'Undemocratic' power

Key Issues: 

The Nation 11 November 2007

By Kamol Sukin 

The Surayud Chulanont Cabinet's recent approval of a Bt1.8-billion budget to pave the way for the country to adopt nuclear energy has drawn sharp criticism from anti-nuclear activists.

Calling it the "sin legacy" of a non-elected administration, opponents said the outgoing government should leave the decision to the next administration.

On October 30, the Cabinet approved the Bt1.8-billion budget as well as a plan to set up a nuclear energy office under the jurisdiction of the Energy Ministry. Over the next six months, there will also be eight public hearings to set a time frame for Thailand to make a political decision in the next three years on the choice of nuclear power.

"Why is this government rushing to push for nuclear power and approve a huge budget to promote nuclear, even though it's just an interim government?" said Witoon Perm-phongsacharoen of the Foundation for Ecological Recovery.

Energy activist Chuenchom Sa-ngarasri Greacen of the Palangthai group said it was the fourth time that a "go-nuclear" policy had been tried while the country was under the control of a government that was not elected.

"Looking back in history, all three previous major nuclear attempts also happened during undemocratic political circumstances," Chuenchom said.

According to Palangthai's study, the first nuclear push was in 1966 during the Thanom Kittikachorn-Prapas Jarusa-thian military regime. This led to a plan to build a 350-500 megawatt plant in Chon Buri's Ao Phai area, before being cancelled in 1974 following the first discovery of natural gas in the Gulf of Thailand.

The second push was by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) under the Thanin Kraivichian government installed after the October 6, 1976, massacre. This was abandoned several years later after strong public opposition.

The third was in 1993, after "Bloody May" in 1992, with a push by the Office of Atomic Energy for Peace for a 5-10MW research reactor in Nakhon Nayok's Ongkharak district. This was delayed and finally halted after allegations of corruption and safety problems.

"We are very hopeful that the new elected government will review this policy as its first priority," she said.

However, Energy Minister Piyasavasdi Amaranand has said the budget is only to study the nuclear option to see whether it is suitable for the country.

Kopr Kritayakirana, chairman of the Nuclear Power Infrastructure Preparation Committee, said the budget was to prepare the country for decision-making in the next three years.

"We need to be ready to make such a decision, and a study is necessary at this time," he said. He added that he was planning the details of the work for the six subcommittees which will be set up, as well as the eight forums which will be held to hear public opinion on nuclear power.

"Then the next government will make a decision whether or not to continue," he said.

However, Kopr admitted that an ongoing "study" process could automatically force the country to go nuclear if it continued to make regular progress.

"At some point our investment in studying nuclear options will automatically put Thailand at the point of no return except to go nuclear," he said.

"Personally, nuclear is worth considering as an option for Thailand but my mission under this committee is clear, that is to find what we should do if we have to go nuclear. The final decision on the nuclear option will be officially made in the next three years, by 2011.

"The nuclear project is politically sensitive and it could be reviewed by an elected government, but my mission will end soon after the eight public forums, around March next year," he said.

According to Kopr, the eight public hearings will be held from next month to February and the results reported to the Cabinet in March, against the backdrop of political change and a new government establishing itself. He said the political change should not affect his plan for the hearings. 

However, opponent Witoon hopes most political parties will agree to review the nuclear policy, even if they do not state clearly that they will reject it.

Witoon said there was a possibility that Thailand could still maintain its energy security without the nuclear option by relying on more renewable and energy-efficient options.

"With only a preliminary study we found these great potential options. I don't understand why Egat and the Energy Ministry did not include them in the nation's energy choices before making the decision on the 2007 Power Development Plan. This is a huge mistake and needs correction, otherwise the public will be forced to absorb a huge cost from nuclear investment," he said.

Activist Thara Buakhamsri said it was false to claim that nuclear energy would significantly reduce the effects of global warming.

"You cannot calculate only what is released from a nuclear plant. You must include the process before having the plant, as well as the uranium-mining process. Then you will find that the whole circle of having a nuclear plant does not reduce greenhouse gases significantly," Thara said.

Witoon added that the UN's climate meeting in Bonn had recently decided not to include nuclear power in its global-warming Clean Development Mechanism strategy.

He said a rough calculation of carbon released from the 2007 Power Development Plan for Thailand showed six-times higher levels of carbon released from energy development projects compared to today's levels.

"So how can it be said that with the nuclear option Thailand would be reducing greenhouse gases?" he said.