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Powering Southeast Asia’s Green Future with Nuclear Energy

  • ASEAN, just like the rest of the world, has a net-zero aspiration. Renewable sources like wind and solar are essential for decarbonisation. However, they are intermittent and weather dependent.
  • To ensure stable, 24/7 power supply, baseload energy is crucial. Only hydropower and nuclear energy can provide this reliability.
  • Nuclear power offers low-carbon electricity and grid stability, complementing renewables.


The world needs energy in the form of electricity, and lots of it, to support everyday life and drive human and economic development. Global electricity demand is expected to more than double from 25,000 terawatt-hours (TWh) to 71,000 TWh by 2050, primarily due to widespread electrification across key sectors.

Currently over 60% of total global electricity generation is being generated by fossil fuels – and this share needs to drop rapidly for humanity to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Renewables like wind and solar are expected to lead the push to replace fossil fuels, but these are not reliable enough to keep the flow of electricity going 24/7.

Only two known forms of clean energy can provide the scale of baseload power needed for stable, resilient, and dispatchable power non-stop: hydropower and nuclear energy.  Hydropower can only provide grid stability in specific environments – which leaves nuclear energy to play a key role in the energy mix of the future.

Securing the energy transition with nuclear power

Nuclear power already provides about a quarter of the world’s low-carbon electricity, providing stability and resilience to the electrical grid and backing up variable renewables, for example, when the wind isn’t blowing, or the sun isn’t shining. For these reasons, nuclear energy can help accelerate the energy transition, while making it more secure.

What’s more, nuclear is also one of the cleanest sources of energy available. When compared with other electricity sources, nuclear energy has the lowest carbon footprint, uses fewer materials and takes up less land. In comparison, solar power needs 17 times as much material and 46 times as much land to produce 1 unit of energy.

Nuclear power plants can technically replace coal-fired power plants due to their similar baseload power generation capability. As such, the use of nuclear power has reduced carbon dioxide emissions by more than 60 gigatonnes over the past 50 years, which is almost two years’ worth of global energy-related emissions.

These benefits are now being increasingly recognised by environmental activists and leaders around the world. At the recently concluded COP28 in Dubai, government leaders from 22 countries came together to sign a declaration to triple global nuclear energy capacity by 2050 (from 2020 levels) to meet climate goals and energy needs.

While nuclear energy still has some challenges, including high upfront costs – a new era of smaller, more flexible, and in some cases, transportable reactor designs known as Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are helping to make nuclear power more accessible, efficient, and cost-effective, especially for remote and hard-to-reach parts of the globe.

Unlocking Southeast Asia’s atomic potential

As one of today’s most rapidly developing regions, Southeast Asia’s power demand is projected to nearly double by 2050. Simultaneously, it is looking to reduce its reliance on coal use, which has expanded six-fold since the year 2000. On top of this, it remains one of the most vulnerable regions to increasingly intense and unpredictable weather events.

While much of the initial focus has been on renewable energy, there is a growing recognition that Southeast Asian nations need options that provide an alternative source of baseload energy as they begin replacing large fossil fuel power plants. Civilian Nuclear Energy (CNE) has long been proposed as a way to expand baseload power supply.

Indeed, CNE was one of seven areas considered under the ASEAN Plan of Action for Energy Cooperation 2016-2025. In 2018, the ASEAN Centre for Energy (ACE) identified the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia as regional nuclear “front runners” due to their nuclear energy infrastructure and advanced regulatory frameworks.

Although none of the ASEAN states took an affirmative decision to pursue CNE for power generation in the short-term, some have been in the front lines in developing it and have declared their intention to acquire nuclear energy. Others, including Malaysia, have expressed interest, but plans remained on the drawing board for cautionary reasons.

Experiences of ASEAN’s nuclear frontrunners

Despite some glimmers of hope over the past decades for nuclear deployment in ASEAN, the region has yet to see its first operational nuclear power plant to-date. The 2011 nuclear disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant has had an especially negative lasting impact on public perception throughout the region.

Vietnam for instance, which started looking into nuclear power as a viable energy option as early as the 1980s, eventually abandoned plans to build two multi-billion-dollar nuclear power plants with Russia and Japan due to rising costs and safety concerns. The move left Southeast Asia’s nuclear industry in a deep freeze, until recently.

The Philippines holds the distinction of being the first ASEAN country to venture into nuclear power with a significantly advanced nuclear power development plan. It is currently exploring plans to revive the mothballed Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, as well as considering the development of SMRs.

According to the World Nuclear Association, Indonesia is also eyeing sites for nuclear power plants and has pulled forward its timeframe for nuclear power development to 2039, riding on the momentum of the US$20 billion Just Energy Transition Partnership signed at the 2022 G20 Summit in Bali.

Thailand and the Philippines are also charging ahead with plans to start nuclear reactors by the next decade. In September this year, Thailand looks to unveil a national energy plan expected to incorporate SMRs, while the Philippines plans to operate a commercial nuclear station in the early 2030s.

Understanding Malaysia’s readiness for nuclear power

Malaysia too embarked on a robust nuclear program in the past, complete with ambitious plans to establish two operational plants by the year 2021. However, these plans were indefinitely postponed which led to the disbandment of the Malaysia Nuclear Power Cooperation in 2019.

Despite the advancements in nuclear science and technology, Malaysia approaches its exploration with caution due to concerns related to radiation safety and the management of radioactive waste. This is one of the reasons why nuclear was initially deprioritised as an energy option. Nonetheless, the Malaysian government has recently indicated a renewed openness to include nuclear power in our future energy mix.

Rafizi Ramli, Minister of Economy emphasised the need to consider nuclear power to manage the nation’s energy trilemma going forward. Moreover, given its previous experience with nuclear energy, Malaysia will find itself well-positioned to revive a national nuclear program with the necessary infrastructure and expertise.

This foundation encompasses institutional and legal frameworks as well as capacity building initiatives – all essential components for the successful implementation of a nuclear energy program. Nonetheless, communicating nuclear safety, myth-busting, and more discussions on nuclear benefits are necessary to build public trust.

Further, the public must also be assured that the building of future nuclear infrastructure, with today’s technological advancements, would be done in an environmentally and sociologically conscious manner – in ways that allow us to harness the full potential of nuclear power to meet our energy needs, while safeguarding the wellbeing of the people and the planet.

Capitalising on ASEAN’s nuclear opportunity

Nuclear is one of the safest, cleanest, least environmentally burdensome and, over the lifetime of a nuclear power plant, one of the cheapest sources of energy available. After years in the wilderness, nuclear power is now finally having its moment as the world races to find ways to mitigate the most severe impacts of climate change.

While there is still a great deal of skepticism around the atomic energy, there is growing interest in the possibility of nuclear power plants as an alternative for replacing fossil fuel power plants to provide stable baseload electricity demands. Over their long lifetime, nuclear power plants produce some of the most competitively priced low-carbon energy.

However, among the major challenges for Malaysia and the region include addressing misperceptions to strengthen the public acceptance and social license for nuclear energy. Awareness of the clear benefits of nuclear energy is still under par, as well as the safety concerns raised when dealing with all kinds of nuclear use.

There is also a recognition among energy planners that nuclear power comes with many new requirements to ensure that these facilities are managed in a safe and secure manner. A prudent policy approach would entail a detailed collaboration framework with support from stakeholders, regulators, industries, and consumers.

Newcomer countries like Malaysia would bode well by acknowledging the support from well-established nuclear nations, especially our own neighbors in the ASEAN region.

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