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Russia agreement could lead to nuclear power

Prime Minister Hun Sen walks with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh earlier this week. Cambodia is considering a nuclear power plant following a cooperation agreement signed by the two countries.
Prime Minister Hun Sen walks with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh earlier this week. Cambodia is considering a nuclear power plant following a cooperation agreement signed by the two countries. Sreng Meng Srun

Russia agreement could lead to nuclear power

Russia wants to help Cambodia develop a nuclear energy program.

A memorandum on nuclear cooperation was one of a flurry of pacts signed during this week’s state visit by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. But while specifics of the nuclear deal were initially unclear, the head of Russian state nuclear firm Rosatom yesterday spelled it out.

“The Cambodian government is mulling, in future, a nuclear power station construction,” Rosatom chief Sergei Kirienko told a group of reporters in Russia. He said that a research reactor and science centre should be the first step.

A statement on the Rosatom website states that the deal will see Russia first help engineer, build and operate an atomic research centre with multiple test reactors, with an eye towards eventually generating power.

Training personnel in the use of radiation technologies in industry and medicine are also planned, the statement says.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed the memo as signed, but did not comment further. Calls to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs went unanswered yesterday.

While Hun Sen publicly rejected the idea of pursuing nuclear energy as recently as 2014, Cambodia has previously flirted with the notion of nuclear energy as a way of feeding an anaemic energy sector reliant on neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand.

Suy Sem, minister of mines and energy, told the National Assembly in 2012 that Cambodia “cannot avoid building nuclear power plants – it is the government’s target”.

Cambodia ranks 116th in accessibility and affordability of energy across the population, according to the UN-accredited World Energy Council’s annual index. The Kingdom relies heavily on imported fuel and electricity and its high energy costs are a deterrent to investors.

Meanwhile, Russia is a world leader in exporting nuclear technology to developing countries, according to the World Nuclear Association. “Russia is in a league of its own,” said David Hess, a WNA spokesman.

He said that Russia offers very favourable financing to clients, offers training to both technicians and regulators and often “leases” nuclear fuel rods, taking back spent fuel for disposal. This makes the nuclear fuel cycle much simpler under the Russian “package deal”.

But even with Russian support, some experts have warned that Cambodia is not ready for the myriad challenges of a nuclear program and that it would be too dangerous to build a reactor here.

“I don’t think we should have nuclear power because it’s dangerous and not good for a developing country like Cambodia,” said San Vibol, an energy researcher with the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

He said that Cambodia lacks both engineering and law enforcement capacity to handle a project as complex as a nuclear reactor.

The Kingdom is also ill-equipped to respond to a disaster scenario, unlike advanced industrialised countries.

Cambodia has a “low” probability of joining the nuke club, according to a 2010 study by the Asia Institute.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, countries aspiring to nuclear energy should meet 19 milestones, including the creation of a regulator, a legislative framework, a robust grid, financing availability, environmental protection and others.

The process takes “at least” 10 to 15 years. Actually running a power plant requires a commitment longer than 100 years and the resources to support the program throughout.

Despite all these roadblocks, Hess said it’s no surprise that Cambodia wants reactors of its own.

“There is a strong push for nuclear power in ASEAN,” Hess said. “The countries in ASEAN are expecting strong economic growth and will be attracted [to nuclear power] for obvious reasons.”

Additional reporting by Chhay Chhanyda

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