Straits Times
July 9, 2007

Vietnam eyeing US reactor for nuclear plant

By Roger Mitton

HANOI - In a surprise development, Vietnam appears poised to order a nuclear power station that will use an American reactor. And given the United States' concerns about nuclear proliferation, it would be equally bold if it allowed the South-east Asian communist regime to use US technology in the plant.

Said Professor Carlyle Thayer, a noted Vietnam expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy: 'If Vietnam's decision to go with the US reactor is confirmed, this will be a major strategic decision.'

Still, most analysts said the US has now concluded that Vietnam will be a reliable partner in the nuclear energy field.

Prof Thayer said: 'Vietnam has been an exemplar in cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency and in meeting its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.'

Indeed, Vietnam had promised that its first nuclear power plant will comply with demanding international quality, safety and security standards.

Plus, Dr Vuong Huu Tan, chairman of Vietnam's Atomic Energy Commission, insisted: 'We would like to emphasise that we will not do any activities relating to re-processing banned fuels.'

Vietnam already has a US-built nuclear reactor located in the hill town of Dalat, about 200km north-east of Ho Chi Minh City. It was built in the early 1960s for the South Vietnamese regime, and it ran for five years until the then escalating war prompted US forces to shut it down.

Shortly before the war ended, the reactor's fuel rods were removed and shipped back to the United States.

Later, after North and South Vietnam were unified, the ruling communist regime in Hanoi obtained nuclear fuel from the then Soviet Union and restarted the 500KW Dalat reactor.

With around 200 staff, the plant is now used principally to produce radioactive isotopes for medical and research ends.

Unfortunately, the use of Russian fuel produced highly enriched uranium that could be used for making nuclear wea-pons.

So, last November, when President George W. Bush visited Hanoi, the two countries signed an agreement that paved the way for the US to help Vietnam convert the Dalat facility by this year into a low-enrichment plant that can no longer produce material to make a nuclear bomb.

Dr Tan said: 'Our first nuclear power station will be built by 2020 in the south, where we have many industrial parks with high energy demands.'

The power station will have two reactor units and cost about US$4 billion (S$6.1 billion) to build.

While there are French and Koreans bidding to build the new plant, the contract is expected to go to Japan's Kyushu Electric Power Company, which will use a reactor from Westinghouse Inc in the US, built under licence by Mitsubishi.

Dr Nguyen Nghi Dien, director of the Dalat facility, said Vietnam had not decided for sure on US technology yet, but called the idea of a Japanese plant with US technology 'a good option'.