POWER CONTROVERSY: Govt 'keeping country in nuclear dark'

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The Nation 26 August 2007

By Pennapa Hongthong 

Academic labels PR blitz one-sided; expert doubts ability to manage radioactive waste

The government's publicity campaign for nuclear energy has been condemned by an academic, who says it is hiding the facts from the people.

Ubonrat Siriyuwasak, from Chulalongkorn University's mass communications department, is irritated with the Office of Atoms for Peace (OAP), saying it is only publicising the good side of nuclear power.

"What it is doing cannot even be called public relations. It is persuasion; it wants the public to believe only what it says," Ubonrat said.

Nuclear energy is a controversial global issue, she said, and the public requires full disclosure of facts - good and bad.

She said that before there was a public debate about the introduction of nuclear power in Thailand, people needed to be informed of the risks.

The military-backed government seems determined to press on with plans for nuclear energy, she added.

In the 2007 Power Development Plan, the Energy Policy and Planning Office said nuclear power would contribute 5 per cent of the country's energy by 2020.

The government in April set up a national committee on nuclear power. Since then the OAP and other government agencies have ramped up the public relations. Students were their first targets. Visitors to the annual science and technology exhibition that wound up last weekend were told how good nuclear energy was.

At the exhibition, the OAP pushed the message that the time was right for Thailand to go nuclear - it is cheap, clean and safe, visitors were told.

"I love nuclear power because it's safe and does not emit carbon dioxide," said a message posted by a student at the exhibition's notice board. There were hundreds of similar examples.

Global warming is caused by carbon emissions. Coal-fired electricity plants are a big contributor and the atomic energy office jumped on this to push its agenda.

There was not a single note on the exhibition board questioning the risks of radiation leakage, waste disposal, decommissioning and cost. The seminar did not cover these points, either.

Nuclear Society of Thailand vice president Pricha Karasuddhi wanted the public to forget incidents at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 and Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union in 1986.

"To create public acceptance we shouldn't talk about previous accidents because a new generation of technology is safer than before," he said.

However, one "negative" aspect of nuclear technology the office did discuss at the exhibition was waste management.

It said low-level radioactive waste could be buried 500 metres to a kilometre underground and would eventually "decay". It did not discuss the half-life of spent nuclear rods.

Wison Luangdilok, a Thai national who has worked for a nuclear consultant in the United States for 17 years, said there was still no technology to dispose of nuclear waste.

"Don't even ask the US how to deal with waste, because it won't have any answers. All its waste is kept at the plants where it is stored until it decays - in about 10,000 years," he said.

Wison was asked by the Science and Technology Ministry to speak at the conference. He told it the most important matter to consider was "transparency".

"To introduce nuclear technology you need public acceptance, and public acceptance cannot be generated if there is no transparency," he said.

With his experience in nuclear safety, Wison questioned the "efficiency of human resources and operational systems in Thailand".

"I am confident in the safety of nuclear technology. But uncertainties are caused by human resources and operating systems," he said. He cited news stories about runway cracks and corruption at Suvarnabhumi Airport.