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Lack of expertise a challenge to Cambodia’s nuclear dreams

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Russia has offered to help Cambodia develop nuclear power. AFP

Lack of expertise a challenge to Cambodia’s nuclear dreams

In the flurry of pacts signed during Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s state visit to Phnom Penh last week was a memorandum on nuclear cooperation. Details were revealed by the chief of Russian state nuclear firm Rosatom later that week. The Cambodian government was ‘mulling’ a nuclear power plant with Russian assistance, he told a group of Russian reporters. To explore the possible ramifications of a nuclear-powered Cambodia, Brent Crane spoke with Julius Cesar I. Trajano, senior analyst with the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and author of a recently published paper on nuclear energy in ASEAN 

Firstly, what is the state of nuclear power in ASEAN? 
Currently Vietnam has the most advanced nuclear power development program in ASEAN. It is set to start constructing its first nuclear power plant by 2018-19 and is expected to finish it by 2025. Indonesia and Malaysia have long been preparing for and studying nuclear power, though no political decisions have been made yet. Russia is helping Vietnam in [its] first nuclear power plant project. Russia is also offering technical and human resources development cooperation with Indonesia.
 
How might Cambodia developing nuclear power affect nuclear energy in ASEAN? 
If Cambodia decides to pursue nuclear energy, its neighbours in the region will have to seriously consider whether they would also want to pursue nuclear power. They would also have to ponder the implications of Cambodia operating nuclear reactors, especially the trans-boundary impact of any nuclear accident in Cambodia. 

Is Cambodia ready for a nuclear power plant? What sorts of challenges or dangers can you foresee here?
One main challenge is the lack of nuclear professionals in Cambodia. It does not have experience in operating nuclear power plants. It does not produce students with backgrounds in nuclear engineering. Competent nuclear professionals are extremely important in safely operating nuclear power plants as well as in establishing competent regulatory bodies. The safety regulatory body is a crucial element in any nuclear power plant program. How it would be able to oversee the safe and secured construction and commissioning of nuclear power plants in Cambodia if the country does not have enough nuclear professionals [is a major question].

How might nuclear power benefit Cambodia? 
One evident benefit is Cambodia would be able to produce electricity beyond the projected demand, so it would be able to export electricity to its neighbours.
 
Do you foresee there being any political pushback from ASEAN to a nuclear power plant in Cambodia? 
ASEAN has a principle of non-interference. ASEAN recognises the right of each member state to pursue civilian nuclear energy in a safely manner.  Cambodia has the right to decide whether it wants to use nuclear energy or not. ASEAN would merely encourage Cambodia to closely work with the International Atomic Energy Agency and follow various conventions on nuclear safety, security and safeguards.

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