Seismic study finds fault with Vietnam nuclear plants
Two fault lines hitherto uncovered have provoked myriad calls for Vietnam's nuclear power plans to be deferred on safety considerations.
Serious as the threats of earthquake and tsunamis are, geographical location is not the only problem with Vietnam's efforts to produce nuclear energy, experts say.
"We will build nuclear power plants. But there's no rush when primary preparations are not over. Lack of safety is very dangerous and nuclear power is not something to fool with," said Tran Huu Phat, chair of the Vietnam Atomic Energy Society.
Construction of the two-reactor power station in the south-central province of Ninh Thuan is expected to start in 2014, using Russian technology.
According to a report presented at a conference on nuclear technology held in Ninh Thuan on August 18, there are fault lines near the locations planned for nuclear power plants that had not been detected earlier.
These faults are still dormant, according to the authors of the reports - a group of scientists from the Vietnam Institute of Geosciences and Mineral Resources (VIGMR).
According to the report, the two fault lines, Suoi Mia and Vinh Hai, could cause earthquakes that could rupture any proposed structures nearby.
VIGMR director Tran Tan Van, who led the study, said the Suoi Mia fault had been detected via a 1.52-kilometer fracture that cut through the granite layer under the seabed.
Meanwhile, a fracture in the Vinh Hai fault line created a straight shoreline separating Hon Deo Island and several nearby islets from the mainland, he said.
The findings prompted the Ministry of Science and Technology to fund the group to conduct further research into these lines. Their study is expected to be completed in 2013.
"If it is found that these fault lines threaten the safety of the planned nuclear power plants, they will be moved to other places," said Vuong Huu Tan, director of the Vietnam Atomic Energy Institute.
According to a circular issued by the Ministry of Science and Technology on the construction of nuclear power plants, the project will have to move to a new site if there is an active seismic fracture within 8 kilometers from the planned location, unless there is another feasible solution.
"Until now, no expert has confirmed whether there is an active fault within this radius," Vu Van Chinh of the Tectonics Institute was quoted as saying by the Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper in a recent report.
He said earlier research had found that fault lines within 100 kilometers of the planned location could cause an earthquake of 5.5 degrees magnitude on the Richter scale.
While a fresh seismic study is underway, scientists are also divided on whether Vietnam is ready to build nuclear power plants and if it is the only option.
Bogomil Machev, executive director of the Bulgarian consultant Risk Engineering, said personnel resources would be a major challenge for managing, operating and maintaining the plants.
He said a plant requires up to 1,000 permanent workers and technicians with close to 30 years of experience in supervising the plants.
Others have said Vietnam's legislation on nuclear power is inadequate.
According to current regulations, the prime minister will approve the location, the Ministry of Science and Technology will issue the construction license and the Ministry of Industry and Trade will issue the operating license.
This process contradicts the International Atomic Energy Agency's guidance to set up legislation for nuclear power development. The guidelines require a sole agency to assume all the three functions.
According to the current plan, Vietnam will have 43 new legislative proposals on nuclear power prepared by 2013. This seems unlikely considering it took two years for consulting services from Russia and Japan to come up with a circular on safety evaluation for the location of their nuclear power plants.
"Although Japan had sufficient legislation, they had to struggle in dealing with problems arising from the Fukushima accident," said Le Chi Dung of the Ministry of Science and Technology.
On March 11, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake set off a giant tsunami, leaving more than 20,000 people dead or missing and creating the world's worst nuclear disaster in 25 years at the Fukushima plant.
"We will try our best to produce relevant legislation. If it fails to meet deadlines, the project should be delayed," Dung said.
Meanwhile, many experts have said Vietnam is ready to build the nuclear power plants, which they say is an important option in solving power shortages facing the country. The only caution needed is thorough research to ensure safety of the plants, they said.
Joonhong Ahn, a nuclear expert at the University of California in Berkeley, said researchers should detail how active fault lines have been in the past and how high past tsunamis in the region have been.
"The important thing is to make sure that your design basis is correct. The Fukushima accident indicated that their design bases were wrong," he told Thanh Nien Weekly via email.
"If those pieces of information (within 80-100 km, etc.) were found after the design had been made, the design should be reviewed carefully," he added.
Asked about the possible lack of regulations and personnel, Ahn said that it was still feasible to build the plants in Vietnam.
"Observing what happened in South Korea and Taiwan, they started their commercial nuclear power programmes in the middle of the 1980s. They have established necessary regulatory systems and expertise gradually," he said.
"I am quite confident that Vietnam's national power system including human resources has reached a sufficiently high level to start on nuclear power."
Magdi Ragheb of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign said generally, a national energy plan should allocate about 20 percent of the energy generated to renewable sources such as solar and wind and 20 percent to nuclear power.
"There seems to be rising scientific and engineering consensus that the use of hydrocarbon fuel sources is going to be phased out in favour of renewable and nuclear sources in the future," he said.
Satoru Tanaka of the University of Tokyo said Vietnam has made the "correct decision" to introduce nuclear power into energy options.
"From our experience in Japan, we believe that the transparency of projects in the course of nuclear power development is the best way to gain trust from the host communities and the people of Vietnam," he said.
"To ensure successful management of nuclear power plants, it is necessary to make steady progress in nuclear safety, human resource development and regulatory framework establishment according to a well-prepared plan," he added.
Last October, Vietnam signed a multi billion-dollar deal with Russia to build its first nuclear power plant, which is expected to come on-stream in 2020. Vietnam also plans to cooperate with Japan on two other nuclear reactors.
Eight nuclear plants are slated to be in operation here by 2031.
Talking with the media on the sidelines of the National Assembly session on August 5, deputy prime minister Hoang Trung Hai insisted that Vietnam cannot tackle power shortages in the coming decades without nuclear energy.
However, he said, Vietnam would only build the plants as long as it can ensure their absolute safety.
Thanh Nien News - August 30, 2011