Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung indicated that construction of the country’s first nuclear plant scheduled to start this year could be delayed until 2020, the Vietnam newspaper Tuoi Tre reported.

At a Jan. 15 meeting, Dung instructed PetroVietnam to secure a sufficient supply of fuel for power generation to prepare for a possible delay in construction, according to the report.

“Building nuclear power plants will be done with the highest safety and efficiency, and the project will not go ahead unless standards are met,” Dung reportedly said.

It was the first time Dung has mentioned the possibility of a delay.

The nuclear plant in question will be built at Phuoc Dinh in Ninh Thuan province in southern Vietnam. A Russian company was awarded the contract to build two reactors at the plant.

But a postponement in the project could affect plans for a second nuclear plant in Vinh Hai, also in Ninh Thuan province. A Japanese consortium of companies won a contract to build two reactors there.

“While we believe the latest move is directed at construction of the nuclear plant by Russia, we will continue to carefully monitor the situation for possible future effects,” said an official with Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which is promoting the export of nuclear technology.

Vietnamese officials have increasingly indicated a need to review the safety of nuclear technology since the 2011 accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Nguyen Quan, the science and technology minister, has touched on the possibility of a delay in construction work because of nuclear safety concerns.

The plan by the Russian company calls for starting construction on the reactors this year and to begin operations in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

The project won by the Japanese consortium would have had a total construction cost of about 1 trillion yen ($9.6 billion), with the plant starting operations around 2020.

The Vietnamese government has placed priority on the first nuclear plant and has not decided on the type of reactor to be used for the second plant.

The Japanese consortium won the project in October 2010 through efforts made by the Democratic Party of Japan government led by Prime Minister Naoto Kan. Among the Japanese companies involved are Toshiba Corp., Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and Hitachi Ltd.

Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the Fukushima No. 1 plant, would also have been involved as plant operator.

An official with a Japanese company tried to put the best light on Dung’s recent comment.

“The Fukushima accident had heightened concerns about nuclear safety, and since no decision had yet been made on the type of reactor, we felt there would likely be a delay in the start of operations,” the official said.

The Japanese government is pushing exports of nuclear technology to such regions as the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Asia as a major element of its economic growth strategy. The government says that sharing the experience and lessons learned from the Fukushima nuclear accident will contribute to an improvement in global nuclear plant safety.

Last autumn, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe personally visited Turkey to gain a general agreement for the export of nuclear technology to that nation.

Toward the end of last year, Abe met with Dung when he visited Japan and confirmed their intention to cooperate in construction of the nuclear plant.

Michiko Yoshii, a professor at Mie University who is knowledgeable about the nuclear energy issue in Vietnam, said suspicions about nuclear safety in the country became much more deep-rooted after the Fukushima nuclear accident.

“The former head of the national nuclear energy research institute called for a 10-year delay in the construction plan from the standpoint of safety and the lack of human resources,” she said. “Quan, the science minister, has also repeatedly said the development of human resources would not keep pace with the construction plans.”

Yoshii said when she visited Vietnam last September, she was asked to give lectures and contribute a piece to a national newspaper about life in Japan after the Fukushima nuclear accident.

“The Vietnamese government likely could not ignore such opinions, and that may have led to the decision to delay construction,” she said.

By Manabu Sasaki & Yuriko Suzuki - The Asahi Shimbun - January 18, 2014