Nuclear Power Asia – Roundup 1, March 7, 2017, Kuala Lumpur

UPDATE: The post was written across a string of interruptions and published prior to proper proofing, so there were a number of inconsistencies and errors that have since been corrected. Touch-ups and edits are made as and when the author has the time.


NB: As the author could not be present for all sessions, the roundup represents an overview of each day’s sessions attended. Here is the programme.

The author arrived late into the conference room as the first speaker,  Dohee Hahn of the International Agency for Atomic Energy (IAEA),  was at the tail-end of his speech on the direction of nuclear energy for emerging/newcomer players in the nuclear industry during the 21st century. It was right after the official launch by Nancy Shukri, a Minister from the Prime Minister’s Office, which was probably running late as well, as the timing for each session deviated from schedule.

As the sessions were moving past their allocated time, there was no time for Q&A (in fact, there would be very little time for Q&A for much of the conference) before they went on to the next speaker, who is a major nuclear industry player in China, China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC).

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Photo by Clarissa Lee

A little background to this conference – Nuclear Power Asia is neither an academic nor a nuclear specialist type conference. The academics present were mainly those who work in the area of nuclear security, and who are nuclear engineers and scientists from Malaysia. As the conference had been sponsored by major industry players from China, France, Russia, Japan, and South Korea, it would come as no surprise that almost half of the presenters were from the nuclear power plant (NPP) vendors. Given that the conference was not meant to be technical, much of the presentations were done by those involved in the management side of things (even presenters with a technical background). So, the audience were given some background about the third generation (Gen III) reactors being promoted although one might not know thoroughly the mechanisms behind their function beyond the obvious (pressurized water reactors, advanced boiling water reactors, etc.); or repeatedly reminded of the vendors’ investment in ensuring that the most cutting-edge safety  features are built into the new reactors in the market, post Fukushima-Daiici. Of course, one could pick up from a number of the brochures available from the various companies and study the descriptive schematics of the current reactors in the market. But it would still require the combined expertise of a social scientist and engineer to be able to evaluate, critically, the designs and accompanying texts to ask questions pertaining to the social-technical aspects of the safety features of the reactors. At this stage, nuclear waste management (or the issue of fuel) would not come up until the second day of the conference, which the reader will see in the second roundup.

If there is anything that one could learn from CNNC’s presentation, it is that China is not slowing down its nuclear infrastructural construction – its 110 reactors to serve its 1.3 billion population are considered insufficient, and there are plans to add about 100 more reactors. Their talk also emphasised the ‘clean energy’ aspect of nuclear power, although the presentation circumvented any mention of the high pollution index plaguing its major cities at the moment (CNNC is based in Beijing). The presentation  kickstarted the discussion that would inform the preoccupation of the conference – what are the infrastructural adjustments that would be needed to go into nuclear power.

A panel follows the presentation, with representatives from Malaysia (the nuclear agency and national nuclear power development corporation) and from Indonesia’s nuclear agency, BATAN, a senior fellow from the National University of Singapore who studies nuclear security and law in ASEAN, as well as the executive director of ASEAN Centre for Energy (you can check out the link to this centre in the list of websites on the right).  While there might not be anything overtly new in all that were said for those who have been following the developments of nuclear energy in Asia and ASEAN closely, we get to hear a bit more about how the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia are working towards the development of a more thorough nuclear acceptance programme to provide information to the public on nuclear energy and technology – Indonesia is going a step further in its acceptance programme strategy by actually developing an experimental small power reactor, which will be located at Serpong. Malaysia, which is still far behind its nuclear roadmap goals, could only talk about the literacy programmes that had been done (the author saw evidence of this in their records detailing school visits and the kind of outreach activities, but more effort still had to be extended as the outreach did not seem to have benefited most of the citizenry, who remain ignorant).

The refrain one hears throughout a number of the presentations is focused on how the development of a nuclear power plant (NPP) infrastructure could aid in job creation (which would be good news for the engineers and scientists that are being trained or have since graduated), especially in economies experiencing slow growth or stagnation. The Hinkley Point C project in Somerset, Great Britain, was cited as a prime example. The representative from the ASEAN energy centre talked about the necessity of having a platform for continuous engagement regarding the deployment of civilian nuclear energy programmes, although we do not get much details on what that platform would do (perhapsthere was not enough time to go into the details) and whether the platform would include stakeholders who are not invested in nuclear energy in any form and manner, but who should still want to be engaged.

After the break, there was a presentation by the chief engineer of one of the biggest nuclear power supply contractor in Russia, ROSATOM Overseas, a part of the conglomerate that is focused on non CSI states, with particular interest in Asia. He gave a detailed explanation of the developments concerning the improved safety features of VVER-1200. The audience were assured that the second generation version of the reactor had been reliable because tube corrosion at the reactor had been minimal – what they have in the market now is the gen-III+ reactor, which has incorporated more redundant safety features. One would hear, throughout the conference, that the unique selling points of most of the reactors being presented are:safety redundancy features, clean energy, anti-terrorism security add-ons, operator-friendliness in the design (in that the lives of the operators are not compromised in the event of an actual disaster), job creation (through technology transfers).

What is most useful is a presentation that enlightens the audience on why the UAE, one of the biggest oil exporters in the world, has decided to go nuclear, and what they are preparing in the process; the rationale behind it is that they are running out of oil, and fossil fuel could not meet the rising energy demand of the state that is growing at 9% p.a.  The Nawah Energy Company of UAE has signed an agreement with KEPCO of South Korea to install a third generation APR-1400. The speaker discussed the safety and security checks being installed at each point of the nuclear supply chain to ensure that none of the parts needed for the NPP construction would be compromised, through measures that are not unlike the ones employed in counter-terrorism security checks. Given the the UAE is also an emergent/newcomer NPP state, ASEAN is probably paying close attention to the former’s steps towards going nuclear power.

The thread on security and safety is continued by the head of licensing and regulatory affairs of ATMEA, another big NPP industry player based in France. One of the things that we hear about is the need to ensure that the digital infrastructures for operating and controlling the power plants are not easily compromised through external intrusion – this is reminiscent of Anne Fitzpatrick’s article “From Behind the Fence: Threading the Labyrinths of Classified Historical Research” in Doel & Södverquist’s The Historiography of Contemporary Science, Technology, and Medicine, where she talks about how some of the computers at Fermilab are isolated from the larger internetworks, and that individual hard drives storing classified information had to be removed from their mounts and placed in safety deposits after use, even if the user were to step out for only awhile. Although that is not the level of classification concern that the NPPs are operating out of, there is obviously a fear of potentially being a terrorist target (or a plane crashing into the power plants), hence the need to foolproof attacks, such as by making various chambers housing the various sections of the power plants less conveniently accessible from each chamber (it is uncertain what could happen in the case of an internal sabotage but that’s probably going besides the point); or built in a manner that is inaccessible to crashing planes.

Japan (Hitachi-GE) was the next presenter – obviously, given the deep-freeze that the nuclear industry had been in for a number of years post-Fukushima, they are now looking for ways to regenerate the industry by exporting their improved technology.  Japan had 40 light-water reactors in operation prior to the disaster and it is looking into restarting the operations of its power plants (that had not been decommissioned), notwitstanding current public sentiments (which are still pretty much anti-nuclear, if news reports and first hand accounts of researchers on the ground are anything to go by). Those who have been following the Fukushima Disaster are well aware of the Fukushima Action Plan, which contains mention of how to deal with “reactivity control, cooling of fuel elements, and confinement of radioactive substances” as well as fool-proofing for earthquakes, flooding, and combinations of such potential disasters – all of which were contributory to the destruction of the Fukushima-Daiici plant consisting of boiling water reactors. Hitachi-GE presented its Advanced Boiling Water reactors meant to be fool-proofed against a similar disaster.

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Credit: Hitachi-GE, Photo Clarissa Lee
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Credit: Hitachi-GE, photo by Clarissa Lee

The post-lunch session saw a presentation on how Malaysia is proceeding with its legal and regulatory framework when it comes to updating the current legal framework for dealing with the potential for Malaysia to go nuclear, and for regulating the nuclear supply chain.

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Credit: MNPC, photo by Clarissa Lee. A chart of some of the regulations pertaining to the management of radioactive materials, including of a potential NPP.

Malaysia is using the IAEA’s handbook on nuclear law to formulate new legal instruments to take into account the changing landscape of nuclear security that had not been considered in the decades following the formulation of its previous laws – this post is not the place to do so, but it is worth investigating in another longer post.

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Credit: MNPC, Malaysia. Photo by Clarissa Lee

There is the final panel session for the day pertaining to the challenges surrounding the construction of nuclear power plants, which included a representative from the Department of Commerce of the US (it is unfortunate that there was no representative from the Department of Energy) -talking about costs of constructing NPPs for emerging/newcomer countries and the best practices. There was also a discussion of small modular reactors and the cost-effectiveness of it versus safety measures. The need of sustained government support was mentioned, as well as how one were to balance between debt and equity when a state decide unequivocally to be a nuclear power plant investor. We hear about the Somerset Hinkley Point C project again and more details about the experimental power plant under development in Indonesia (the author has to state that it might be the location of her seat, but she had a hard time hearing some of the exchanges that were taking place on stage). The roles of the vendor and operator were also discussed: however, given how many potential emerging NPP states are quite mum about their intentons, we could only speculate on the decision-making process involved in any decision to go nuclear. For one, there was a general consensus that there is a need to learn from the mistakes and disasters of the mature NPP markets while not emulating them in totality. What is under-represented in this conference are the government and public sector agencies so we do not get to hear as much, their side of the story.

In the final session of the day, another ROSATOM Overseas representative talked about the shifting regulatory standards in the aftermath of the Chernobyl, especially current safety standards expected of Gen III NPPs. The 2010 IAEA nuclear safety standards were not clear with regard to Gen III power plants, although the Russian Federation had also developed their own regulations, excerpts of which could be seen below. But for certain, the Russians were well aware of its own disaster history and were foremost in reassuring future clients about their experience in having dealt with this blemish in their record.

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The author apologises for the glare that comes with some of the photos, as that could not be held due to the positioning of the lighting and the fact that the author has to rely on the camera capability of an Iphone 6s. But she hopes the reader could still read some of what were on display. The first day of the conference wrapped up on this note.

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