Is Thailand serious about atomic energy?
- From: .. <..@.org>
- Date: Sat, 14 Apr 2007 13:19:51 +0800
Is Thailand serious about atomic energy?
By Anchalee Kongrut
Assistant Professor Sunchai Nilsuwankosit, a lecturer on nuclear energy at
Chulalongkorn University, should be pleased with the government's energy policy.
But he fears authorities will fold at the first sign of opposition.
This week, the Energy Policy and Planning Office (EPPO) approved a Power
Development Plan 2007 (PDP 2007) which calls for the construction of a
4,000-megawatt nuclear power plant within the next 15 years.
"This should be a good indication [of the government's intentions] but then
again, it could simply amount to a scribble in the sand.
"The government might back down the moment resistance emerges or when coal and
gas become cheaper," says Mr Sunchai, 40, who holds a doctoral degree in nuclear
engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States, and
who currently teaches at the only university in Thailand offering this subject.
Founded in 1975, the Nuclear Engineering Department offers only a master's
degree course. The attendance rate is roughly 10 students annually, and the
seven who graduate go on to pursue careers in radiology pertaining to medical
treatment or the food processing industry.
At present, the only nuclear plant Thailand has is a 30-year-old reactor capable
of generating 10 megawatts of power. It is located at the Office of Atomic
Energy for Peace, near Kasetsart University.
Mr Sunchai says planning for a nuclear energy option is the easy part of the
procedure. He also holds the view that nuclear technology today has advanced
considerably and is quite safe. He foresees no technical hitch should Thailand
want to build a nuclear power plant.
The challenge - and a big one at that - is in winning the community's trust and
support for the project, he says.
What does it take to build a nuclear power plant?
It will require 12 years to build a 1,200-megawatt plant. Once past the stage of
establishing a clear-cut policy, the country must proceed to secure contracts
with companies experienced in building nuclear reactors and with sellers of
nuclear fuel, as well as acquiring a permit from the United Nations's
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to use uranium-235 or U-235 - the fuel
for nuclear power stations.
Countries operating uranium mines include South Africa and Canada, but the raw
material must be sent for processing at industries located in Europe. Fuel
processing alone takes three years to complete. The IAEA requires countries with
nuclear reactors to report details of its use and the location of U-235, as it
fears the waste generated from uranium processing could fall into the hands of
Spent U-235 can be reprocessed through enrichment technology into missile
"That is why the IAEA is so worried about the ostensibly peaceful nuclear
development programmes in countries like Iran and North Korea. The lack of
reporting on waste management can lead to doubts that the spent uranium is being
redirected towards military purposes," he says.
The shipping of nuclear fuel is quite a task in itself.
Although the size of each nuclear fuel rod is only about one inch in diameter
and 2-3 metres in length, each rod must be strictly kept in shields made of
concrete and radioactive-proof substances such as Boron. Each generator uses a
bundle consisting of 80-100 rods of U-235 packed together.
Compared with the behemoth cargo of coal, the size of nuclear fuel may be
minuscule, but an entire vessel would be needed to ship U-235 from a processing
plant in Europe to Thailand.
"And if Thailand cannot find a reception location at a deep-sea port, road
transport would be possible only on the condition that traffic is closed for
hours - or days - as the truck transporting the material must not run above 40
kilometres an hour," the professor says.
Alternatively, a separate and cleared railway line would do.
The nuclear reactor itself does not require much space. For a 1,200-megawatt
reactor, a plot of land which can house the equivalent of a three- or
four-storey building with a total space of 3,000 square metres, would be
However, the plant would need additional space for a steam turbine to generate
electricity and a large space to accommodate a spent-fuel pond - plus a coolant
tower if the government cannot find an appropriate location by the sea or a
river from which the plant could draw large quantities of water to cool the
To safeguard radioactive leakage, a huge containment or concrete shield two
metres thick is required to cover the whole reactor.
This radioactive-proof containment is made of concrete with reinforced steel
bars 2-3 inches in diameter.
Mr Sunchai claims a containment this thick would be able to withstand a hit by a
combat military jet. But the cost of building the containment alone accounts for
one-third of the total cost of a nuclear power plant.
One of the few nuclear power plants built without a containment was the
Chernobyl reactor in Russia. An accident there in April 1986 caused 56 deaths,
and the deadly effects of the resultant spread of radioactivity are still being
felt today, 21 years later.
The real predicament of a nuclear option is not in the technology, but in how to
deal with spent fuel.
Known to be highly carcinogenic, U-235 must be encased in radioactive-proof
containers. Even the tiniest bit of direct exposure can lead to death.
Fuel installation must only be done by machine and must be carried out
underwater. A bundle of nuclear fuel rods can be used for about three years.
Though this is recyclable, only two-thirds of the spent fuel can be reused.
Before the waste can be sent to a processing plant, the spent fuel must be
stored in the spent-fuel pond for 10 years.
Another challenge for countries with nuclear power plants is finding a
completely secure site to dump the final radioactive waste which can no longer
be reused. This waste cannot simply be left the way it is. It must be mixed with
resin and coated with concrete before being disposed of in a highly secured
Japan buries its radioactive waste in a mountain core. The United States has a
plan to bury over 47,000 tonnes of radioactive waste - which is currently kept
onsite at the plants - at an underground site in the remote Yucca Mountain in
It is believed that radioactivity from the waste will take 10,000 years to
"Building a nuclear power plant is not that difficult," says Mr Sunchai.
"Operating it is another matter altogether."
Also, the safety standard for nuclear technology must be drafted with a mindset
of the utmost pessimism.
"We [nuclear engineers] are people who believe that accidents will happen, so
our duty is to prevent them. The more we fear, the better the safety standard
will be," the professor says.
He wonders, however, whether the easy-going attitude which characterises the
nature of many Thai people, will go well with the super-precise requirements of
The lack of insurance is another point to consider. When it comes to a nuclear
power plant, the government would be the sole responsible agency for all
liability costs, as no insurance company will offer a policy to cover a private
operator of a nuclear power plant, he says. "In a nutshell, running a nuclear
power plant is very much about integrity. Operating companies must be ethical
and uphold a high standard [of safety regulations] even though that may
translate into lower profits."
Nuclear power became a mainstream energy source in 1950. Currently there are 442
reactors in 32 countries generating around 15% of the world's electricity.
It has grown to become a major source of energy in industrialised countries,
comprising 80% of power supply for France and 30% for the rest of the European
Union, 20% for the United States and 40% for Japan.
Developing countries with spectacular economic growth such as China and South
Korea have started to try and tap into this technology to meet their rapidly
rising needs for energy.
Vietnam is on the way to building its first nuclear power station, to fuel its
industrial growth and sell surplus electricity to neighbours.
Decharut Sukkamnoed, a lecturer in economics at Kasetsart University, is
concerned about Thailand's adoption of nuclear as an energy option.
"The government is simply deciding its policy on the basis of electricity cost.
But we don't know whether the figures cited can be trusted. We do not know the
total cost of the nuclear option, including the construction cost, with its high
safety standard and waste treatment requirements," Mr Decharut says.
According to EPPO calculations, the electricity produced via nuclear generation
would cost 2.08 baht per unit, compared to 2.12 baht from coal and 2.29 baht
"The big question is," asks Mr Decharut, "can anyone put their trust in our
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