk of nuclear accidents is remote, the ramifications of having just one is devastating beyond imagination and should not be compared to the statistics of cancer caused by smoking.

It is akin to saying that the frequency of a shark attack is lower than car accidents. True, but in most cases, there aren't many survivors of shark attacks, and they would tell you they'd rather be in car accidents with a higher chance of surviving with all four limbs intact.

Lastly, Mr Chan concludes that the amount of nuclear wastes generated would be "small".

If, over a long run more countries turn to nuclear energy, there would be little available repository facilities left to meet the need of re-racking and onsite storage. It will turn into a bigger problem because of the half-life of nuclear matter.

The use of nuclear energy is seductive and cheap. But we must not let ourselves be governed by economic gains at the cost of environmental and public health. There are other feasible alternatives that are more environmentally-sustainable which we should not turn a blind eye to.

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