The reason is it has the world’s third largest reserve of bauxite, the raw stuff of aluminum
When you think of small, developing nations, and nuclear energy, in the same firing of a synapse, what you get are small reactors. Once on the market, small reactors will be comparatively cheap, easily fit into a low capacity electric grid, and offer resilient power in six-or-eight packs of units of between 50-200 MW each.
So, when news emerged periodically that Viet Nam is thinking about nuclear energy, the logical thought was they are a potential customer for small package light water reactors like those being developed by Babcock& Wilcox and NuScale. Theses designs, when commercially available in the next decade, would meet many of the criteria to generate electricity for a developing nation.
The surprise is that Viet Nam is not thinking about small reactors. According to English language media reports, the country plans to build as many as seven 1,300-1,500 MW nuclear reactors by 2030. That’s a lot of kilowatts for a population of 87 million. What’s driving that vision of a massive new build in a small, developing nation?
The answer is bauxite, the raw ore of aluminum. An April 2009 report in the Economist indicates View Nam has the world’s third largest reserve of it. Rather than just export a basic commodity to China, Viet Nam wants to move up the value chain and launch an aluminum smelting and manufacturing industry to export finished goods to global markets.
China will still be the country’s first and largest customer. Also, it will be the source of mining and engineering expertise to develop the bauxite deposits.
Viet Nam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung (left) reportedly has set a goal for the nation to obtain 15-20% of the nation’s electricity from nuclear energy by mid-century. Ta Van Huong, Energy Minister, says the plan is needed to reduce the country’s dependence on imported oil. Based on numbers from U.S. plants in the Pacific NW, it will also need 2-3 MW of electrical power for each 1,000 tons of finished aluminum smelted in a new production facility.
The bauxite mining and alumina industry would create an impetus for socio-economic development in the Central Highlands, said Deputy Prime Minister Hoang Trung Hai (right) at a conference held in Hanoi on April 9. According to the Ministry of Industry and Trade, Vietnam’s bauxite reserve is estimated at 5.4 billion tonnes. Hai said that getting enough electricity is the key to successful development of an “alumina industry” for the nation.
Tan Rai project
According to an April 29 Reuters report, a Chinese company has a contract to develop the bauxite project. Reuters reported the Tan Rai bauxite complex includes a $460 million alumina plant being built by China Aluminum International Engineering Co, the engineering arm of Aluminum Corp of China Ltd.
The Chinese company is building the operation under an Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) contract, but will not take an equity stake in the project.
The mine, in Tan Rai, Lam Dong province in central Vietnam, may start output as early as August 2010, and produce 650,000 tons of alumina annually by late 2011, Duong Van Hoa, vice president of Vinacomin, said this past April. The mine is in Buon Ma Thuot in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
Environmental issues over mines
Environmental concerns about pollution from the plant have achieved a very high profile. In January, war hero Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, 97, sent an open letter to Prime Minister Dung asking that the bauxite mine to be put on hold until international experts can make an assessment of the environmental consequences of the project.
Giap reportedly still wields moral authority in Vietnam as a former military leader. He cited concerns among scientists and activists about "the serious risk to the natural and social environment posed by bauxite exploitation projects.”
He said that in the early 1980s he had overseen a study on whether to mine for bauxite in the region, and that Soviet experts had advised against the project because of the "risk of serious ecological damage."
Giap didn’t mention nuclear power plants in his letter, but if the reactors are needed to provide the electricity needed to smelt the ore, side bets are environmental opposition will get around to them in due time.
Scope of planned investment
By 2015, Viet Nam reportedly plans to obtain $15 billion in new investment in its aluminum industry with expected production by that year of 4.8-6.6 million tons/year. Electricity demand will run in the range of 2-3 MW of power for each 1,000 tons of finished aluminum based on U.S. production technologies used in the Pacific NW.
The timing of Viet Nam’s new nuclear build may not be moving fast enough to meet the demand for electricity from its rapidly growing aluminum industry. The initial plans by the Ministry of Trade and Industry called for the first three plants, with a total of 3,000 MW, to be operational by 2025. The government is pricing the plants at $6 billion for each reactor with a construction period of about six years each.
A key limiting factor is access to skilled trades and professional engineering talent. Viet Nam’s government initially turned to Japan for technical help, and several hundred Vietnamese nationals are studying nuclear technologies in Japan as a result. The government has also reportedly solicited interest from France, Russia, South Korea, and the U.S. to discuss possible investments.
Update Oct 9, 2009
Vietnam’s first two nuclear power plants with a total capacity of 4,000 MW will be built in the central coastal province of Ninh Thuan.
The plants are expected to start commercial operations in 2020, according to the Vietnam News Agency, construction of the plants will begin in 2014.
“The construction of the plants is the best and necessary option to ensure the national power security,” Deputy Prime Minister Hoang Truing Hay told a conference in the province Oct 8th.
There is a strong likelihood the plant will be located on a major waterway to assure delivery of large components by barge and for cooling water supply.
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