Vietnam’s Nuclear Dreams Blossom Despite Doubts

Norimitsu Onishi

“Nuclear power is important for Vietnam’s energy security, but, like fire, it has two sides,” said one of the students, Nguyen Xuan Thuy, 27. “We have to learn how to take advantage of its good side.”

As Vietnam prepares to begin one of the world’s most ambitious nuclear power programs, it is scrambling to raise from scratch a field of experts needed to operate and regulate nuclear power plants. The government, which is beefing up nuclear engineering programs at its universities and sending increasing numbers of young technicians abroad, says Vietnam will have enough qualified experts to safely manage an industry that is scheduled to grow from one nuclear reactor in 2020 to 10 reactors by 2030.

But some Vietnamese and foreign experts said that was too little time to establish a credible regulatory body, especially in a country with widespread corruption, poor safety standards and a lack of transparency. They said the overly ambitious timetable could lead to the kind of weak regulation, as well as collusive ties between regulators and operators, that contributed to the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan last year.

Russia and Japan have won bids to build Vietnam’s first two plants; South Korea is expected to be selected for the third.
Like Russia, which has pledged Vietnam loans of $8 billion to $9 billion to finance the first plant’s construction, Japan is expected to offer a package of low-interest loans through the Japan Bank of International Cooperation.

But Mr. Tran, the Vietnamese-French adviser, said he harbored no doubts about Japanese technology. “That isn’t why we’re worried,” he said, pointing instead to Vietnam’s capacity to manage and regulate one of the world’s most complex industries. “It’s the politics of management. When a nuclear reactor is running, the regulators must be independent and firm and vigilant.”

“I don’t know anything about nuclear plants,” said Pham Phong, 43, a grape farmer who, in one of the most telling examples of rising incomes in Southeast Asia, upgraded from a cheap Chinese-made motorcycle to a shiny new Japanese Yamaha late last year. “But I saw Fukushima on television, and I’m worried.”