Nuclear reactor gets govt nod for construction

Key Issues: 

The Nation 30 September 2003

By Sirinart Sirisunthorn

The controversial nuclear reactor project in Nakhon Nayok has been given the construction go-ahead.

This is despite the environmental impact assessment (EIA) not yet having been completed, and the safety analysis report having been rejected by a key committee.

The National Commission on Atomic Energy for Peace yesterday approved the research project, to be built in the province's Ongkharak district.

Suwit Khunkitti, deputy prime minister and chairman of the relevant committee, said the project was necessary since it would conduct research and development in nuclear technology for the country's benefit.

"The commission today does not [any longer need to] discuss the environmental impact of the project. We believe the sub-committee [on nuclear safety] has carefully studied the impact. That is why we approved the construction," said Suwit.

The Bt3.55-billion project has faced a series of hurdles since it was first proposed in 1989, and has met stiff opposition from residents near the site and environmentalists.

It has also faced trouble from government bodies, since its EIA was twice rejected by the National Environment Board (NEB) and its safety analysis report was rejected by the Nuclear Safety Sub-committee.

Only in July, the NEB reported to the Cabinet that the EIA contained out-of-date information and did not provide an assessment of the possible effects of a disaster, including earthquakes. The project is located in a fault zone.

The approval for construction of the 10-megawatt research reactor came a day after Suwit, Science Minister Pinij Charusombat, and the secretary-general of the Office of Atomic Energy for Peace (OAEP), Kriengkorn Petchabutr, had lunch together.

Kriengkorn, who reaches retirement age tomorrow, however claimed that the project should have no safety problems since it had been approved by the US' Argone National Laboratory.

The Argone laboratory is a US Department of Energy facility operated by the University of Chicago. However, Argone approval is unacceptable to some members of the Nuclear Safety Sub-committee since they argue the lab has no legal authority to approve a safety analysis report for any nuclear-reactor construction project.

Kriengkorn added that completing the EIA would prove to be a stumbling block. He claimed that the OAEP would succeed in providing the required information to the NEB and get the EIA approved very soon.

"The project is now ready for construction," he added.

Yesterday's approval upset environmentalists such as Santi Chokechaichamnarnkit of the Campaign for Alternative Energy.

"For me the approval is unjustified and should not have happened, since the EIA and the safety analysis haven't been approved yet," he said.

Science Minister Pinij excluded himself from the decision of the National Commission on Atomic Energy for Peace.

"Frankly, I do not have any authority to make decisions on the project. Everything is under the consideration of Deputy Prime Minister Suwit," he said.

Kriengkorn said the OAEP had not yet set a construction schedule. He added that General Atomic, a US-based construction company, would be responsible for building the facility.

Controversial history

The nuclear research project in Onkharak, Nakhon Nayok, was first proposed by the Chatchai Choonhavan administration in 1989. The project - which won government approval in 1992 - has always been controversial, facing strong opposition from residents and environmentalists alike.

Its environmental impact assessment report has twice been rejected by the National Environment Board, most recently in July. Its safety analysis report was also rejected by the Nuclear Safety Sub-committee (NSS).

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission also refused to approve the safety report, whereupon the Office of Atomic Energy for Peace (OAEP) sought approval from the US Department of Energy's Argone National Laboratory. The lab approved the report, although some NSS members oppose this, arguing that the facility has no legal authority to approve safety reports for nuclear-reactor construction projects.

The Office of Atomic Energy for Peace signed a contract in 1998 with General Atomic (GA), a US-based firm, to design, construct and operate the reactor. The contract expired three years ago, and GA demanded the OAEP pay Bt900-million compensation. No payment has been made.