It won’t take much for Vietnam to develop nuclear power

Sebastien Eskenazi

There have been some articles lately on how Vietnam will meet its growing energy needs. And I’m usually sad about Vietnam when I read them because they either support coal and gas, which cause a lot of pollution, or solar and wind farms, which take up a lot of space and need coal and gas to provide electricity, when they are anyway not work.

People who use too much space are the first environmental threat, according to WWF. And a good example of the need for coal and gas when you have too much sun or wind farms is Germany. In contrast, France produces most of its electricity from nuclear power and emits much less CO2 per megawatt hour than Germany.

A few years ago Vietnam was considering building a nuclear power plant, but unplugged it and thought it was too expensive.

However, a new generation of safer and cheaper nuclear power plants is now available. These are small modular reactors. Conventional reactors are very large, which made the manufacture of their parts a complex task.

As you get smaller, making them is easy. Since more reactors are required for the same output, you can achieve economies of scale.

All new reactors must comply with the latest design safety guidelines, which have been improved based on the knowledge gained from Fukushima.

One such reactor is the BWRX-300 from GE-Hitachi Nuclear.

It can work safely for more than a week even if everything around it is destroyed.

A 300 MW plant will cost $ 700 million.

Let’s do a little math. The peak electricity demand last summer was a record 39 GW, which corresponds to the capacity of 130 reactors.

A nuclear reactor has a lifespan of 50 years. So we should build them over a period of 50 years so that when the last one is built, the first one has to be replaced. That means roughly three reactors at a cost of $ 2.1 billion a year.

Divide that by 90 million people and you get $ 23 per person per year, or roughly VND 500,000.

Of course, there are additional costs, such as building local factories and purchasing energy storage systems, since nuclear systems do not handle fluctuations in demand very well and technology transfer is not free either.

So we can safely make an estimate of 1 million dong per person per year. Of course, not everyone can afford this sum, and so it should probably be obtained by more appropriate means such as income tax.

The price applies to systems in western countries and should be cheaper if the parts are built in Vietnam. As long as Vietnamese workers can deliver the quality, that’s why technology transfer is so important to proper training.

Cooling towers and power lines can be seen near the Golfech nuclear power plant in France.  Photo from Reuters.

Cooling towers and power lines can be seen near the Golfech nuclear power plant in France. Photo from Reuters.

Such a project would not only provide Vietnam with a carbon-free source of electricity, it would also enable the development of a nuclear industry, new training opportunities for its universities and jobs for its workers.

After all, it’s not just about building the reactors, they also have to be operated, maintained and then taken out of service. This means even more work, business and training opportunities.

Of course, we probably shouldn’t buy all the reactors at once. We could split their construction into three phases: 40 reactors over 20 years, another 40 over the next 15 years, and 50 over the last 15 years.

Given the scale of the project, it will be necessary to set up factories and train people in Vietnam. Therefore the first phase will be longer than the others and will build fewer reactors than the last.

As Vietnam’s energy demand increases, more reactors may need to be built. With three phases we can add more reactors than planned in phases 2 and 3 if necessary.

In the first phase, the technology transfer could involve the construction and operation of the plants. The second phase could deal with waste management and plant decommissioning. In the final phase, more advanced topics like design could possibly be shared or there could be some kind of partnership.

It is also important to have multiple auction phases in order not to be tied to a single supplier and to be able to benefit from future reactor improvements.

At the same time, each stage should be big enough for Vietnam to get a good financial deal.

In the end, 50 years from now, Vietnam could have its own training in nuclear engineering and industry. Probably even research.

Some might say that Vietnam’s dependence on coal is useful for the coal industry. The truth is that if you lose a low skill, low value industry that will inevitably decline, you can win a high value, high skill industry with a future, this is probably a good deal.

So who wants carbon-free, environmentally friendly, reliable and cheap electricity?

* Sébastien Eskenazi is an environmental writer, mechanical engineer and AI scientist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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