Nuclear Power in Cambodia – Cambodia's Hunger for Energy and Growth

Nuclear Power in Cambodia – Cambodia's Hunger for Energy and Growth

Figure 1: Contamination caused by a Super-GAU in South-East Asia shown on the example of the core melt in Chernobyl 1986 as well as the Fukushima evacuation zone 2011 (yellow, 30 km evacuation zone)
Figure 1: Contamination caused by a Super-GAU in South-East Asia shown on the example of the core melt in Chernobyl 1986 as well as the Fukushima evacuation zone 2011 (yellow, 30 km evacuation zone) — Image Credits

In order to enable the citizens of their country prosperity by means of economic growth, the Cambodian governments wants to satisfy the hunger for energy. What in 2012 was meant as brinkmanship especially in the direction of the neighbouring countries of Thailand and Vietnam, when the Cambodian Government said that nobody in Cambodia intends to build a nuclear power plant in Cambodia, has now become foreign and energy political reality in Southeast Asia: Together with the support of Russia, Cambodia aims to build a nuclear power plant in the province of Koh Kong – close to the Gulf of Thailand  (GLOBAL TIMES 2012; INVESTVINE 2015).

China also wants to work more closely with Cambodia in the field of nuclear power. Representatives of both countries therefore met on 14 August 2017 to discuss the framework of the Mutual Memorandum of Understanding, or MoU for short. According to the Phnom Penh Post, it will primarily be about the construction of a research reactor, which should focus exclusively on research for medical purposes (INVESTVINE 2015 ; LANG 2016: 8; MURRAY 2012; PHNOM PENH POST 2017; UNFCCC 2012).

Nuclear power advocates argue that by successfully commissioning a nuclear reactor Cambodia could minimize its emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2. However, greenhouse gases are emitted for uranium processing and enrichment of uranium, which makes it clear that overall nuclear power even has a poorer carbon footprint than gas-powered combined heat and power stations also known as cogeneration units. Furthermore, supporters of nuclear power say that a large portion of the country's hunger for energy could be satisfied, which on the other hand would provide a possible basis for independent energy supply, economic growth and prosperity. On the other hand, however, the resource dependency of Cambodia would increase, as the country has to import uranium from abroad, e.g. Kazakhstan, Canada or Australia, to operate a nuclear power plant.

As the example of Germany shows, the cancer rate of children who live around the nuclear power station within a radius of 5 km increases by 60%, while leukaemia (blood cancer) even increases by 120%. Adults are also more affected. The reason for this is that nuclear power plants emit radioactive substances such as tritium, carbon, strontium, iodine, caesium, plutonium, krypton, argon and xenon via their chimneys. These pass over the air and rain into water bodies (lakes, rivers and sea) and are thus absorbed by organisms, whereby they also, as e.g. radioactive hydrogen (tritium), can be incorporated into body cells and ultimately damage genetic material and finally cause cancer. Such a scenario also applies to the many workers in nuclear power plants, especially if they are not sufficiently equipped with adequate radiation protection, although they carry out cleaning, decontamination and repair work in the most dangerous areas. The hot sewage from nuclear power plants also pollutes the supply of oxygen for fish in rivers, which is why many of the people in the immediate vicinity are at risk to loose parts of their food supply. These health-specific aspects and scenarios would be most likely in the case of the operation of a nuclear power plant. This would also mean that individual areas in Cambodia become uninhabitable and, in addition to the health threat to the citizens of the Kingdom, the government also faces enormous problems such as deaths from cancer, ecological and economic catastrophes and ultimately an intensified urban and rural exodus. Operators of nuclear power plants are not obligated to pay damages, which is why this form of energy generation is also relatively cost-effective or rather cheap (ELEKTRIZITÄTSWERKE SCHÖNAU 2010: 3, 10, 11-13).

As already mentioned, the scenario just described must be regarded as given as a result of the commissioning of a nuclear power station. A so-called residual risk exists for a so-called 'Super-GAU' (german acronym for the largest accident that can happen). This scenario is anything but unlikely with regard to the disasters in Harrisburg, Chernobyl and Fukushima. In Chernobyl, approximately 218,000 km² (see Fig. 1) were contaminated with radioactive radiation. At Fukushima, no figures have yet been published. However, the radius of evacuation was 80 km (see Fig. 1). If Cambodia exposes this risk, the probability of a Super-GAU is given daily. Since nuclear power plants are not protected against aircraft crashes, this situation would be threatened by the location of the province of Koh Kong, as in this area several times per day airplanes are passing by. In addition, a simple storm event, such as a thunderstorm, can lead to a power failure in a nuclear power plant. This emergency situation means that the reactor does not receive an intact emergency power supply, as a result of the reactor cooling fails and a core meltdown is produced. Natural hazards like a tropical typhoon or cyclone can therefore have devastating effects in the form of a Super-GAU. Therefore, floods that are very common in Cambodia are a significant risk for nuclear power plants. Even at the individual level, the risk that employees are misunderstanding instructions, misreading or warning signals is not calculable and therefore a very high risk (ELEKTRIZITÄTSWERKE SCHÖNAU 2010: 20-23; SPIEGEL ONLINE 2010).

If there is a Super-GAU in Cambodia, this would have had an effect not only on individual landmarks, but rather on the whole of Southeast Asia. Figure 1 shows that in a Super-GAU with an extent of Chernobyl not only half of Cambodia would be contaminated with radioactive radiation, but also parts of Vietnam and Thailand would be uninhabitable. An evacuation within a few hours after the disaster is not possible because in the case of an aircraft crash or an explosion, the radioactive radiation does not remain in the reactor but propagates directly as a radioactive cloud. The entire coast of Cambodia would be contaminated and depending on the sea current in the Gulf of Thailand at the time of the Super-GAU, the coastal regions of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines will be contaminated with radioactive contamination. This would have unpredictable effects on the human-environmental system throughout the region. It cannot be ruled out that such a catastrophe affects the Australian continent and Oceania. Nuclear power plant operators are not insured for such a case, which means that in the event of a catastrophe no compensation would be paid and on the other hand, as already mentioned, this is a reason why nuclear power is cheaper per kilowatt hour than for example renewable energy (ELEKTRIZITÄTSWERKE SCHÖNAU 2010: 26-27).

Moreover, the question remains open where to put old burnt-out radioactive fuel rods and other nuclear waste. The disposal-issue is therefore not only unsolved in terms of Cambodia. Also globally, even after almost a century of nuclear power there is no solution concerning this problem! A final storage at a location that is stable over geological time periods, which is also far away from the extremely diverse biosphere and potential sources of raw material as well as human influence, is unimaginable in a tropical country such as Cambodia or the entire region. (ELEKTRIZITÄTSWERKE SCHÖNAU 2010: 33-36).


ELEKTRIZITÄTSWERKE SCHÖNAU (2010): 100 gute Gründe gegen Atomkraft. 4. Aufl. Schönau. 72 S.

INVESTINE (2015): Cambodia to build its first nuclear power plant. first-nuclear-power-plant/ (02.10.2017).

GLOBAL TIME (2012): Cambodia has no plan to build nuclear power plant for now. (02.10.2017).

LANG, C. (2016): REDDheads : Die Menschen hinter REDD und der Klima-Betrug in Südostasien. Konflikte um Rohstoffe in Asien. S. 12.

MURRAY, L. R. (2012): Target Cambodia. (01.10.2017).

PHNOM PENH POST (2017): Chinese nuclear pact in the works. nuclear-pact-works (04.11.2017).

SPIEGEL ONLINE (2010): Tschernobyl - Pflanzen passen sich der Radioaktivität an. 717812.html (02.10.2017) 

UNFCCC (2016): LDC Country Information. (01.10.2017).

WORLD URANIUM (2017): World Uranium Mining Production. fuel-cycle/mining-of-uranium/world-uranium-mining-production.aspx (02.10.2017).


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