HANOI — An agreement signed between the United States and Vietnam earlier this month could allow U.S. companies to sell nuclear technology to Vietnam. The deal still needs to be ratified by the U.S. Congress, but the agreement has nonetheless put what some critics say are Vietnam’s overly ambitious nuclear power plans in the spotlight.
On October 10, Secretary of State John Kerry signed a civil cooperation agreement with Vietnam’s Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific leaders summit in Brunei.
The so-called 123 Agreement will allow U.S. companies to export nuclear equipment to Vietnam and take advantage of the country’s potential nuclear power market, which is expected to grow from $10 billion currently to $50 billion by the end of 2030.
Despite having its own sources of coal, oil and hydropower, energy analysts predict Vietnam will have to import energy as soon as 2015 to maintain its rapidly growing economy. In anticipation of the problem, the government has announced ambitious plans to build as many as 13 nuclear power plants over the next 20 years. Deals have already been made with Russia and Japan.
Murray Hiebert, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, thinks these nuclear projects require long-term investments and relationships. However, he says, the U.S. nuclear deal does not appear to be solely about U.S. economic interests.
“I think there are two things that are at work here, one is potentially the economics and the jobs, the other is the U.S. has moved quite quickly to improve relations with Vietnam. We’ve had President Sang visiting here in July... [and] Vietnam is part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership along with the U.S. and 10 other countries,” said Hiebert.
Not everyone is happy about the plans to build a nuclear energy industry in Vietnam.
The country is on a seismic fault line and has a long coastline. In 2011, a study by an Italian research institution suggested the site planned for the first reactor, in Ninh Thuan province, could be especially vulnerable to earthquake-generated tsunamis.
So far, only a few critics have voiced their concerns, but Hiebert says this number could grow with time.
“Does it eventually lead to opposition in Vietnam like we had to the Chinese-invested bauxite mine or to the high speed rail link between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City? I really don’t know, but I suspect as Vietnam gets closer to developing nuclear reactors that there will be more questioning among the environmental groups and others,” said Hiebert.
Some experts within the country have raised concerns that the government’s plans are too ambitious. One of them is Pham Duy Hien, a former director of the Dalat Nuclear Research Institute, which houses Vietnam’s nuclear research reactor.
Hien says there are reports that plans to start building two Russian-funded reactors have been delayed, but so far there is no official confirmation. He says they have to be delayed because not enough groundwork has been done.
Hien points out that although Vietnam does need energy, it does not need it so badly that it must rush to get a plant ready by 2020.
Crucially, the proposed U.S. deal prohibits Vietnam from enriching or reprocessing plutonium or uranium while developing nuclear energy.
That is aimed at preventing Vietnam from developing nuclear weapons, but regional defense expert Professor Carl Thayer from the University of New South Wales in Australia says he thinks such nuclear proliferation concerns are minimal.
“It would make perfect sense if major powers are against you to blackmail or threaten with nuclear weapons… You could tell China, ‘yes you can kill us or defeat us but we’ll destroy Shanghai’, but I don’t see that.”
Thayer said the signing of the 123 Agreement is an indication of strategic trust between the countries and any backtracking on Vietnam’s part would be too risky.
Although it’s impossible to say for sure whether the U.S. Congress will ratify the deal, as long as nuclear power is handled in a safe way and used only for civilian purposes, Hiebert says he believes the Obama administration will put forward a good case for the agreement to go ahead.