The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Stepping Up Co-operation on Transboundary Rivers

Posted in Energy and Human Security by NTSblog on August 1, 2013

THE GROWING trend of countries seeking to catalyze development through the construction of hydro-electric dams has become a contentious and destabilising issue. This was highlighted by two recent events in two major river basins namely the Nile and the Mekong.

In May 2013, Ethiopia started diverting waters of the Blue Nile in May 2013 to fill the reservoir behind its USD4.7 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Ethiopia, as one of the world’s poorest countries ranking 173 out of 185 countries in terms of its Human Development Index (HDI) score in 2013, aimed to harness the river and become Africa’s leading power exporter. The dam construction is also an attempt by Ethiopia to assert greater control over its water resources and not be held hostage by Egypt. Egypt has long exercised almost exclusive rights over the use of Nile water by two agreements that it signed with Great Britain in 1929 and with Sudan in 1959 respectively. Upstream countries resented these agreements as it barred them from undertaking large-scale projects without Egypt’s consent and demanded a new deal that would allow them greater share of the Nile water. Egypt however considered such demands as a security threat as it relied on the Nile River for more than 90 per cent of its water needs. Egypt’s uncompromising position on the issue is such that former President Anwar Sadat famously declared in 1979 that “the only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water.” In light of Ethiopia’s ongoing dam construction, Egyptian leaders have reportedly discussed buzzing the dam site with fighter jets, destroying the dam by covert military action, and supporting rebel groups fighting the Ethiopian regime.

In Southeast Asia, Laos PDR’s plan to transform itself into the ‘hydroelectric battery of Southeast Asia’ through the construction of a series of hydroelectric dams on the mainstream Mekong River has caused concerns among downstream countries namely Cambodia and Vietnam. These countries worry that such dams could affect the river’s freshwater fishes and livelihoods. Indeed, the Mekong River has been identified as a hotspot for freshwater fishes with over 1,000 species, second only to the Amazon. Notwithstanding their opposition, Laos started the construction of the first dam in Xayaburi Province in November 2012.

Although institutions such as the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) and the Mekong River Commission (MRC) have been established to improve co-operation and co-ordination among riparian countries, Ethiopia and Laos’ unilateral pursuit of hydro-electric dam projects highlighted their ineffectiveness. Given rising energy demands due to increasing population growth and expanding economy in both river basins, it is inevitable that more countries would sought to harness the Nile and the Mekong Rivers. However, the continuance of a unilateral approach to such projects could potentially destabilise both river basins. It is therefore important that both the NBI and the MRC promote equitable water sharing among riparian countries. Once this is done, mechanisms related to prior consultation whereby governments mutually decide whether or not projects go forward should be enhanced so as to prevent riparian countries from unilaterally undertaking dam building projects. Such efforts would go a long way in ensuring mutual benefits among riparian countries.

This blog is contributed by Mr PK Hangzo, Associate Research Fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU).


Direct Cash Transfers: Why They Remain Essential in Indonesia’s Fuel Subsidy Cuts

Posted in Energy and Human Security by NTSblog on July 17, 2013

The Indonesian government has recently cut fuel subsidies and raised fuel prices. Similar to the 2005 and 2008 fuel price hikes, the government provided unconditional direct cash transfers to poor households with the aim of helping them cope with the impacts of such price increases.

The recent decision to deploy the IDR 9.33 trillion (SGD 1.18 billion) worth of temporary direct cash transfers (BLSM) was controversial. Oppositions discern vested political interests as such disbursements inevitably heighten popular support for the ruling party. Such measures are also perceived to nurture hand-out mentalities and increase dependencies instead of empowering poor people to get out of poverty definitively. Questionable survey methods, lack of accuracy in identifying beneficiaries, protests and chaotic incidents during disbursement in some areas, and irresponsible use of the money given are among other criticisms directed towards this initiative.

While all these concerns are not baseless, the elimination of direct cash transfers in the face of fuel price increase is unthinkable. Despite some irregularities, the 2005 and 2008 direct cash transfers (BLTs) have set a precedent for subsequent social protection programs aimed at cushioning the impacts of fuel price rise. In March 2007, although possible statistical errors were acknowledged, the percentage of poor households was successfully stunted at 16.58% from a previous estimated rise to 22%. Contrary to the belief that the recipients would spend their money on cigarettes or alcohol, a large majority of them turned out to use the extra cash to buy rice. There was also lack of evidence that pointed to complacency and reduced labour force participation. In general, the distributed cash had resulted in stronger purchasing power and benefited the poor to meeting their daily needs.

The current disbursement of BLSMs is clearly modelled after the success of previous cash transfers. In comparison to medium to long-term social protection programs, such as job creation through funding for small to medium enterprises (SMEs), direct cash transfer is indeed very effective in mitigating the immediate sting of fuel price rises. Its winning advantage lies in its ability to temporarily curb swelling economic and social grievances while other measures are being taken to control the damage resulting from price changes. The 4-month disbursement period is drawn based on confidence that impacts of inflation would become insignificant in the fourth month. To date, it has successfully averted widespread protests, riots, and other destabilising occurrences.

In this light, it is apparent that direct cash transfers are indispensable in minimising aversion to price reforms. Admittedly, there is a wide room for improvements in terms of logistics and implementation. As far as the purpose is concerned, however, oppositions attempting to problematise these measures and label them as politically-charged initiatives would likely find their efforts futile. Fuel subsidies may further be reduced in the future and the expectation for extra cash would hold among poor households. What is critical therefore is in ensuring that such cash transfer programs are crafted within a wider long-term poverty eradication strategy and improvements are pursued to attain maximum impact.

This blog post has been written by Margareth Sembiring. She is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Non–Traditional Security (NTS) Studies in the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

U-turn of nuclear energy in SEA after Fukushima

Posted in Energy and Human Security by NTSblog on February 20, 2013

The immediate aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear crisis in 2011 witnessed a significant cooling down of the nuclear renaissance in Southeast Asia. Countries that had announced their nuclear plans immediately suspended or delayed the construction of their first nuclear power plant, such as Thailand and Malaysia; those that decided to continue their nuclear energy plans kept them low-key. As the reverberation of the Fukushima crisis gradually abates, nuclear power plans in the region have begun to resume again. Vietnam and Indonesia are forging ahead with their nuclear plans while the Philippines is reconsidering nuclear energy as an option.

The revival of the interest in nuclear energy is driven by the continued growth of the region’s energy demands and the pro-nuclear energy development despite the fact that the Fukushima crisis revealed the safety risks accompanying with nuclear energy. Indonesia and Vietnam already face the risk of serious power shortages, which threatens their economic development. moreover, the region relies on fossil fuels as primary energy sources while regional demands far exceed supplies, as a result of which the heavy dependence on energy imports presents a big challenge to the energy security. Besides renewable energy, nuclear energy provides an alternative to improve the region’s energy independence.

The recent developments in Japan as well as in the region help Southeast Asian governments justify their decision to resume their nuclear plans. Since May 2012, the Japanese government gradually reopened some of the nuclear reactors that were closed after the crisis. Japan’s new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe supports use of nuclear energy in Japan. The investigation report of the Fukushima crisis noted that the disaster was man-made and should be preventable. This conclusion gives rise to the hope that possibility of nuclear accident is low as long as safety measures are strictly implemented. After the Fukushima crisis, nuclear safety has been frequently discussed at regional forums, such as such 2012 APEC and the 30th ASEAN Ministers on Energy Meeting in Phnom Penh. Coordination and information sharing have been identified as key channels for enhancing nuclear safety in the region.

Although Singapore government is not pursuing nuclear energy as an alternative fuel for now given that current nuclear energy technologies are unsuitable, the reactivation of nuclear energy plans in neighboring countries would have important implications for the island state. Radiation released from the melted reactors in Fukushima was found as far as the US west coast. Given its proximity to the locations of the prospective nuclear power plants in Vietnam and Indonesia, Singapore will be threatened by nuclear radiation in case nuclear accident happens.

It is necessary to integrate Information sharing provides a key channel for Singapore to stay informed about development of nuclear energy in its neighbours. Moreover, the role of regional forums in coordinating nuclear safety should be utilized and strengthened. Singapore has taken steps towards in this direction, by hosting ASEM Seminar on nuclear safety in June 2012. Education is important as nuclear energy is still new to the public in this region. Since it is very likely to see the first nuclear reactors in the region in the near future, it is crucial for Singapore to get ready for the new development.

NIMBY rules for nuclear energy in East Asia post Fukushima?

Posted in Energy and Human Security by NTSblog on April 17, 2012

A year on after the nuclear crisis in Fukushima, managing Japan’s energy policies continues to be an uphill task. With critical immediate tasks of addressing an ailing economy, domestic demands to cease the use of nuclear energy, and spiked prices of energy imports, it is no wonder that revising of Japan’s nuclear energy structures and plans (let alone implementing it) remain a slow process.

The difficulty lies in juggling three main issues. First, anti-nuclear sentiments continue to gain ground in Japan as seen from the increasing numbers in mass protests, calls for local referenda to shut down nuclear power plants in their respective local vicinities, and efforts to provide ground-up alternative sources of information, given the perceived lack of transparency and mistrust towards top-down information. Such activities thus call for the need to diversify Japan’s energy mix.

Second, national plans to reform and strengthen Japan’s nuclear energy governance structures have been rather slow. Given that Japan’s nuclear energy governance had largely been under the auspices of the Ministry of Trade and Industry, reform plans have included the need for more oversight from other governmental bodies such as the Ministry of Environment. This would culminate with the establishment of a new body – the Nuclear Regulatory Agency – which will play a central role in strengthening Japan’s domestic nuclear security measures. However, the NRA to date has yet to be formed. Moreover, a revision of Japan’s Energy Basic Plan is still being deliberated with four possible scenarios of nuclear energy taking up to 30% of Japan’s energy mix till 2030.

Third, developments at the international level create further complications for Japan to fully adhere to these domestic demands in the short term. The price of importing energy resources, particularly liquified natural gas (LNG), to substitute the short fall of energy from decommissioned nuclear power plants, increased sharply in the 2nd half of 2011. This greatly exacerbated the third issue – Japan’s already ailing economy, where experts speculate that the Japanese Yen is likely to depreciate further in the months to come while still recovering from the March 2011 tsunami.

That said, one of the economic lifelines for Japan is the development of nuclear technology elsewhere. While the use of nuclear energy is shunned domestically, the demand for Japanese nuclear technology and training to other countries developing their own nuclear energy facilities (such as Vietnam, Russia and Indonesia) remains a small but important source of income for Japan’s financial recovery. Ironically, this is despite the fact that Prime Minister Noda admitted that training for on-site workers at Fukushima had been “insufficient”.

Nevertheless, it is possible that as far as officials in the Ministry of Trade and Industry are concerned, such inflows of cash are desirable and necessary for Japan given the slump in other trade sectors such as agricultural/food exports and tourism.  As such, while the anti-nuclear bloc in Japan may have the upper hand domestically, it is likely to create greater challenges for anti-nuclear groups in the wider East Asian region.

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Radiophobia – Fear That Kills

Posted in Energy and Human Security by NTSblog on December 8, 2011

In the latest issue of the NTS Alert I tried to critically examine the safety of nuclear power projects. I argued that available scientific and historical evidence overwhelmingly suggests that, for generating large amounts of electricity, nuclear energy is the safest currently available option. Some readers might find this surprising or even shocking and that is because of the dominant belief that any amount of radiation is dangerous, unhealthy and ultimately deadly. This assumption is radiophobia – an irrational fear of radiation that was born out of the frightening times of the Cold War when for various military, budgetary and propaganda reasons populations on both sides of the Iron Curtain were made panically afraid of anything nuclear. Apart from the geopolitical logic of that time, some scientists suspect other factors behind the creation of radiophobia such as the interests of the fossil fuel industries and the desire of the international media to profit from scare stories.

25 years after Chernobyl and 2 decades after the end of the Cold War it is evident that the threat of radiation has been grossly exaggerated and that by the linear non-threshold hypothesis (LNT) assumption that supported it had been wrong. One prominent commentator compared the LNT to “suggesting that because a temperature of 200 degrees Celsius would kill 100 per cent of human beings, so a temperature of 20 degrees Celsius should kill 10 per cent of them.“ Studies have demonstrated that small levels of radiation are not only harmless but may even be healthy to human being. What seems truly dangerous about low levels of radiation (such as the ones that followed the Chernobyl disaster) is the panic they create, as was demonstrated by research undertaken by the UN and WHO.

Yet, despite all the above, the world continues to suffer from radiophobia as it was evident in the case of Fukushima. As my Alert tried to demonstrate, this must change or else even the safest and accident-free nuclear power plants will cause deaths through stress, fear and anxiety that they may potentially generate. What is urgently needed today is courage on the side of politicians and people in positions of authority to communicate to their communities that nuclear power is ultimately safe, as it has been constantly demonstrated by our half a century of experience with it. An important action could be basing radiological protection on the principle of a practical threshold. According to one of the world’s most prominent radiologists, doing so “would be an important step taken towards dealing with radiation rationally and towards regaining the public’s acceptance of radioactivity and radiation as blessings for mankind.“

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Trains, Nuclear Power Plants and Confidence

Posted in Energy and Human Security by NTSblog on September 13, 2011

On the recent NTS research trip to China I had a chance to use the new and now infamous Chinese high-speed train from Shanghai to Beijing. The fact that my journey was to take place just a few weeks after the Wenzhou crash made quite a number of people, both in Singapore and China, advise me against taking it. This public concern has brought my attention to the consequences that crash might have not only on the way in which people look at Chinese railways, but at the Chinese technological progress in general. For indeed, that tragic accident may have had an even more negative impact on the perception of the Chinese nuclear energy development program than the Fukushima incident.

On surface, nuclear power and trains might appear unconnected, but in reality they have much in common. Both high-speed train projects and nuclear power plants are considered to be “among the largest and most complex commercialized engineering projects. Both win attention and support from senior leaders on account of their role in economic development. And both impose safety risks that are too significant to be ignored.” According to some commentators, the train crash in China demonstrates that the country might simply not be “prepared” to deal with such sophisticated and potentially dangerous technology. Some observers point to the problems with rapid copying of foreign technology and the dangers of using various types of nuclear reactors. At the same time, Western journalists blame Chinese corruption and management style. For instance, according to Isabel Hilton, “high-speed rail has come to symbolise the cost-cutting and corruption that plagues China” and that such problems might ultimately lead the country to “disaster”, at least in the area of non-traditional security.


Yet, while it is perhaps true that China’s socio-political system suffers from the lack of transparency, mismanagement and corruption, there is no evidence that the train crash was caused by any of these. Similarly, there has so far been proof that the Chinese nuclear industry is corrupted or prone to “corner-cutting”.

Furthermore, as tragic as it was, the train crash in China led to far fewer deaths than numerous (sic) train crashes that had taken place in India in July alone. Yet, the observers seem to be more pessimistic about China’s progress rather than India’s lack thereof.  As ever, the train crash tells us more about cultural biases and pessimism about technologic progress, than anything else. In 1998, a disastrous high-speed rail accident happened in Eschede, Germany causing a great number of deaths and provoking serious doubts over the high-speed technology. But a careful, public and transparent investigation brought the confidence back and the high-speed trains have remained a very popular and safe mode of transportation.

Just like any other nation in the world, China should fight against corruption, nepotism and public mismanagement, but the lesson from the crash should be that  it should also focus on confidence-building measures that will sustain public’s faith in technologic progress. Admittedly, this task might prove to be very difficult without changes in the political system inherently hostile to transparency and openness.

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Cooperation rather than Competition (II): Love Thy Neighbour’s Resources

Posted in Energy and Human Security by NTSblog on June 14, 2011

In an earlier blog post, the need for intra-state cooperation was highlighted as an important factor in not only harnessing the potential of renewable energy resources in various parts of China, but also ensuring uniformed development for the benefit of all Chinese citizens. This blog post will highlight the importance of inter-state cooperation – particularly between China and its immediate neighbour Taiwan.

Studies have demonstrated the importance of inter-state energy cooperation, whether it be for traditional or renewable sources of energy. In terms of traditional sources of energy, China has depended on oil refineries in Taiwan for its oil imports. This is an interesting dynamic given China’s predominantly militarily offensive stance towards Taiwan. The demand for such facilities is likely to increase given the potential of Russian oil supply as an alternative to Middle Eastern oil, as the former has lower sulphur content and is geographically closer.

Conversely, however, Taiwan is increasingly dependent on China for its own energy needs. There are several factors contributing to this. Firstly, Taiwan has exhausted its small reserves of fossil fuels, to the extent that its ability to produce 20 percent of primary energy sources in 1978 has decreased to 0.6 percent in 2010. Secondly, Taiwan’s international efforts for improving energy efficiency and sufficiency are often stalled due to the limited global recognition of Taiwan as a sovereign state. Given these above-mentioned dynamics, it is clear that dependence between China and Taiwan is mutual.

Fortunately, China-Taiwan relations have improved over the years, albeit with some minor hiccups. Energy relations are significant in increasing economic ties and trade between China and Taiwan, where joint energy exploration efforts in disputed areas have also provided an impetus for enhanced bilateral ties. Moreover, recent cross-strait forums have even underscored the importance of cooperation in ensuring nuclear safety. This highlights not only the increasing momentum in China and Taiwan to diversify their energy mixes, but also acknowledge the adverse transnational implications that these efforts might have – especially in light of the Fukushima disaster in Japan.  Given these growing efforts to enhance bilateral cooperation over energy resources, such instances could perhaps be a form of confidence building measure between neighbouring countries with sensitive traditional political security issues.

Ensuring energy sufficiency will continue to be an uphill task in much of East Asia. Nevertheless, such circumstances provide neighbouring states with the opportunity for cooperate and coordinate their energy exploration plans, on the existing limited sources of energy remaining. Taking a long term view for sustainable development is significant, not only in ensuring the sufficiency and sustainability of countries’ growth and development, but also provides an impetus to maintain cool ties when relations are strained.

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Cooperation rather than Competition (I): Renewable Energy for Whom?

As one of the world’s leading emerging economies, China’s insatiable demand for energy resources, as a result of its exponential economic growth rates is likely to increase over the coming decades. This has led to concerns of sustainability, namely the increasing scarcity of traditional energy resources and carbon emissions that exacerbate climate change.  China has nevertheless taken various steps to address these issues in its national development plans. Its proposed 12th Five year Plan demonstrates concrete steps for moving towards a low-carbon economy and also strategies to diversify its energy mix.

Clearly, energy needs for China’s economic development would require exploring all available resources within China’s territories. Interestingly enough, several regions which are crucial for China’s energy policies have also been theatres for social tension. In terms of renewable energy sources, China has initiated solar energy projects in Tibet, as the region is the richest resource for solar energy in China and is second to the Sahara Desert in terms of longest sunshine time in the world. Locations suitable for wind energy – aside from the Eastern Coast – include China’s Xinjiang province in the Northwest and northern territories bordering Mongolia.

In light of these geo-political concerns, China needs to ensure that its energy exploration and management policies are carefully implemented and do not adversely affect the needs of local communities in these regions. This is crucial for two reasons. Firstly, economic development is not simply a matter of achieving overall national growth, but more importantly, raising the standards of economic livelihoods and household incomes of the poor and increasingly marginalised communities as a result of industrialisation. Such inequalities exist between and within provinces in China. This was apparent in Xinjiang where despite the Western Development plan that boosted Xinjiang’s growth to the point that it was comparable to that of Eastern provinces, communities in southern Xinjiang (95% of non-Han origin) have a capita income half that of Xinjiang as a whole.

This relates to the second reason, where meeting these basic needs are important in preventing social tensions (and even conflict), which have occurred in the past as a result of the central government’s economic development policies that have widened inequalities – particularly for the largely rural/agrarian-based communities in Xinjiang and Tibet.

Like other shared natural resources, energy resources must be utilised as a tool for cooperation rather than conflict and competition. Ensuring communities’ access to energy sources is a crucial factor in this equation, as it would generate productivity via a bottom-up approach. Provincial and municipal governments in China would therefore play a significant role in catering to the specific development needs of the various provinces and their respective localities. Some improvements have so far been made such as the solar energy projects in Tibet that have been used for development needs of rural communities, and Xinjiang’s 20 billion yuan investment in wind energy technology. While this is a good start, such efforts must be further refined overtime and given greater support for the sustainable and affordable provision of renewable sources of energy to communities.





Health Security Post-Japanese Quake and Tsunami

On 11 March 2011, a 9.0 magnitude  earthquake occurred in the Pacific Ocean just off the northeastern coast of Japan, near the coastal city of Sendai in Miyagi prefecture. The National Police Agency said that as of 21 March, the death toll and number of those reported missing came to a combined total of 21,911.

The earthquake and resultant tsunami have had significant health impacts on the Japanese population. Japanese public health officials have struggled with water treatment and distribution systems that have been contaminated by ocean water and oil, gas, pesticides, and decaying bodies carried inland by the waves. There are also worries of cross-contamination of waste water and treated water, escalating fears of the spread of water-borne diseases. Treating trauma, crush wounds and respiratory illnesses in tsunami victims has been identified as a pressing health priority. According to some, rapidly diminishing stocks of medical supplies and the mental health of the tsunami and quake survivors continues to challenge health response systems.

These public health concerns have been exacerbated by fears of health ramifications from exposure to nuclear radiation following explosions at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant. Although radiation health risks have been described as low, certain experts have warned that radioactive releases of steam from the plant could last for months. This has prompted widening fears of long-term public health, food security (such as radiation contamination in food from Japan) and environmental ramifications not only for the Japanese, but also for neighbouring countries and across the Pacific.

The post-quake period has seen what some have called a bubbling ‘cauldron of fear’ from the potential health ramifications of the crisis. Countries as far away as Finland have had to reassure their populations. US nuclear plans are in question.  The Philippine and Malaysian governments have publicly urged citizens to stop circulating hoax text messages encouraging rumours of radiation rain.

However, it remains important to recognise that Fukushima rates 5 on a seven-step scale of nuclear incidents. This places it on par with Three Mile Island, which resulted in no deaths and had no impact on the incidence of cancer in the region. It also places two rungs below Chernobyl at 7. Radiation experts have also said that given the nature of the manufacturing industries in Japan, there is little danger of radiation contamination in food reaching harmful levels.

While it remains important to recognise the health security risks and threats that have emerged as a direct consequence of the Japanese tragedy, it is equally important to exercise a measured approach in assessing and analysing them. The overestimation of threat can cause undue fear and panic. Conversely, the underestimation of problems can lead to a lack of commitment to addressing them. This is true to addressing both conventional health challenges as well as any nuclear radiation-related health issues arising from this situation. Ultimately, a moderate and well-informed approach to dealing with health security issues in post-disaster Japan may encourage better direction and strategy in resolving them.

Japan in Jeopardy? Managing Energy Vulnerabilities Amidst Disaster Response

Japan’s recent earthquake – and the tsunami that followed it – is the strongest on record and has been dubbed to be Japan’s worse crisis since the Second World War. As the country grapples with the ensuing threat of multiple nuclear meltdowns after explosions at 3 Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) reactors in Fukushima, questions are being raised as to the extent of the nuclear crises at hand. As it stands, the death toll is estimated to surpass 10,000 while almost 2 million households are without power supply and 1.4 million are without running water in the colder Northern regions of Japan. Moreover, Japan’s aging population also indicates higher vulnerabilities for a substantial proportion of Japanese society in terms of health and safety.

This situation is likely to get worse with the government’s announcement of starting rolling blackouts in a bid to conserve energy – energy that would be needed to maintain the cooling systems in Japan’s NPPs to avoid nuclear meltdowns. The lack of clean water not only severely impacts public health and sanitation, but is also critical for cooling the nuclear reactors. The blackouts would also affect economic livelihoods as stalled economic activity in the industrial sector would exacerbate an already ailing Japanese economy, let alone the massive costs of damage from the earthquake and tsunami.

On hindsight, more could have been done prior to the earthquake. For instance, it was barely 5 years ago, when the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa NPP experienced a fire and leak as a result of an earthquake measuring 6.8 in magnitude. This was partly because most NPPs in Japan have been designed to withstand earthquakes up to 6.5 in magnitude, hence little improvement has been made to fortify these NPPs since.

A possible reason for the license extension is that 30% of Japan’s energy supply is generated from nuclear energy. While some may be quick to criticise Japan’s substantial dependence on nuclear energy, it is also important to realise that nuclear energy – a clean source of energy – was an attempt to diversify Japan’s energy mix and reduce Japan’s dependence on oil imports from the Middle East that are sold at a higher premium for Asian countries.

Although Japan is Asia’s best example for disaster preparedness and technological advancements for nuclear energy, it is high time to review the processes. The current situation in Japan has even caused policymakers in the US, Switzerland and India to delay future nuclear energy plans. In Southeast Asia, where the demand for energy sources for development is increasingly insatiable, it is vital that ASEAN countries take environmental impact assessments seriously and acknowledge the importance of further enhancing their disaster capabilities to respond to potentially complex emergencies. With the increasing unpredictability and intensity of natural disasters, achieving Japan’s preparedness capabilities is only the very basic benchmark for the less developed East Asian countries if they wish to go nuclear.

This blog is an abridged version of a commentary by Sofiah Jamil and Assoc. Prof Mely Caballero-Anthony.
Click here to read the full version.

Gaps in Greening the Economy

A new report by the United Nations Environment Programme recently noted that the road to achieving a low carbon, resource efficient green economy is possible by just investing two per cent of global GDP into ten key sectors – namely Agriculture, Buildings, Cities, Fisheries, Forests, Industry, Renewable energy, Tourism, Transport, Waste Management and Water. The report asserts that doing so can help  eradicate poverty and promote long-term sustainable development in developing countries.

This report builds on growing calls to streamline environmental concerns with economic needs, in particular means of incentivising businesses to partake in environmental initiatives. The 2008 Financial Crisis precipitated these efforts as politicians perceived greening the economy as a viable means of killing two birds with one stone – i.e. creating jobs in light of a deteriorating economy worldwide while doing their part to mitigate climate change. Discussions on the potential of green economies have been a hot topic in various international meetings such as the World Economic Forum, UNESCAP and the G20. National policies supporting calls for a green economy are steadily underway, as seen in the United States, European Union, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Developing countries have also included aspects of a green economy in their national and regional reports/plans.

While these initiatives are commendable, their full implementation would take longer, regardless of a country’s level of development. Even in  developed/industrialising countries, the issue of costs is significant. For instance, a recent report suggests that switching to renewable energy sources does not create more jobs but rather costs more jobs. In addition, UAE’s ambitious carbon-free city project, Masdar City, has experienced some delays in completing its construction while proposed cap-and-trade policies in Australia and the US have continued to face legislative difficulties. The sustainability of such initiatives is also important and must avoid falling into a green washing trap, where stakeholders such as businesses and policymakers have only made incremental changes that suit their comfort levels and justified their actions with “green” as a pre-fix to their existing activities. Governments must therefore ensure funds are committed to continue existing green projects in the medium and long term, and ensure that green economy can gradueally wean off a dependence on subsidies.

In developing countries, a possible area of concern in the near future would be the extent to which heavily populated regions, such as megacities would be able to balance changes needed for a green economy vis-a-vis existing circumstances, such as growing populations, slum areas, high vulnerability to environmental risks and lack of transparency. In rural regions, it has yet to be seen whether such green economy initiatives would be accessed by poor and remote communities effectively, and bypassing any instances of corruption and inefficiencies.

It is nevertheless encouraging to see that the momentum for a green economy is growing. While sound regional and national policies would be able to set the tone for a country’s sustainability, local efforts and capacities are essential to see the process through.

Friedman: The World Needs a Green Revolution

In a recent lecture in Singapore, Thomas Friedman spoke about climate change and the urgent need for breakthroughs in clean energy research, and drew parallels between two major non-traditional security issues in recent years – the economic crisis of 2008 and the ongoing ecological crisis. According to Friedman, New York Times columnist and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, these two issues are two sides of the same coin, in which unsustainable economic growth patterns are a primary factor. Citing the example of his home country, he noted that America’s growth pattern has been both financially and ecologically unsustainable.

In highlighting the similarities between the economic and ecological crisis, both contexts – market and Mother Nature – have experienced similar accounting practices, primarily the way in which risks have been underpriced, gains privatised and losses socialised. Underpinning these practices has been a short-term mindset, which Friedman observes to have led to a breakdown of sustainable values into situational values. This, he notes, is dangerous because the only way to moderate the market and Mother Nature effectively is by adopting sustainable values.

Friedman also noted that world was becoming increasingly Hot, Flat and Crowded – Hot due to global warming; Flat due to the increasing mobility of people thanks to globalisation; and crowded to due to population increase. There were five pressing problems that have resulted in this situation – (1) increasing demand for energy and natural resources, (2) Petro-dictatorship, which highlights the inverse relationship between the price of oil and freedom, (3) energy poverty, (4) biodiversity loss, and (5) the adverse effects of climate change.

Friedman nevertheless noted that the solution to these five problems is the need to provide abundant cheap clean non-carbon emitting energy. He emphasised that the main drivers of change in this process would not be regulators and policymakers, but rather innovators and engineers. Friedman also noted that while such calls from clean technology and adopting a more green lifestyle have been increasingly reiterated, he cautioned the tendency of green washing, where stakeholders such as businesses and policymakers have only made incremental changes that suit their comfort levels and justified their actions with “green” as a pre-fix to their existing activities. Friedman likened these trends to having a Green Party rather than a Green Revolution. Friedman also noted that effective change will only occur in a Green Revolution, when the term Green disappears. Moreover, similar to revolutions, certain stakeholders of the status quo will have to lose out.

Friedman’s last point here would certainly be a bitter pill for many in policymaking circles, but is nevertheless necessary. The dosage of these pills would certainly be much more for developing countries in Asia, which face a host of developmental and governance issues in addition to  managing their economic growth and as well as the needs of their large populations. The Green Revolution that Friedman calls for would, therefore, perhaps be the most revolutionary in the developing world. Whether stakeholders in the developing world are ready for this remains to be seen.

Disasters’ Damage on Development

Recent media reports on the new wave of floods and landslides around the world have yet again highlighted the critical need for disaster preparedness and contingency plans to address the increasing intensity of weather related disasters. However, what has also played out more significantly in these incidents have been weather-related disasters’ direct adverse implications on sources of energy and economic development.

This was particularly evident in Australia where the flooding of Queensland’s coal mines are predicted to cause an increase in the price of steelmaking coal as high as $500 per tonne , thus affected more than 90 per cent of Australia’s exports. The economic costs of recovering from the floods are also proving to have indirect costs on other aspects of development, where the education and health sectors are expected to bear the flood’s clean up costs. Such costs would, however, only be the tip of the iceberg as other parts of the country are preparing for impending floods.

Given such effects on a developed country such as Australia, one cannot but imagine extensive damage that would occur in developing countries, which also face a range of  pre-existing concerns that include poverty, poor governance and the lack of capacity to address the increasing rate of intense weather related disasters. The recent floods in Sri Lanka for instance have highlighted adverse effects to food security and even possible complications in former conflict regions that have undetonated mines. While the Philippines continues to recover from the massive damage of Typhoon Ketsana in 2009, government officials need to also deal with the effects of weather related disasters in other less developed regions of the country.

The future is not all bleak as several studies have already noted the potential costs and risks of various weather related disasters as well as the necessary solutions available to address these climate vulnerabilities. The Asian Development Bank, for instance, has highlighted Southeast Asia’s vulnerability to the effects of climate change and the various measures can be taken to mitigate these effects, while UNESCAP has examined ways of reducing vulnerability to disasters, building resilience and protecting hard-won development gains.

Despite such policy recommendations, it is still difficult for countries – whether developed or developing – to effectively address these concerns. Difficulties in coordination amongst various levels of governance and strained resources remain to be sore points and to some extent outweigh capacity building measures that only often bear fruit in the long term. It is therefore necessary for states to demonstrate their commitment to working with local and regional communities in formulating long term solutions beyond the realm of disasters. States must ensure that communities play a proactive role  not only in mitigating and preparing for the disasters, but also are at the helm of local development initiatives that would be able to sustain themselves, rather than depend on national/federal inputs.

The Hidden Costs and Risks of Nuclear Energy

Posted in Energy and Human Security by NTSblog on January 13, 2011

Increasing demands of energy have led many countries, particularly those in the rapidly developing Asia-Pacific to consider nuclear energy as the power supply of choice. This has raised a series of concerns – from issues of socio-economic feasibility and sustainability to geo-political risks of nuclear energy in the absence of effective global rules on sensitive nuclear technologies. Essentially, these boil down to the issue of hidden costs and risks, which have not been factored in by countries – whether with established or preliminary nuclear capabilities. These costs are as follows:-

Firstly, despite technological advancements that have made nuclear reactors significantly safer, the costs of risk management strategies are high. Investment capital costs constitute a full 60 per cent of the total cost of nuclear-generated electricity, compared to 25 per cent for operation and maintenance; and about 15 per cent for the fuel cycle. Natural uranium costs make up merely 5 per cent in this overall equation. These risks must be limited in order to facilitate an investment climate conducive for nuclear industries.

Secondly, there are tendencies to underestimate the various costs associated with nuclear energy. This is due to several factors:- (1) Limited availability of data that mostly originates from the UK and the US; (2) Nuclear planners’ discretion, whereby there is the tendency for them to accept nuclear plant manufacturers’ cost estimates and their inclination towards the choice of unrealistically low discount rates; or use accounting methods that actually shrink capital costs while overestimating the operating capacity of nuclear power plants (NPPs); and (3) Actual costs for NPPs decommissioning are fifteen times what has been regularly publicised.

Thirdly, and particularly in terms of addressing the likelihood of nuclear proliferation, is the issue of managing nuclear waste or spent fuel, which has dual use – (1) it can be used to provide additional fuel for nuclear plants; (2) it can be exploited to generate fissile material for nuclear weapons. While there have been technological advancements in processing spent fuel, the storage of spent fuel has yet to be resolved. Storage requires a location that ‘geologically stable… and be politically acceptable to the governing state (and to its neighbours) in terms of proximity to populations centres and to the movement of spent fuel itself.’ This is critical in countries that do not have the capacity to invest in reprocessing technologies or are initiating a nuclear program from scratch.

Finally, large investments into nuclear technology, which result in a small output in total energy demand may not make economic sense. Nuclear energy would possibly be an attractive option for large consumers like the US and China, even if it is a small percentage of mix. However, a relatively small consumer would need to weigh the investments and economic viability carefully before jumping onto the bandwagon.

Efficient management of nuclear energy thus would need to factor in these hidden costs. However, such high costs coupled with Southeast Asia’s geo-physical conditions, poor culture of safety and relative inexperience with nuclear energy management, countries in the region would be better off channelling their resources to harnessing renewable sources of energy.

Energy for Whom? The Case of Coal

Posted in Energy and Human Security by NTSblog on January 4, 2011

“Access to energy is fundamental to improving quality of life and is a key imperative for economic development.”

– Energy Poverty Action initiative, World Economic Forum

As the world’s demand for energy sources continues to rise, coal-rich developing countries are feeding the world’s demand. Of the 5 top hard coal energy producers in the world, 3 are major Asian countries – China, India and Indonesia.  However, it seems rather ironic that despite being rich in energy sources, a significant proportion of their populations still experience energy poverty issues, particularly in areas surrounding the coal producing regions. The Indonesian environmental group JATAM for instance has documented this in their latest publication, where low levels of development and electrification in towns and villages of coal producing regions have affected daily routines.

The issue of energy resource extraction also touches on sensitive issues related to the ownership of natural resources. Coal extraction projects have caused the displacement of local communities that have been dependent on the land and surrounding natural resources, such as the Dayak community in Kalimantan. These communities are left with few options of economic livelihoods, as they are oftentimes not skilled enough to take on jobs in the coal mines, which are often given to foreigners or people from other provinces. As a result, there is a tendency for friction as the local communities feel discriminated and oppressed in their own land, as seen in the case of the Uighur community in China’s Xinjiang province. For some communities, such as in India, they have resorted to stealing coal from the mines to sell or for their own domestic use. This thus situates them in a vicious cycle of poverty while faced with adverse health implications as a result of prolonged exposure to the coal mines.

Being denied access to such basic resources for livelihood can lead to conflict, especially when  external actors are involved. Such was the case in Bangladesh, where investments by US companies in a coal power plant in Phulbari had caused great resentment amongst locals who were constantly experiencing power shortages and gas rationing,  which in turn affected several industrial sectors in the country. This is just one of the many cases that reflect the dilemmas faced by governments in balancing the needs of its people with the need to cater to the demands of foreign investors for economic growth.

Although energy poverty issues will be difficult to address, there are nevertheless, ongoing  efforts to increase awareness of the issue – such as the Poor People’s Energy Outlook report – as well as initiatives to provide access to energy sources such small-scale rural electirication. Studies have also shown shone light on the gendered nuances related with energy poverty.

Securing a safe and stable supply of energy/electricity is a necessary step for the human security needs of individuals, whether it be coal, gas or renewable sources of energy. While many of us would deem a blackout as an inconvenience, to others it represents an impediment to better standards of livelihood.

Energy Security and Foreign Policy

Posted in Energy and Human Security by NTSblog on December 14, 2010

On 9-10 December 2010, RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies held a regional workshop on dealing with energy vulnerabilities in East Asia. One issue frequently mentioned by the participants during the workshop was China’s surging energy demands and its implications for both the country itself and the region at large. China’s increasing dependency on energy imports has become a major concern for Chinese policy makers. As a result, the need to secure its energy supply represents an important aim of Chinese foreign and security policy.

China’s impressive economic growth has fueled its appetite for all sorts of natural resources, among which the demand for energy is growing exceptionally fast. During the workshop, Mr Kensuke Kanekiyo, research advisor and former managing director of IEEJ, forecasted that ‘China will soon become the single largest energy consuming country in the world. By 2035, China’s energy demand will be triple the amount demanded in 2008. With regard to the energy mix of China, coal is the predominant energy source, which accounted for 70% of the country’s energy consumption in 2009. China is the largest coal producer and reserve-holder, which means it can generally strike a balance between the supply and demand of coal. However, in terms of oil – the most important strategic energy resource, China became a net oil importer since 1993. The lack of oil reserves implies that China has to turn to those oil rich countries for oil supply, such as Sudan.

Valerie Hudson (2007) argues that natural resources, or the lack of it, may play a role in foreign policy. In the case of China, its reliance on foreign energy sources has partly shaped its policy toward its suppliers. The Chinese oil company CNPC holds substantial amount of stake in several of Sudan’s major oil fields. It bought 2/3 of Sudan’s oil export. The oil pipeline from Kyaukpyu Port through Burma to southwest China cuts the costs for transmitting crude oil from the Middle East and Africa. The need to secure energy supply has made China very cautious  and conservative in dealing with its relationship with Sudan and Myanmar. It vetoes most of the Security Council resolution against the two countries.

Cooperation in the energy sector can also contribute to improved bilateral ties. China, Japan, and South Korea, are now competitors in the energy market. It was noted in the workshop however that the three neighbors are in fact complimentary to each other. China has a huge consuming market, while Japan and South Korea possess advanced technologies in nuclear and renewable energy. The potential for cooperation is enormous. Furthermore, greater interdependence in energy can also contribute to easing the historical mistrust between them.

In conclusion, energy security and foreign policy are mutually interlinked. On one hand, it helps shape the foreign policy aims of the country, while on the other it serves as a catalyst for improved relations between countries.

Clogging of China’s Energy Arteries

Posted in Energy and Human Security by NTSblog on September 19, 2010

In late August and early September, we witnessed massive congestions on the highways of Northern China. The congestions stretched as long as 100km and stranded more than 10,000 trucks for weeks. These highways are considered to be China’s energy arteries, which link its heart (the capital, Beijing) with Inner Mongolia, one of China’s emerging coal producing provinces. According to Xinhua News Agency, the clogging was the combined effect of road repair and over-traffic of coal-loaded trucks. The incessant inflow of coal trucks into Beijing reflects the fact that the city relies heavily on coal for its energy supply, as Beijing is the epitome of China’s energy consumption patterns. In 2009, coal accounted for 70% of China’s energy use, and the demand is still growing rapidly despite the economic downturn. According to the IEA Outlook 2010, China’s annual coal consumption is more than the all OECD countries combined.

The predominance of coal renders China’s energy security vulnerable to changes in reserves and the price of coal. As the largest coal producer, China produced 3050 million tons in 2009, taking up 45.6% of the world’s total output. 85% percent of China’s coal production is for domestic use.  However, the country only holds 13% of the world’s total reserves, which means its production has exceeded its reserve. As a consequence, it is now faced with the fastest reserves depletion in the world at an annual rate of 1.9%. At this depletion rate, China’s coal reserves will be exhausted within 50 years if new reserves are not discovered. In order to meet its appetite for energy, China has casted its eye on the international market. Its coal imports for the first nine months of 2009 increased by 167% compared with the same period of previous year. The rise in the share of imported coal in the total coal use adds uncertain factors to the country’s energy supply, e.g. price fluctuations in the international market.

In order to reduce dependence on international market and ensure its energy security, China needs to diversify into other sources, e.g. renewable energy. The Chinese government has realized the risks and adopted measures to cope with the problem. In the 2010 Report on the Work of the Government, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao pointed out that China’s energy supply is one of the uncertainties faced by the country. In the 2006-2010 Five Year Plan, China planned to increase its renewable energy generation by 100% by 2020 to accommodate 20% of the country’s consumption.

However, despite the government’s commitment to diversified sources of energy at the national level, the policies have not been carried out faithfully yet. The clogging incident seems to reflect the fact that businesses are still very much entrenched in China’s conventional industrial structure, and have yet to diversify into other energy sectors. High energy consumption remains as the leading engine of China’s economy, and economic recovery and growth is the government’s top priority. Against such backdrop, we could possibly expect to see more “artery congestions”.

Re-creating Oil: Technological Advances in Recycling Plastic

From oil to plastic and back to oil.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first came across this video of a Japanese scientist discovering a method to convert plastic back into its original raw material source, petroleum. Clearly, as it turns out, this is not an illusion, but rather a sign of sheer innovation.

This invention is apparently not new, as such technology has also been created in the United States. Environ Inc. has created its Environ Oil Generator (EOG), which is said to be able to convert one ton of waste plastic into approximately four 42-gallon barrels of high quality, synthetic light to medium oil. Moreover, as opposed to the cost of USD 70 per barrel for conventional oil, converting plastics into oil is estimated to cost a mere fraction of about USD 10 per barrel.

There are indeed various advantages to such technological advancements:-

Firstly, a primary advantage of this invention is the reduction of waste, particularly with the emergence of “throw-away” consumerism couple with relatively low rates of recycling. In Japan, plastics make up at least 30% of household waste. In 2008, the United States generated 250 million tons of waste, out of which plastics made up 12%. As a result, landfills have been filling up rapidly leaving little space for future waste disposal, causing some countries to resort to sending their waste to neighbouring islands. Furthermore, the invention also gives some hope to addressing some of the most ignored global waste problems, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Secondly, the invention serves to improve access and affordability of oil. While there are efforts to introduce renewable sources of energy, the dependence on oil, is unlikely to change substantially in the short to medium term (especially for much of the developing world). As seen from the video, the invention has been most beneficial to less privileged communities as it provides them with a limited primary source of fuel necessary for development.

This invention also has clear relevance to urban poor communities in cities such as Mumbai and Jakarta. Given the emergence of cheaply mass-produced goods such as the Sachet product industry, the poor have consequently contributed to the growing amount of waste. For instance, instead of buying a big bottle of branded shampoo, less well-to-do folks can buy them in small amounts in plastic sachets. The accumulation of these plastic sachets have contributed to an increased amount of thrash, much of which has been a factor in exacerbating floods. Such an invention would therefore provide an attractive method of reducing waste while alleviating the threat of floods.

Finally, in line with addressing global warming, the invention also serves to assist in reducing the level of carbon emissions. Advocates suggest that burning oil would ultimately have a lower carbon footprint than plastics, which include the process of inceneration and landfilling.

While there are several benefits, this invention does raise the concern that this would possibly increase the demand for plastics. Given the ease of converting plastics into oil, would it be likely that people would purchase more plastic products in a bid to re-produce oil. Such a trend would clearly be against environmental advocacy on the need to adopt lifestyle changes such as reducing consumption and dependence on disposables.

All in all, it is a worthy invention as it provides some solutions for communities worldwide, and thus should be fostered with further investment.

Energy Security: The Risk of Global Breakdown

Posted in Energy and Human Security by NTSblog on August 25, 2010

By Tuomo Kuosa

Energy Markets work as a self-stabilising system, with supply always meeting demand. When demand increases, prices go up, when the demand decreases, prices go down. However, there are many examples in world history when the whole system has melt down due to an energy crisis. The most well-known examples are the energy crises of the Roman and Mayan Empires. It is believed that Rome had experienced heavy erosion and lack of fire wood before it fell into a series of civil wars, domestic pillaging and mistrust, and finally to the migration of hordes of peoples which ended the Roman system. Another example is the Central American Mayan Empire’s three rises and falls, due to the fluctuations of weather –between decades of very dry and decades of very wet periods lasting over a hundred years.

In the energy security matrix of social systems, there are six pillars: i) sufficient supply and availability of energy throughout the planet in the short term; ii) certainty of reasonable prices of energy; iii) prevention of cuts or extortions in the energy supply chain or distribution; iv) reliable R&D in new energy resources development in order to guarantee long term energy supply; v) sustainability in energy production; and vi) ability to handle the wastes that are created and the use or production of energy in a safe and reliable way.

The global population is assumed to grow at one per cent per year on average, from an estimated 6.4 billion in 2004 to 8.1 billion 2030. The growth rate of world GDP is assumed to be 3.4 per cent per year up to 2030. According to WEC’s Energy Policy Scenarios to 2050 energy supplies must double by 2050 to meet the energy demand of all households worldwide.

Most of the primary energy demand growth comes from non-OECD countries, especially China and India. The oil demand is estimated to decrease in OECD countries mainly due to decrease in non-transport sectors. The main increase is estimated to take place in China. Electricity demand is estimated to grow in all world regions. The growth is estimated to be highest in Asia (especially in India and Indonesia) where the per capita consumption figures are still very low. Growth is expected in renewable energy, carbon capture and clean energy. For instance the European Union’s energy politics and long term strategies are to enhance renewable energy production and fight global climate change.

The demand for oil will increase by 86 per cent from 2005 to 2050, and this growth is unlikely to be met by conventional oil. This means that the 30 per cent increase in non-conventional oil, such as heavy oil, tar sands, shale oil and arctic oil, is needed by 2050. Oil resources are decreasing steadily. Cumulative crude oil production until the end of 2005 reached 143,000 million tonnes – half of it produced within the last 23 years. This means that 47 per cent of the total reserves of conventional oil discovered so far, has been consumed. Taking into consideration also the expected resources of 82,000 million tonnes, more than 37 per cent of the EUR what is EUR? has been consumed. The depletion midpoint – when half of the EUR will have been recovered – will be reached within the next 10 to 20 years. Afterwards, the decline of conventional oil production is inevitable (EIA 2008). But supply and demand of oil resources are interconnected to coal and carbon capture systems development and investments to clean energy.

Worldwide, the use of coal as an energy source remains crucial to the economies of many developed and developing countries. Natural gas demand is increasing around the world but the major areas of trade correspond to the OECD regions: North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific.

Demand for nuclear energy is increasing. The European Commission projects a rapid increase in the use of nuclear power in electricity production until the year 2050. According to WEC, in 2007 there were 435 nuclear reactors with a net capacity of 367 GWe in operation all over the world. Of these, 346 (net capacity 310 GWe) are located in OECD countries. In 2005 the share of nuclear power in global electricity production was 16 per cent and in OECD countries the share was in 2007 as high as 21.6 per cent.

As discussed above, the first pillar is heavily challenged as the world energy consumption is increasing rapidly and relying more and more on fossil fuels. Nuclear power is the only noticeable non-fossil initiative in sight, but it has been estimated that both uranium and thorium resources would be consumed in 30 years if we would rely only on those. The second and third pillars are strongly challenged as well as they are linked to the first. Scarcity of energy would directly increase the prices, and that would make energy a more appealing weapon in the international politics. Russia has shown examples of this by cutting the gas supplies to Euro for two times already.

And when it comes to the fourth, fifth, and sixth pillars, it is quite certain that as long as fossil fuels are cheap, we are not putting enough efforts to R&D to get a new major energy source. This means we are most likely going to use all fossil fuels from the earth sooner or later. The Green movement can only try to slow this down somewhat, as a sudden brake in energy production would most likely cause a global breakdown. Thus, in the short run, what is more useful than restraining energy supply, is to get an efficient global carbon capture system, and sustainable ways to handle and utilise the energy production wastes. Yet, in the long run, we have approximately 10 to 20 years to find a new major energy source, and it should be in full operation before 2050. Otherwise we would be heading towards a total collapse of the human civilisation.

Tuomo Kuosa is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

Can Nuclear Energy Enhance Human Security in Southeast Asia?

By Ryan Clarke, Nur Azha Putra, Mely Caballero-Anthony and Rajesh Basrur

Two issues come to mind when assessing the viability of nuclear energy in Southeast Asia through the lens of human security. First, can nuclear energy be deployed without compromising human safety and accelerating already-worrying signs of environmental degradation in the region? Second, can nuclear energy really enhance human security? Both questions are particularly salient as political stability in the region can be tenuous and that the region itself is vulnerable to natural disasters, namely earthquakes and typhoons.

Hence, if human security is to be understood as ultimately about human development and welfare, it naturally raises the question whether nuclear energy can enhance human development. In the context of Southeast Asia, can nuclear energy alleviate poverty? Or will it simply be a means to an end – a national strategy to secure economic growth via energy security through the diversification of respective national energy mixes and resources? Or will the nuclear energy project in the region create new conflicts and exacerbate environmental degradation, such as the controversial hydroelectric dam projects which have led to the deterioration of river ecosystems and population displacements in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.

At the recently concluded conference on ‘Nuclear Energy and Human Security’, which was organised by the RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies, nuclear experts and policy analysts agreed on one thing: while nuclear energy has the potential to deliver sustainable energy security and human security, it will not be possible without sound national governance.

The Criticality of Good Governance

Good governance and proper regulation in managing potential nuclear energy programmes is an absolute necessity. It plays a key role in ensuring that nuclear energy brings about real progress in the realm of human security. Furthermore, best practices that ensure non-discriminatory access will also lay the groundwork for larger regional frameworks later down the line.

Nonetheless, the primary question to ask when thinking about ASEAN nations that are seriously debating initiating nuclear energy programmes: will the additional electricity generated be loaded onto the existing grid structure or will it spark the development of new grids? Vietnam, for instance, has achieved somewhat of a revolution in its rural electrification programme. The government has constructed a major line that runs the entire length of the country (north to south), which enabled the development of various sub-grids that extend into new areas in the countryside. Economists and other development experts have also hailed the government for ensuring that the Vietnamese people enjoy non-discriminatory access. Nevertheless, these experts also warned that while an extended national electricity grid would reach more households, it would also inevitably lead to an increase in the national demand for energy.

As far as human security is concerned, Vietnam’s rural electrification programme plugs its people into the national economy, which then gives them a stake in its future. Going one step further, the effective provision of electricity may also play a decisive role in consolidating national identities, enhancing the “we” feeling, especially in multi-ethnic nations such as Vietnam and others, which have suffered from internal instability, or outright civil war.

However, other ASEAN nations that are debating the nuclear option, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, do not enjoy a Vietnamese-type situation, partly due to their fragmented, archipelagic geography. Given the current political and economic climate in Southeast Asia, effective and consistent governance is thus a key variable. It is critical in ensuring that nuclear energy is made available and affordable to households in the countryside, rather than just for urban and coastal industries. This is not simply an act of philanthropy; it is a crucial factor in sustainable national development.

Role of Civil Society

However, it is important to note that governance is not simply about formulating incentives and disincentives to guide the flow of electricity generated from nuclear power. Governance must also translate itself into various forms in order to effectively manage operational, environmental, and proliferation risks. This is something which will inevitably involve a multi-level approach with the active participation of non-governmental and civil society organisations (NGOs and CSOs).

Aside from effectively harnessing scientific expertise and technical know-how, there must be strict adherence to international treaties on proliferation. This will require a strong regional enforcement mechanism. Further, local CSOs and NGOs must be adequately consulted by governments – though not simply appeased, in order to benefit from their local knowledge, avoid unnecessary environmental damage – in order to benefit from their local knowledge , avoid unnecessary environmental damange, and to ensure that a critical mass of the community is on board.

On the other hand, CSOs and NGOs must realise that their role, similar to that of academics, is to provide objective analysis with the aim to inform and influence in a rational manner. These organisations should be considered important nodes within the framework of nuclear energy governance, not as antagonist outside of it.

Ryan Clarke, Nur Azha Putra, Mely Caballero-Anthony and Rajesh Basrur are Visiting Fellow, Associate Research Fellow and Associate Professors respectively at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. They are attached to the School’s Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies. Mely Caballero-Anthony and Rajesh Basrur were Convenors of the recent RSIS Centre for NTS Studies conference on ‘Nuclear Energy and Human Security’.

UAE Nuclear Agreement: A Model for Southeast Asia?

Posted in Energy and Human Security by NTSblog on February 26, 2010

By Alvin Chew

Alvin Chew

The recent nuclear deal between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) signified several new dimensions in the nuclear energy industry. Firstly, its intention to forgo indigenous enrichment and reprocessing is an innovative policy that will be welcomed by the global community. Secondly, the UAE has engaged in a partnership with KEPCO to build and operate the plants upon completion. This innovation in policies can save considerable time and cost which helps to overcome the worrisome process of acquiring civilian nuclear energy that is often peppered by political and social hindrances.

In addition to establishing the first nuclear power plant in the Gulf region, the record-breaking deal is also a significant milestone for the Korean nuclear industry, with Jordan now possibly considering South Korea’s favourable bid for its nuclear project. In fact, we may be seeing a new era of nuclear power emerging, not in the form of nuclear weapons, but in the competition for a slice of the civilian nuclear market.

The Korean-led consortium had outbid its rivals by almost 40% in upfront construction cost. In considering the worth of the deal, that is a hefty savings for the oil-rich nation which has been plagued by the financial crisis. Yet again, as nuclear energy entails strategic foresight, UAE’s decision to award the deal to the Koreans is not purely the lure of economic savings. It opens up an avenue for new entrants to challenge the incumbents such as France, United States and Japan who had dominated the market all this while. In the perspective of international relations, it can be seen as a balancing act that aims to bring more competitors to the market to bring down the cost of nuclear energy.

Innovative Change

Previously, nations had developed indigenous expertise to prepare for the operation of nuclear power reactors. Coupled with roadblocks in the licensing processes that attributed to construction delays, the cost of bringing in nuclear power resulted in excessive inflation in the past. The UAE arrangement is a joint-venture partnership that engages the Koreans to operate the facility, thereby giving the vendor a stake to bring down the construction cost and have the facility to be operational in the shortest time possible with the supply of experienced staff. It therefore opens up a whole new standard for the industry to adopt in future nuclear arrangements.

Striving towards Non-Proliferation

The UAE decides to outsource the construction and operation services of its nuclear programme. By staying away from both the front and back ends of the nuclear process, it underlines the transparent pursuit of nuclear power as an option for energy diversification. This serves as a model towards the handling and control of enriched radioactive materials. Disposal of nuclear spent fuel has clouded the adoption of civilian nuclear energy for possible new entrants, and the UAE’s forthcoming action is a step towards the progress of emerging fuel arrangements in the future.

A model for Southeast Asia

UAE is the third largest supplier of oil in the world and currently uses gas to generate electricity. However, it is facing an expected annual 10% increase in energy demand. With the cleaner nuclear option, UAE hopes to have its electricity running at a quarter of the cost in 2020. Its swift and decisive approach to its nuclear programme will provide the nation with a head-start in the management of advanced fuel options. It also draws in foreign direct investment and boosts its political stature in the region. In the long run, its strategic decision will begin to pay off when the UAE starts exporting electricity to member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) via the common power grid.

The UAE’s rise to economic prominence in the Gulf region has been phenomenal, modeling some of its infrastructure development after modern ASEAN nations such as Singapore. Its nuclear initiative which began just three years ago could have been accelerated by counter-balancing the nuclear threats posed by Iran and Israel in the nearby region. As we have witnessed to this date, UAE sees a more discerning justification in addressing non-traditional threats of energy security and global warming issues by adopting a programme that deters nuclear proliferation.

On the other hand, Southeast Asia had deliberated on their nuclear ambitions that were fermented decades ago, but has yet to concretise the development of civilian nuclear power in the region. While it can be argued that the economic, social and political climates differ between the ASEAN region and the GCC, it is certain that the astute judgment in pursuing the nuclear option could not have been possible without a paradigm shift to overcome the mental block that has dogmatised the industry. This is perhaps something that we can learn from the UAE experience.

Alvin Chew is a Visiting Scholar at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai and an Associate Fellow of the Non-Traditional Security Studies Centre at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.