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June 4, 2008

Govt gives greenlight to nuke plant for civilian use

Vietnamese lawmakers approved Tuesday the use of atomic energy for civilian purposes, paving the way for the construction of its first nuclear power plant to feed the booming economy, reported AFP.

The bill was passed by an "overwhelming majority," putting a legal rubber stamp on a decision already taken at the top levels of the country's Communist Party, a parliamentary official was quoted as saying.

Vietnam is heavily reliant on hydro-electric plants and is struggling to meet the growing energy requirements of consumers and an economy that expanded by 8.5 percent last year.

One industry representative said the move was only the "first step" down the road to fulfilling Vietnam's nuclear ambitions, and said authorities would need to devote "serious funding" to the plan to turn it into reality.

The draft version of the bill - which one official said was very similar to the final draft - said atomic energy would be used "for the purpose of peace and for socio-economic development."

It also outlined procedures to build nuclear plants to feed an economy whose power needs are rising by more than 15 percent a year.

But Vietnam's first nuclear plant, expected to be built in southern Ninh Thuan province, will not go up overnight.

Authorities aim to have the plant operational by 2020 with an initial turbine capacity of 1,000 megawatts.

State-run Electricity of Vietnam (EVN) has said it expects nuclear power capacity to grow rapidly, reaching up to 11,000 megawatts by 2025.

Phan Minh Tuan, who heads the EVN committee tasked with evaluating atomic energy projects, said the country hoped to increase its total electricity production capacity from the current 14,000 megawatts to 100,000 by 2020.

Several countries including Japan, France, South Korea, Russia and most recently China, are already lining up to build the nuclear plant, while Canada, India and the United States have also expressed an interest in the project.

Japan, capitalising on its 50 years' experience of nuclear power, said last month it had signed a major agreement with Vietnam to prepare the site of the plant, install controls and train specialists.

"The Japanese are pulling out all the stops at the moment in terms of resources and investment," said the industry representative, adding that the Chinese were "inexpensive and extremely determined."

Vietnam currently only operates a research reactor in Dalat in the south of the country, built by the Americans during the war and later renovated by Russia, and has been forging links with potential partners.

France has held conferences and seminars here to try to make its case to Vietnam's leaders. Several observers say an alliance with China could allow France to make a cheaper offer.

"If we buy our materials from the Chinese, the South Koreans or the Russians, it will be cheaper than if we buy from the French, the Japanese or the Americans," Phan Minh Tuan said recently.

But with construction of the nuclear plant not scheduled to start until 2013 at the earliest, that decision will not be made any time soon.

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