HANOI (Reuters) - Vietnam plans to start building its first nuclear power plant in five years and plug it into the grid by 2020 as demand for power continues to grow at a rate of about 15 percent per year, the country's top atomic official said.
After that initial step, planned for Ninh Thuan province, some 250 kilometres (155 miles) northeast of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam wants to expand to 15,000 megawatts of nuclear power by 2030, or 10 percent of total electricity capacity, said Vuong Huu Tan, chairman of the Vietnam Atomic Energy Commission, on Thursday.
"Nuclear power is a solution for the country to achieve its energy security goal," Tan told Reuters in an interview.
At present, about 60 percent of Vietnam's energy comes from coal and gas-fired plants and 40 percent from hydropower turbines, but demand outstrips supply and blackouts are common.
"The power shortage will be severe from 2015 as demand outpaces capacity so finding new sources of electricity is an urgent task," Tan said.
Demand for power will remain robust with growth seen at 14-15 percent per year "in the next several years", he said.
Total power consumption is forecast to rise to 93.4 billion kilowatt-hours next year based on forecast economic growth of 6.5-7 percent and industrial production expansion of 7.5 percent, the government said in a report on Thursday.
National generation capacity is expected to rise to around 17,900 megawatts this year, it said, but the country will still have to import about 3.5 billion kilowatt-hours next year, mainly from China, to bridge the shortfall in supply and demand.
Vietnam has already signed nuclear agreements with China, Russia, South Korea, India and Argentina, and aims to sign similar deals with France, Japan and the United States soon, Tan said. The agreements allow companies from those countries to supply technology and equipment to Vietnam.
Several companies, including Westinghouse Electric, a unit of Japan's Toshiba, Russia's ROSATOM, France's EDF and China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group, have been courting Vietnam to help build the plants.
Tan said for the first two plants top utility Vietnam Electricity (EVN) would be the sole investor.
However, it would only pay for a quarter of the total estimated cost of $10 billion and the remainder would come from loans made by export-import banks of the countries from which the foreign partners were selected, he said.
"All foreign nuclear power companies that approached us on this project promised the best quality and most modern technologies, as well as credit from ex-im banks in their countries if we buy equipment from them," he said.
The process for selecting foreign partners would be decided by the Prime Minister after parliament approves the Commission's proposal and pre-feasibility study for the first projects.
Tan said he expected the National Assembly to do so in October, or at the latest at its subsequent session in May.
The project "will require strong and quick decision making and efforts from the central government as it is a huge, capital-intensive infrastructure project. If we delayed, it would cost us a lot," he said.
Staffing the plants would be a challenge for Vietnam, since the country lacks academic programmes to train nuclear power plant engineers, and all had to study abroad, he said.
Domestic support for nuclear energy in Vietnam is high, said Tan, a Ukraine-trained nuclear expert who was studying in Kiev at the time of the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986.
"Our polls have showed very, very high approval from the public, especially from the residents who live near the site of the first plants in Ninh Thuan province," he said.
"Of course, we will have to come up with preferential prices for the villagers there."