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Vietnam may consider nuclear energy as long-runner to ensure its energy security with a net-zero mission

by Vaibhav Saxena, Foreign Counsel

Vietnam is seeming to re-consider its nuclear plans for civil purposes in order to ensure its energy security and support its ambitions to emerge as an alternative global supply chain leader in the region. For the next 5-10 years, the country’s primary focal point remains renewables, LNG-to-power sources and smart grid, storage capacities, etc. Nuclear, on the other hand, recently witnessed the limelight with a futuristic approach to strengthen a blended mix of several power sources on the soil in the coming 15-20 years. Below is a brief analysis on where we stand and what we might expect or initiate to consider in the best interests of humanity to counter climate change concerns with a net-zero aim by 2050:

Vietnamese legal framework on atomic energy

On 3 June 2008, the Law No. 18/2008/QH12 on Atomic Energy (Law on Atomic Energy) was adopted by the National Assembly and took effect in 2009, following which the Government of Vietnam (GVN) has also passed relevant Decrees. The Law on Atomic Energy governs all activities in the field of atomic energy, including promoting activities and the assurance of safety and security for those activities. It applies to Vietnamese organisations and individuals, overseas Vietnamese individuals, and foreign individuals and international organisations that conduct activities in the field of atomic energy in Vietnam.

Under the Vietnamese laws, the current licensing system is complicated, specifically:

  • the Prime Minister isresponsible for site and feasibility study approval;
  • the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) is responsible for elaborating a master plan on atomic energy development and application, and shall take charge and cooperate with the Ministry of Health (MOH), Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD), Ministry of Industry and Trade (MOIT), relevant Ministries, ministerial agencies and the People’s Committees of provinces in organising the formulation of atomic energy development and application planning; and organise, provide guidelines and inspect the implementation of the approved atomic energy development and application planning;
  • MOIT is responsible for organising the formulation of planning for exploration, extraction, processing and use of radioactive ores, and submitting it to the Prime Minister for approval in accordance with regulations of the law on planning, law on minerals and law on atomic energy;
  • MOH is responsible for elaborating a detailed plan on radiation development and application to health care;
  • the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE)is responsible for elaborating a detailed plan on radiation development and application to meteorology, hydrology, geology, mineral and environmental protection;
  • the Ministry of Construction (MOC) shall assume the prime responsibility for elaborating a planning on radioactive waste burial and storage sites; and
  • the MARD is responsible for elaborating a detailed plan on radiation development and application to agriculture.

Complex licensing procedures involving different stakeholders could cause complication in managing the licensing system as a whole. In order to resolve this issue, the GVN earlier felt the necessity to amend the Law on Atomic Energy. However, it is also recognised that amendment on unifying regulatory activities would be feasible if the Vietnam Agency for Radiation and Nuclear Safety’s (VARANS) capacity as well as its technical support organisation were sufficiently strong.

Under the Decision No. 446/QD-TTg, dated 7 April 2010, the National Council for Nuclear Safety (NCS) was established with the functions of advising the Prime Minister on policies and measures to assure nuclear safety with the use of atomic energy in the course of operation of nuclear power plants, as well as measures to remedy particularly serious nuclear incidents; examining and evaluating safety reports of nuclear power plants and results of assessment by the radiation and nuclear safety agency; and application of atomic energy for peaceful purposes and assisting the Prime Minister in directing and addressing important and inter-agency issues concerning atomic energy.

Further, it appears that the Law on Atomic Energy has involved public opinion in the licensing process. According to Article 47 of the Law on Atomic Energy, the decision of site approval for nuclear power plants shall take into account the resolution of the provincial People’s Council of the province where the nuclear power plant is planned to be located, stating local people’s opinions/views on measures to assure safety and security, policies on investment in technical infrastructure construction, and development of culture, education and social welfare in order to ensure the harmonisation of the interests of the State, the investors and local people’s benefits.

Otherwise, in order to prevent the operation of a nuclear installation without a valid
license, the Law on Atomic Energy strictly prohibits the operation of radiation facilities, radiation activities or nuclear installations without a valid license.

International commitments

With the acknowledgement of the importance of international cooperation, especially the contribution of international regimes, in achieving and maintaining a high level of safety, Vietnam has been a party to a number of international instruments, including:

  • The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (1982);
  • The Convention on Early Notification of Nuclear Accident (1987);
  • The Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological
    Emergency (CACNARE) – (1987);
  • The Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (CSA) – (1990);
  • The Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty(SEANWFZ Treaty) – (1997);
  • The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) – (2006);
  • Regional Cooperative Agreements for Research, Development and Training Related to Nuclear Science and Technology for Asia and the Pacific (RCA) – (First established in 1972)
  • The Additional Protocol to the Safeguards Agreement (AP) – (2007)
  • The Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS) – (2010).
  • The Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear material and its Amendment (CPPNM) -(2012);
  • The Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety
    of Radioactive Waste Management – (2013);
  • The International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism –
  • The Vienna Convention on Liability for Nuclear Damage and its Protocols (2016-2017).

Shortcomings and way ahead

Vietnam became a contracting party to the CNS on 15 July 2010. By definition in the said convention, Vietnam has no nuclear installations. However, Vietnam has a research reactor of 500 kW (DNRR), located in the City of Da Lat, Lam Dong Province, which has operated since 1983. For safety and security purposes, several projects have been recently implemented, including HEU-LEU core conversion and I&C upgrade, under the supervision of VARANS through assessing SAR submitted for licensing and verifying during inspection activities. The ageing issue is adequately monitored and addressed.

In 2009 Vietnam had prepared to build the first two nuclear power plants (NPPs) in Ninh Thuan Province, with a total capacity of 4,000MWe, to address its increasing demand for energy. Site study and on-site investigation activities were performed at both NPP no.1 and NPP no.2. While conducting study and investigation activities, the NCS and
VARANS sent experts to the sites. Recommendations and questions were raised to improve the results of site investigations.

However, the development and completion of a legal document on nuclear safety is a challenge as nuclear safety is a rather newbie for Vietnam while there is a shortage of human resources in the fields of physics, nuclear technology, hydrothermal, materials and others, but it can be a future feasible option for the GVN to consider from an environmental perspective with the zero carbon energy source.

In November 2016, the National Assembly of Vietnam halted the country’s nuclear plans until further guidance. By then, nearly VND2,000 billion (US$86m) had been spent on project preparations.

With international support, Vietnam launched 20 national and 48 regional or inter-regional projects funded by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) during 2014-2019. For the 2020-2021 period, five new projects got approval from the IAEA. 

In late 2018, the Vietnam Atomic Energy Institute (VinAtom) and the IAEA inked an agreement on setting up a cooperation centre using nuclear technology for the management of water resources and the environment in Vietnam and coastal areas in Southeast Asia. 

As noted above, the GVN recognised the necessity to amend the Law on Atomic Energy, especially in connection with the independence of the regulatory body (ideally to be a single window with an organised institutional structure), nuclear power plants licensing issues, and emergency response, etc.

Positive signals (under consideration):

Recently, Vietnam’s National Assembly Economic Committee has proposed that the GVN should remain committed to plans for two NPPs in the central province of Ninh Thuan, instead of scrapping the project, for the sake of its future development potential. The proposal was included in its report to the plenary of the third session of the 15th National Assembly, with regards to the implementation of a 2016 resolution on halting investment for the first planned nuclear project for 2016-21.

The economic committee stressed that nuclear power should be a serious consideration in Vietnam’s power development planning to realise the country’s recent commitment in achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), and to ensure national energy security and development that is independent and self-reliant, with diversified power sources.

Vietnam now looks at nuclear power as an ongoing inevitable trend globally. The nation will boost development of renewable energy (including battery storage and smart grid solutions in the coming time) surely to become carbon neutral by 2050, and add LNG, or maybe hydrogen-based capacities, to support its power generation mix. In addition, we may see development of other zero carbon stable energy sources, like nuclear energy to support the industrial revolution 4.0 in the long run.

It is evident from the journey of other nuclear players in Asia that the major hurdle in any embarking country related to nuclear power development remains the lack of factual knowledge and awareness regarding civil nuclear power use. It is true that every technology comes with risks, however, nuclear material, if used for the right purpose, can benefit the country as well as world-at-large by sustaining the environment with the most stable, independent and green source of energy that mankind had ever invented. Climate change concerns are grave considerations for the survival of human existence with the escalating issues alarmed by the global warning signs.

The world is in dire need to counter such material concerns to ensure a sustainable planet Earth for our future generations. Nuclear fission had seen tremendous success in North America, Europe and Asia, and research on fusion technologies is ongoing. New tech, like small modular reactors (SMRs), are yet to be tested largely and could be a future consideration for the countries that lack land-area to support big nuclear facilities.

Based on my experiences working in different countries and specialising in the energy industry, I think that from a legal and industry standpoint Vietnam may consider nuclear energy as a long-runner to ensure its energy security with a net-zero mission, and focus on certain key issues to realise its nuclear dream, such as: having an independent regulatory body, unification in licensing procedures, emergency response and preparedness, and building a strong legal framework from key aspects that include nuclear safety, security, safeguards and liability.

Various energy sources shall be a comfortable fit for Vietnam to enrich FDI in the coming years.