Nuclear chief defends surprise approval

Key Issues: 

The Nation 3 October 2003

After three years of uncertainty, the government this week unexpectedly gave the green light to the construction of the controversial Ongkharak nuclear power plant, despite concerns from a nuclear safety sub-committee about the environmental and social impact of the project.

What was the reason behind the surprise decision? The Nation's Kamol Sukin spoke with Pathom Yaemket, a key official in the project who last Wednesday became secretary-general of the national nuclear authority, the Office of Atomic Energy for Peace (OAEP).

The decision affects not only the Bt3.55-billion reactor research project but also the OAEP, Pathom said. The following is an excerpt from their conversation.

What is the latest development in the project?

As you know, the Atomic Energy for Peace Board (AEPB), which is chaired by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and overseen by Deputy Prime Minister Suwit Khunkitti, approved construction just this week. After that, securing an operating license is the next requirement.

The construction is in two parts: the office building and infrastructure and the reactor itself. The first part is complete. For the second part, the design is complete and the construction has been approved.

I just sent a letter to the construction company, General Atomics (GA), to continue the work. In fact, our contract with GA expired three years ago, but we assume that it is still active as the work is not finished.


Does that mean new negotiations with GA?

No, but the timeframe and budget have changed. We need to finalise this. The old Bt3.55-billion budget was calculated at Bt25 per US dollar. The exchange rate has changed quite a bit since then. The Budget Bureau is working on this issue.

Why was the construction approved despite the concerns of the safety sub-committee?

The preliminary safety assessment report (PSAR) was completed in 2000. We thought it was time to make a decision as all the points in the report have been considered.

The sub-committee worries that the data used for the assessment is outdated, but the AEPB thinks it is acceptable. Overall, the board considers the project safe.

As far as the environmental impact assessment that is part of the PSAR, the project is still in the early stages so adjustments can be made while the construction is underway.


How long will the project take to complete?

Three years for construction. The OAEP will work closely with GA on the construction. Structurally, the OAEP will split into two bodies - a regulatory body and the project operator.

What is the new body's name?

Possibly, the Nuclear Technology Institution. It will oversee not only the Ongkharak project but also other research reactors across the country.

Some media reports have criticised "surprise" decision-making by three politicians: Deputy Prime Minister Suwit, Science Minister Pinij Charusombat and your former boss Kriengkorn Bejraputra. Some reports have even mentioned a private lunch taking place before the decision was made?

There has no such lunch. I have denied such political influence.

How will you work with the local opposition?

Like before: explain that this project is safe and will not hurt them. As academics and scientists, we are weak at public relations.

After the restructuring, do you plan to chair the regulatory body or the new institution?

The operator would be better, but I cannot nominate myself.

Villagers plan 'big move'

Villagers are planning a major protest campaign to the controversial Ongkharak nuclear-reactor research project - but only after the Apec meeting.

Opponents of the Ongkharak project will on Monday submit a protest letter to Deputy Prime Minister Suwit Khunkitti and ask him to reconsider his recent approval for the project's construction.

"We want him to stop the project," said a protest spokesman, who asked not to be named. "How can he approve the construction without the approval of the PSAR [the Preliminary Safety Assessment Report] or an EIA [Environmental Impact Assessment]?"

The source said approval of the project had angered villagers, who are considering a "big move" soon after the Apec meeting.