NEWS that the government plans to introduce nuclear power plants to the Kingdom should be welcomed as a long-term boost for economic activity in the country, even if concerns over safety always plague the production of nuclear energy.
Cambodia’s woefully inadequate supply and transmission of electricity remains one of the main structural problems afflicting the economy, prompting high energy costs for the country's key industry, garment manufacture.
The only problem is that nuclear energy production is unlikely for many years, probably not until 2020, according to Ith Praing, secretary of state at the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy.
Still, at least the announcement shows the government is trying to solve the issue and is thinking long term while considering sensible answers to the energy problem.
In the shorter term, the government has made some surprisingly poor decisions in terms of boosting energy production, notably permitting Malaysian firm Leader Universal to build a 100-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Sihanoukville.
Though this facility will contribute quickly to energy production – it is due to go online at the end of 2012 – the choice of location could backfire badly on the economy.
Cambodia has been trying to promote Sihanoukville as the latest Southeast Asian beach resort for some time, an effort that has struggled despite the rehabilitation of the province’s airport by French firm Société Concessionaire des Aeroports.
Surely, building a power station that burns coal, the most polluting fuel available, does not bode well for tourism in Sihanoukville – SCA has already experienced major problems attracting scheduled flights to the resort.
Presumably, the decision to build the plant in Sihanoukville was made because of its large port that would be used to import coal.
However, Cambodia’s largest deposits are believed to exist at the opposite end of the country. At least 150 million tonnes of the fossil fuel are estimated to be lying below the surface in the north of the Kingdom.
“By using domestic coal, Cambodia will no longer need to depend on imported fossil fuels to power its electricity-generating plants,” according to the government’s Invest in Cambodia website.
So why was the decision made to build the new coal plant in Sihanoukville (with another planned for the area)?
Nuclear power is as efficient as coal production in terms of cost without the associated carbon dioxide and smog. The waste produced is also far less, even if it is very difficult to manage safely.
Countries including Britain have in recent years held heated public debate regarding the development of new nuclear plants in a bid to develop greener energy, and neighbouring Vietnam in June announced it would go nuclear to meet its increasing demand for electricity.
Cambodia is, therefore, following a well-worn path in considering nuclear industry, but the government needs to ensure that the private sector and the general public are included in the nuclear debate so that the country makes the right decision for all concerned parties.
By doing so, Cambodia should be able to avoid making poor choices regarding its energy future – such as its current plans for coal-fired energy production.
With this in mind, the government’s early announcement of its nuclear intentions represents a good first step.