Commentary 2016/4, 4 April 2016.
Six ASEAN leaders, Jusuf Kalla of Indonesia, Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi of Malaysia, Mr Mario G Montejo of the Philippines, Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, General (R) Prayuth Chan-o-cha of Thailand and Pham Binh Minh of Viet Nam attended the Fourth Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) hosted by President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C., 31 March – 1 April 2016. (See the Communique of the NSS 2016 and the Action Plan at www.nss2016.org)
The NSS 2016 focused on nuclear terrorism, particularly ways and means of preventing terrorist groups from obtaining nuclear weapons or radioactive material which can be used in making dangerous “dirty bombs”.
ASEAN’s Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ) in 1995 to keep Southeast Asia free from nuclear weapons, also provided a legal framework for cooperation in Southeast Asia on peaceful use of nuclear energy with technical support from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
In addition, the ASEAN Network of Regulatory Bodies on Atomic Energy (ASEANTOM) was formed in 2013 to foster cooperation among its member bodies and to facilitate the exchange of information, sharing of best practices, and capacity-building on nuclear safety, nuclear security, and nuclear safeguards based on the IAEA’s standards and guidelines. ASEANTOM reports to the SEANWFZ Commission of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers.
Will these measures be sufficient to ensure radioactive materials do not fall into the wrong hands or are established and stored securely? Nuclear safety and security will soon become an important regional issue as more nuclear power plants become operational.
Viet Nam has an ambitious programme to build up to 10 nuclear power plants within the next two decades, but the construction of its first two nuclear power plants in Ninh Thuan province, 350 km northeast of Ho Chi Minh City was pushed back to 2019 in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident in March 2011.
Viet Nam is not alone in turning to nuclear power to satisfy its increasing appetite for energy. Indonesia plans to build at least five nuclear plants by the year 2050. Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand are also exploring the possibilities of introducing nuclear power into their energy mix. The fact that these states are located either inside or in close proximity to the “ring of fire” of active volcanoes and abnormal seismic activities raises the spectre of nuclear accidents. Typhoon that stuck the Philippines and Vietnam in recent years are yet another critical risk factor, as are poor maintenance culture and safety standards.
The Ninh Thuan plants will be a watershed for Southeast Asia and usher in a shift in the discussion beyond SEANWFZ. Hypothetical rhetoric on the trans-shipment of nuclear weapons across the region will be overshadowed by reality of having to deal with and manage possible nuclear accidents along the scale of Chernobyl and Fukushima. Existing mechanisms such as ASEANTOM are ill-equipped to deal with such contingencies, which will surely have regional consequences. ASEAN would soon have to put nuclear security and safety as a priority agenda and requires a regional response plan of action to handle nuclear accidents.
Termsak Chalermpalanupap is Lead Researcher, Political & Security Affairs, at the ASEAN Studies Centre (ASC), ISEAS –Yusof Ishak Institute; email: email@example.com
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