Written by Sok Udom Deth.
As a fast developing economy, maintaining energy supplies for economic needs and consumption has been a major issue on the Cambodian government’s agenda. In the past few years, there has been a pivot from Europe to (East and South) Asia in the nuclear power industry’s growth. While 30 countries currently use nuclear power worldwide, other states are considering this option. In Southeast Asia, Vietnam had spearheaded the move to adopt nuclear energy and was scheduled to operate its first nuclear power plant in 2028 – but has recently scrapped (or put on hold) the plan because of the rising cost of the project.
Meanwhile, other Southeast Asian countries including Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia are carefully considering the use of nuclear power. In this context, should Cambodia go nuclear?
“Following the signing of the MoU agreement with Russia, the Cambodian government can lay the groundwork by engaging actively in allaying the public fear toward nuclear power through public discussion and education about the pros and cons of nuclear energy.”
Public perception toward nuclear power plants worldwide remains negative, especially after the Fukushima incident. The nuclear industry has asserted that nuclear safety has vastly improved since then, and that nuclear energy is clean (low-carbon) which can provide an essential solution to the problem of climate change. Proponents of nuclear power also claim that few serious nuclear accidents have occurred and that there have been fewer casualties in the nuclear industry than in any other major form of electricity generation.
According to the latest ASEAN Energy Outlook report (projection until 2035), demand for energy is expected to outstrip supply unless strong measures are taken to manage growth. Cambodia is no exception, where roughly two-thirds of the population have no access to electricity. As the country’s economy grows, energy consumption has risen. According to statistics from the International Energy Agency, Cambodia consumed 3,306 gigawatt-hours of electricity in 2013: a 62 percent jump from 2010. Most of the electricity consumed in Cambodia is imported. To meet the rising demand, the government has turned to Chinese-funded hydro-power dam projects, which have frequently encountered protests from local communities and criticisms from environmental groups.
While Laos has been dubbed “the battery of Southeast Asia” and may serve as a future source of energy supply in the region, it is not a long-term solution for Cambodia to rely on energy imports. Therefore Cambodia has flirted with the idea of developing nuclear power, though still at an infant stage, notably by signing a memorandum of understanding with Russia’s state-owned nuclear corporation Rosatom in May 2016. Based on the agreement, a nuclear energy information centre directed at children and students will be constructed. This is a good first step.
If Cambodia is serious about building nuclear power plants, however, it has to realise the mounting tasks ahead. Lack of financial support, manpower, and technical capability are obviously major hindrances to achieving this goal. Formal education on nuclear power is virtually non-existent, even at a tertiary level. As a result, public understanding and technical know-how on nuclear energy issues face serious shortcomings. Interestingly, there was little reaction by the general public (except among intellectuals) toward the government’s expressed intention to explore the possibility of generating nuclear power. This does not, however, translate to the absence of resistance at a later stage, especially when the location of the power plants becomes known. As such, it is important that the government engages the public to generate a better understanding about nuclear energy by conducting surveys and workshops, as well as administering an effective information centre. Meanwhile, the government should start investing in personnel development by seeking or providing scholarships for Cambodians to pursue degrees in nuclear engineering with partnering countries such as China and Russia.
While the upfront financial investment may be difficult to realise, it may be possible to adopt the BOT (Build-Operate-Transfer) scheme, whereby the construction and operation of nuclear power plants is carried out by nuclear companies for an agreed-upon timeframe. This approach raises the question of the technical capability and regulatory oversight power of the government to monitor nuclear power plants operated by foreign companies. To address this, Cambodia must work hard to engage in and learn from regional cooperation on nuclear safety and security, radioactive waste management, as well as emergency preparedness and response, particularly through the ASEAN Network of Regulatory Bodies on Atomic Energy (ASEANTOM).
Overall, the most pragmatic approach for Cambodia given the lack of resources at this point is to adopt a wait-and-see approach and learn from regional experiences. Meanwhile, following the signing of the MoU agreement with Russia, the Cambodian government can lay the groundwork by engaging actively in allaying the public fears concerning nuclear power through public discussion and education about the pros and cons of nuclear energy. “This is important because it is reported that while it would cost the Japanese government US$188 billion to decommission the Fukushima reactors, as much as $US60 billion may be needed as compensation for victims.” However, as Cambodia’s energy requirements will grow as its economy continues to expand, it is worth exploring the nuclear option in the long run. Such a strategy would need to be done with transparency and with certainty that the benefits outweigh the costs. In the more immediate future, a realistic choice for Cambodia would be to invest more in alternative forms of clean energy, especially solar power.
Dr. DETH Sok Udom is Associate Professor of International Relations and Rector of Zaman University. He is concurrently a Senior Research Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP) and an Advisory Board member of Action Aid Cambodia. Image credit: CC by IAEA Imagebank/Flickr.