It's time to drop nuclear option: Activist

Key Issues: 

The Nation 7 April 2011

By Achara Deboonme, Chularat Saengpassa

Thailand would not experience predicted power blackouts or brownouts if it decided against building nuclear power plants, according to an activist who urges the authorities to explore other options for increasing supply and reducing demand, especially in light of the recent Japanese experience.

He argues that nuclear power should now be completely ignored, given the disaster in Japan and the massive hidden costs surrounding such plants.

Witoon Permpongsacharoen, director of the Mekong Energy and Ecology Network, attacked the authorities for having given distorted information all along to promote their supply-oriented strategies.

"The issue at stake here is demand-side management and actual power demand for better supply-side management," he said during a briefing to The Nation.

Despite the nuclear accident in Japan after last month's devastating earthquake and tsunami, the Thai authorities have insisted that studies into the introduction of nuclear power should continue. Twarath Sutabutr, deputy director-general of the Alternative Energy Development and Efficiency Department, has admitted however that the plan would be delayed, or could even be cancelled, in the wake of the Japanese disaster.

Witoon believes the situation in Japan is a wake-up call for all nations that have embarked on, or plan to embark on, nuclear power in a quest for green energy or energy security. Through his extensive study of available technology, he is convinced that no one can prove nuclear power is 100 per cent safe.

He cites the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi facilities in Japan as an example. Reactor meltdown is likely despite a diesel generator to power the cooling system for four hours in an emergency, as well as a battery that could last eight hours. "The entire world is still scratching their heads on how to handle the after-heat and how to achieve a cool shutdown," he said.

Moreover, activists are concerned that nuclear power plants would make Thailand an easy target for terrorists. In normal operations, the country is yet to satisfy the public in terms of engineering quality, management, legal framework and scrutiny, he said, adding that doubts had now grown as a result of the ongoing crisis in such a high-standard location as Japan.

Activists are also concerned about Thai-style authoritative behaviour, which in the event of an accident could lead to a "non-thorough and costly shutdown" or a "time-buying yet dangerous" approach, he said.

Another issue concerns the policy for dealing with spent fuel â?? the nuclear-reactor fuel that has been irradiated to the extent that it can no longer effectively sustain but can still produce plutonium, which is a radioactive element used in the making of nuclear bombs.

Based on their own calculation that if the five nuclear power plants in the Power Development Plan 2010 (PDP 2010) materialise, 204 tonnes of nuclear reactor fuel would be needed in 2030. While the US government demands ownership of all waste for fear of nuclear-bomb development, the Thai authorities are not yet clear about this, he said.

According to Witoon, the energy authorities also provide misleading data when saying that low-carbon nuclear power is the cheapest option, when compared with power generated by fossil fuels or renewable sources. "Yet, including the decommissioning cost and variable costs like Tokyo Electric Power [which operates the Fukushima plant] is facing, as well as other damages, the cost is much higher than that," he said, adding that to shut down a nuclear power plant could require US 300 million (Bt9 billion).

Given all the costs and public concern over safety for nuclear power, the activist urges the energy authorities to look closely at the power-demand forecast and measures to reduce demand. In his opinion, Thailand may not need as much as 5,000 megawatts from the five nuclear power plants in 2030 to ensure smooth power supply.

The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) has been adamant that the reserves must stay above 15 per cent of installed capacity to ensure energy security. Expecting power demand to rise 126 per cent during the next 20 years, Egat estimates that installed capacity should rise from some 29,000MW now to 65,547MW in 2030 to keep the reserves at the desired level. In that year, peak demand is expected to hit 52,890MW, leaving reserves of 15 per cent.

During the interview, Witoon also highlighted the concern of activists that there is a flaw in completing the PDP 2010, as happened with 12 earlier forecasts from 1993 to 2010. While demand is officially forecast to expand 1,444MW per year during the next 20 years, actual annual growth in the past 20 years was 839.4MW.

"Ten of the 12 previous forecasts pent up the demand above actual rates," he said. "We believe this would be the case with the new forecast. Compared with a peak of 24,000MW in 2011, the peak forecast in the next 20 years shows such a huge increase. It is amazing how the economy would grow that much during the period. Given the negative growth of power demand in 1998-1999, and in 2008 and 2009, how can the authorities expect the economy to continue robustly without a pause?"

The energy authorities have claimed that new power plants, particularly nuclear, must be constructed or the reserves could drop and lead to power brownouts or blackouts. While reasoning that the nuclear option would reduce carbon emissions and provide stable supply, and that this would reduce Thailand's dependence of natural gas for electricity generation, they add that renewable sources are not yet stable. In the next 15 years, the Kingdom targets promoting the use of renewable energy from less than 10 per cent to 15 per cent of energy consumption, mostly via the use of solar, wind, biomass and biogas.

However, Witoon rebuts this claim. He said Egat should also look at the decommissioning schedule. The agency plans to decommission a number of generators that are 15-30 years old during 2011-2021, which will reduce capacity by 6,133.7MW.

While urging Egat to reschedule the decommissioning, he said the energy authorities should also do more in controlling demand.

To reduce the need for new power plants, he supports the Energy Ministry's plan to promote energy saving in buildings. In 2010, average energy use at shopping malls was cut 21 per cent from 556 kilowatt-hours per square metre per year in 2007 to 438.6kWh. In 2016, energy use is expected to drop further to 394.7kWh. Average energy use by hotels is also expected to drop 41.28 per cent from 173.2kWh per square metre per year to 101.7kWh.

Moreover, from 2009 to 2014, Egat has a policy for the nationwide replacement of 36-watt T8 light bulbs with 28-watt T5 bulbs, which will reduce energy consumption by 30 per cent. The replacement of 83 million light bulbs would reduce consumption by 4,800 gigawatt-hours.

Witoon suggests that large manufacturing plants be powered by their own generators. If diesel is to be avoided, the Energy Ministry should first encourage plants along gas pipelines to do so. Just as when the ministry plans to have PTT prepare for higher natural-gas supply in the event that no nuclear power plants are constructed, he said the energy giant could also do more in stocking up on gas. Based on the US experience, gas could be stored in depleted wells, which should ensure undisrupted supply and ease the authorities' fears over heavy dependence on gas, he said.

"We don't need nuclear power. Thailand could grow smoothly with power from gas and renewable sources as well as refocused energy-efficiency schemes. Nuclear power is no longer a sound choice, after the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster," he insisted.