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Debates about the nuclear future in Thailand

Construction kit for a nuclear power plant (front). "Model of a nuclear power plant with pressure water tank". Photo: Alexis Dworsky. Licence: Creative Commons. Original: flickr.

March 24, 2011
Jost Pachaly
The nuclear disaster in Japan has opened up the discussion about the nuclear future of Thailand again. The idea about the introduction of nuclear power in Thailand dates actually back to the 1960s but has been actively pursued only since 2007, when the nuclear option was for the first time introduced into the Power Development Plan of the government. In 2010 the current Power Development plan has been approved by the government and included the planning for five nuclear power plants of 1.000 MW each, with the first being operational in 2020. There are two official arguments to introduce nuclear energy: decrease the dependency on local and imported natural gas, which currently accounts for 70 percent of the energy mix in Thailand and the reduction of green house gas emissions.

 However no final decision has been taken yet. Currently the planning is still in the first phase (2008 – 2010), which dealt mainly with feasibility studies and public relations. During this phase five potential sites have been shortlisted: Ubon Ratchathanee (Northeast Thailand), Nakhon Sawan (Central), Trad (East), Surat Thani (South) and Chumporn (South). The second phase, which was supposed to start in 2010 with the official government approval, site and technology selection and drafting of the respective legislation, has already been postponed by the government before the earthquake hit Japan. One reason for the postponement was that some of the studies were not completed yet and the current political situation in Thailand, which is due to hold elections in the next months. The nuclear decision shall be taken by the next government.

In the light of the earthquake and the subsequent nuclear disaster at the Fukushima power plant different statements on the nuclear option for Thailand were made by different government bodies. The government stated the need to review the plan for nuclear energy in order to ensure maximum safety and mentioned already the possibility of an alternative. In case the five nuclear power plants will not be built, it would be necessary to build 13 coal-fired and one additional gas power plant. The Ministry of Energy asked the public not to prejudge nuclear power plants, based on the accidents in Japan, and not to get into the debate if Thailand should or should not go for nuclear, as Thailand’s suitability for nuclear energy was still under investigation. The Commission responsible for the implementation of the nuclear plan went even further. At a recent event in Bangkok - ironically called “Save Our Planet” - the representative of this commission Pricha Karussuddhi stated that there is no alternative to the nuclear option and all that can be learned from Japan is that a maximum of safety will be needed, which is supposed to be possible taken into the account the technological developments in the last years.

A very strong and immediate reaction to Japan’s nuclear disaster came also from the side of the NGOs and communities from the potential sites for nuclear power plants. Already on 15th March, a forum was organized by Sustainable Energy Network Thailand (SENT), Nuclear Monitor, MeeNET, Greenpeace Southeast Asia, Thailand and Heinrich Böll Stiftung to discuss the consequences of the Japan incident with representatives from the potentially affected communities. At the following press conference the communities made it very clear that the nuclear option has to be dropped from the Power Development Plan since the risk of nuclear energy is too high. Instead of going nuclear the government should review the demand forecasts and invest in energy efficiency and the promotion of renewable energies. This call was repeated at a rally of 500 people on the following day, which was organized by the Ubon Anti Nuclear Movement.

For the NGOs and the communities the possibility to replace nuclear by coal fired plants is however no option neither, since coal fired power plants are also rejected by communities. In 2004, the communities fought against two coal fired power plants, which were proposed in Bo Nok and Hin Krud in Southern Thailand, resulting in the government’s decision to relocate these two power plants to another province and change the fuel from coal to natural gas. Since then, local opposition against coal fired plants has grown on a national level and is getting stronger day by day. The government would thus face big difficulties to implement new coal power plants against the will of the very vocal and well organized communities in Thailand.

A new approach for the future energy safety of Thailand is needed, which is based on decentralized systems, which give alternative energy sources a real chance, realistic demand forecasts, taking into account that already now Thailand has 29 percent reserve capacity and measures to improve the energy efficiency, which could decrease the energy demand by 30 percent.

Jost Pachaly, Director of Southeast Asia Office, Heinrich Böll Stiftung