Nuclear power in ASEAN region a security risk: Greenpeace warns

Feature story - May 29, 2009
Greenpeace today warned that that the recent nuclear weapons testing in North Korea has underscored the dangerous connection between nuclear power and nuclear arms, and has called on ASEAN leaders to abandon their nuclear ambitions, or risk exposing the erstwhile nuclear weapons-free region to the dangers of weapons proliferation.

Greenpeace activists today protested at the main gate of the ASEAN+3 Summit venue in Thailand by launching a large balloon with banners saying "Not for Nukes, $ for Renewable Energy--Climate Action Now."

The call comes amidst international condemnation of North Korea's nuclear weapons testing early this week and concerns that the new development has heightened tension in the region. According to reports, North Korea has started reprocessing its stockpile of spent nuclear fuel rods to obtain the plutonium needed to develop weapons. The country has many nuclear facilities, spanning the entire nuclear fuel chain, including enrichment and reprocessing facilities, used to separate plutonium from spent uranium fuel. The country's estimated plutonium stockpile is enough to produce half a dozen bombs.

"Nuclear power and nuclear weapons are two sides of the same coin: they are so closely intertwined that the line between them is all too easy to cross. North Korea's threatening weapons development should serve as a stark warning to the ASEAN community regarding the serious risks to society that nuclear power technology creates. Countries with nuclear power are potential nuclear weapons states," said Greenpeace Southeast Asia Regional Nuclear Campaigner Tessa de Ryck.

The ASEAN region has ambitious plans for the development of nuclear energy for power generation, with countries like the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar seriously considering to operate nuclear power plants in the near future. The 10-member association, however, has declared itself a nuclear weapons free zone with the signing of the Bangkok Treaty, which came into force in 1997. But as Monday's test has shown, the presence of a nuclear power program renders curtailing the production of nuclear weapons an impossible task.

The world's growing stockpile of civilian-use plutonium is a cause of proliferation concern. A standard sized power generating nuclear reactor produces around 20 tons of highly radioactive waste per year, one percent of which is plutonium. Considering that only five kilograms of reactor grade plutonium is enough to fabricate a crude nuclear warhead (the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki in 1945 and killed 50,000 people contained 6.1 kilograms of plutonium) the security of the plutonium stockpiles is a paramount concern.

The planned nuclear power plants in the ASEAN countries combined can create as much as 200 nuclear bombs per year. The facilities will therefore require the strictest security as these would be likely targets for the region's extremist and terrorist groups.

"The North Korean weapons test could forebode the start of a regional arms race, one that will affect Southeast Asia as well. This is a dangerous path to tread. Southeast Asia is currently in a favorable position of being free from the risks of nuclear power, including economic and safety risks, aside from the threat of weapons proliferation. The ASEAN should set an example in abandoning plans for nuclear power development, and focus on proven solutions such as renewable energy and energy efficiency," said de Ryck.

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