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Nuclear Power in Vietnam: Unpacked 2024

During Vladimir Putin’s brief two-day visit to Hanoi last week, the Russian president oversaw the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Russia’s Rosatom State Nuclear Energy Corporation and Vietnam’s Ministry of Science and Technology. If realised, this agreement would see the former assist the latter to establish a Nuclear Science and Technology Center in Vietnam with a Russian nuclear reactor.

This looks to be one part of a renewed push for nuclear power in Vietnam (and, on a side note, a reminder to the world that Russia knows nuclear), with Vietnam’s Prime Minister telling the Russians that Vietnam would consider nuclear energy as a means of meeting the net-zero 2050 commitment it made at COP26. 

This is in line with the need for more low-emissions power in Vietnam becoming very apparent of late, with power shortages last year leading to a spike in coal use this year–an estimated 64.6 percent of Vietnam’s electricity came from burning coal in April whereas last year, on average, it accounted for just 46 percent of Vietnam’s electricity mix.

But is nuclear power really a plausible solution to this problem?

Firstly, this is not a new concept. In fact, the idea of building nuclear power plants in Vietnam was floated as far back as 1995. This was followed by the Strategy for Applying Atomic Energy for Peaceful Purposes approved in 2006 which included the goal of having a nuclear power plant online by 2020.

Not long thereafter, plans emerged for two nuclear power plants in southern Vietnam in Ninh Thuan and Khanh Hoa provinces, work on which, it was reported, began in December of 2011. These projects were, however, shelved in 2016 in favour of gas and coal on the back of lower demand projections. The point being that some of the groundwork has already been done.

But it’s getting these plans legislated a second time around that could trip this process up.

The Power Development Plan 8–or the PDP8 for short–which covers Vietnam’s power development from 2021 to 2030 was not approved until May of 2023. This was two years past its start date. Its implementation plan, which lists the specific projects that will be developed, was even later than that issued in April of 2024. Neither of these options lists nuclear power for large-scale power generation which means the earliest it could feature in Vietnam’s power planning would be in the PDP9. This would not be implemented until 2031, that is, of course, if it is delivered on time.

For contrast, Australia, a developed economy, is currently debating the merits of moving to a nuclear-powered economy, but by most estimates, starting from a base of zero, the earliest it could be done would be somewhere in the vicinity of 2045.

On a side note, speaking of Australia, Vietnam and the Land Downunder have developed a relatively good trading relationship over the years, and Australia has among the world’s biggest reserves of uranium. If Vietnam were to go ahead with nuclear power, a supply of cheap, raw materials would likely be made readily available.

That said, there are some pretty big risks working with nuclear materials and Vietnam is not known for its occupational health and safety regime.

Specifically, an International Labour Organisation estimate from 2010 put the number of workplace deaths in Vietnam at 13,000 a year. This data is somewhat dated to be sure, but a quick glance at the streets of Hanoi and the way local drivers drive would suggest health and safety are still not that much of a concern among the general population.

The point here is that when nuclear power goes wrong it can have really long-lasting and wide-ranging impacts and, in this light, it needs to be handled with care, safety precautions need to be followed, and staff need to be well trained–the aforementioned occupational health and safety data would suggest this could be a problem.

On that note, however, Vietnam does already have some human resources with experience working with nuclear reactors, specifically, a small reactor operating in Dalat.

Built by the US in 1963 it was dismantled during the Vietnam War only to be renovated with the support of Russia in the 1980s. This reactor is part of the Dalat Nuclear Power Institute which does appear to do quite a lot of valid research with 33 papers published in international science publications last year alone–in terms of human resources Vietnam would not be beginning from a standing start.

But perhaps the biggest issue when it comes to nuclear power in Vietnam is the cost.

Nuclear power can be very expensive and in many cases more expensive than renewable alternatives like wind and solar. Asset management firm Lazard reported in its Levelized Cost of Energy Report 2024 that the cost of nuclear power in the US was between US$142 and US$222 per kilowatt-hour. With the exception of rooftop solar, the highest cost of all other forms of renewables in the report came in under the highest cost of nuclear.

Furthermore, Vietnam has among the highest installed capacity of solar and wind power in Southeast Asia, too. This equates to experience in both building, operating, and financing these facilities and this could make renewables a much simpler and cheaper alternative.

So where does that leave it?

All things considered, nuclear power as a means of mitigating Vietnam’s low-emissions energy deficiency and meeting its low-emissions energy goals, is not entirely unrealistic. It would, however, likely take a long time to become a reality and Vietnam needs more low-emissions power now. In this light, renewables look to be a much more viable alternative.

That said, renewables are also facing their own unique set of challenges in Vietnam, offshore wind in particular–See: Vietnam’s Offshore Wind Power Holdup: Unpacked.

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