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Abstract

It has been said Thailand needs more energy for its growing economy and that the world needs eco-friendly energy sources to stave off catastrophic global warming. So, to encourage this, we might ask ‘should Thailand develop nuclear energy?’ The answer is ‘no’. Nuclear energy is not going to push Thailand towards cost-effective, efficient and climate-friendly energy use. If nuclear energy is forced upon Thailand by the government, its people and its environment will not only be just as vulnerable to climate change but also be subjected to chronic radioactive pollution, whilst risking both a disastrous accident and the spread of nuclear and radiological weapons.
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Journal of Asian Public Policy
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Should Thailand go nuclear?
Alan Marshall a
a School of Management, Asian Institute of Technology,
Pathumthani, 12120, Thailand
Available online: 13 Oct 2011
To cite this article: Alan Marshall (2011): Should Thailand go nuclear?, Journal of Asian Public
Policy, 4:2, 235-240
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Journal of Asian Public Policy
Vol. 4, No. 2, July 2011, 235–240
RESEARCH NOTE
Should Thailand go nuclear?
Alan Marshall*
School of Management, Asian Institute of Technology, Pathumthani 12120, Thailand
It has been said Thailand needs more energy for its growing economy and that the
world needs eco-friendly energy sources to stave off catastrophic global warming. So,
to encourage this, we might ask ‘should Thailand develop nuclear energy?’ The answer
is ‘no’. Nuclear energy is not going to push Thailand towards cost-effective, efficient
and climate-friendly energy use. If nuclear energy is forced upon Thailand by the gov-
ernment, its people and its environment will not only be just as vulnerable to climate
change but also be subjected to chronic radioactive pollution, whilst risking both a
disastrous accident and the spread of nuclear and radiological weapons.
Keywords: nuclear energy; Thailand; disaster
Introduction: Thailand’s nuclear plans
The rapidly developing nature of many Asian economies dictates that an increase in
energy demand is highly likely (Asif and Muneer 2005). For example, Thailand’s GDP
is forecasted to have a positive evolution over the next 5 years of around 5–7%. Because
of such forecasts region-wide, numerous Asian countries have tried to redevelop and
diversify their energy strategies in order to circumvent problems surrounding both the
satisfaction of rising domestic electricity demand and the desire to secure independent
energy. Thailand is among those countries with a clear aim to develop alternative power
sources.
Given the impending decision of the Thai government regarding nuclear energy (Thai
News Agency 2010), and given the promise of the Thai authorities to reassess the nuclear
option in wake of the Fukushima incident in Japan (Thai News Agency 2011), there is a
need to debate whether Thailand should go forward with its plan to build nuclear power
plants. This article attempts to introduce and encourage this debate at the level of Asian
public policy analysis by clearly enunciating the reasons why Thailand should forego the
nuclear energy.
Thailand’s main energy source today is natural gas imported from Burma; comprising
some two-thirds of its energy supply. This is a worry for the government for two main
reasons:
(1) It makes Thailand dependent on maintaining satisfactory relations with its
sometimes argumentative and unstable Burmese neighbour; and
(2) It ties Thailand’s industrial future to the eventual reduction of natural gas reserves.
*Email: alannigelmarshall@yahoo.com
ISSN 1751-6234 print/ISSN 1751-6242 online
© 2011 Taylor & Francis
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17516234.2011.595915
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236 A. Marshall
In line with the desire to diversify energy supply, the Thai government declared in its Power
Development Plan (Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) 2010) a strategy
to seek improvements judged in terms of (a) energy self-sufficiency, (b) economic reward
and also (c) greenhouse gas emission targets.
Part of the plan involves the development of atomic power so that nuclear will be able
to contribute around 10% of Thailand’s energy by about 2030. Under this plan, 40% of the
nation’s power will be generated from natural gas, 25% will come from coal, 20% will be
bought from neighbouring countries’ grids, 5% will be from renewable projects and the
remaining 10% will come from nuclear energy. So, what is wrong with 10% nuclear?
Nuclear waste
To get to that magical 10%, Thailand will need to build at least two nuclear reactors
and perhaps up to five. Over the course of a 40–50-year life time, these reactors will
produce thousands of tons of radioactive waste, both low- and high-level waste – liquid
and solid. All of them are dangerous and life-threatening. The high-level waste can kill
nearly instantly and takes up to a million years to decay. The low-level waste can cause
cancers if ingested or inhaled and can last up to 300 or longer years in a dangerous
form (Vandenbosch and Vandenbosch 2007). Any electricity produced by a Thai nuclear
power plant in the year 2030 will generate waste that will still be harmful in the year
20,030.
There are two main management options that might be able to be dealt with Thailand’s
projected radioactive waste. The first option would be for the high-level waste (used ura-
nium rods, for instance) to be transferred to another country. Russia seems particularly
keen on the business of taking other nations’ nuclear waste (Dawson and Darst 2005). The
other option is for Thailand to store and dispose of its own waste. Both these options are
fraught with problems.
Option 1 would involve the dangerous transport of radioactive material through third
party countries or across international seas, thus inviting thieves and terrorists to target
what may well be an inadequately secured nuclear cargo (Allison 2005, Marshall 2006).
Even when it gets to Russia, the sometimes horrific conditions of nuclear waste facilities
there burdens the local environment with probable contamination, not just for the near
future, but for the many generations to come (Bridges and Bridges 1995, Marshall 2005,
2007).
Option 2 is also a major problem since Thailand has no nuclear waste disposal facili-
ties and is extremely limited in being able to process nuclear materials. Having said this,
it should probably be acknowledged that of all the developed nations of the world, none
have actually solved the problem of how and where to dispose of nuclear waste. In North
America and Western Europe, for example, nuclear waste has been sitting around in tem-
porary storage for 50 years or more while every single plan to dispose of it permanently has
been thwarted by NIMBY politics (the politics of ‘Not-In-My-Backyard’) and/or technical
uncertainty.
In East Europe, it has been more a lack of funding and also nuclear agency negligence,
rather than local protest that has stopped the construction of appropriate disposal facilities.
Instead, in the post-socialist states, if the waste is ‘disposed’, it is often dumped illegally
into seas, landfills or abandoned areas.
Thailand is likely to have problems with both civil protest and funding; but if it ever
managed to move high-level waste from temporary storage to permanent disposal, it is
probable that the waste will one day find its way back to human communities either by
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Journal of Asian Public Policy 237
(a) natural events (such as flooding, tsunamis, earthquakes, storms and landslides),
or by
(b) man-made events (such as inadvertent excavation or the active salvaging of
weapons material).
The natural disasters listed above may possibly be mitigated by democratic decision-
making and by good management but given the massive expense of nuclear waste
management (billions of dollars per ton of waste) and given Thailand’s limited resources
and wavering civil rights, both good management and democratic decisions maybe but for-
lorn hopes. In turn, the man-made events listed above may spread nuclear material far and
wide into the hands of terrorists and enemy states.
Nuclear accidents
In the wake of the Japanese Fukushima problems, the present Thai Government has made
efforts to assure its citizens that all necessary safety aspects are being reviewed to ensure
a safe and healthy working environment within future nuclear plants. The authorities also
cite the safe 40-year operation of a small Bangkok-based research reactor to indicate how
safe nuclear energy will be in Thailand. If and when the two to five commercial reactors
are up and running, they will dwarf the power of this small research reactor by at least 1000
times. Thus, perhaps the Thai population should expect the scale of safety to be upgraded
a thousand fold.
Despite the promises of safety, and the small scale of past nuclear operations in the
country, there have been nuclear mishaps in Thailand. The best known being the incident
in early 2000 when a scrap-metal merchant and five others succumbed to lethal doses of
radiation after unwittingly acquiring radioactive material from unidentified men in white
lab coats (Probe International 2000).
In other Asian nations with nuclear programmes, nuclear accidents have been rife. In
India, for example, there have been numerous shutdowns, leaks, fires and a number of near
meltdown incidents (Gopi-Rethinaraj 1999). In Japan, even before the Fukushima melt-
downs, there were explosions, fires, earthquakes and patterns of management negligence
that lead to numerous radiation deaths over the years (Caldicott 2007). Despite the deep
secrecy of the Chinese nuclear industry, there are numerous reports of major accidents
among Chinese nuclear facilities also, many involving deaths or leakages (Condon 1998).
It is highly likely that a scaled-up nuclear programme in Thailand will encounter similar
problems, and that the workers and local community members will be most vulnerable.
If and when Thailand builds its reactors, they will have to be located in coastal areas in
order to get enough water for daily operations. These locales are themselves problematic
for a number of reasons. First, they are precisely the areas most susceptible to flooding via
tropical storms and tsunamis. If the December 2004 Tsunami happened to wash around a
nuclear facility, radioactive material could have washed up and down the coast for hundreds
of kilometres, vastly increasing the effects of the disaster, and possibly wiping out any
sustained industrial and agricultural use of coastal land for decades.
Thailand’s nuclear economics
The nuclear industry in Thailand is not large by any means yet the present government is
looking to make it so, citing the fact that an operational nuclear power plant can provide
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238 A. Marshall
(slightly) cheaper base load energy compared to any and all alternatives. However, a fully
operational Thai nuclear plant will be reliant on the following:
government-sponsored capital outlay of nuclear plant construction (to the tune of six
to ten billion dollars over 20 years);
government-funded research and development (to the tune of tens of millions of
dollars per year);
government-funded storage and disposal of nuclear waste (to the tune of bil-
lions of dollars over the lifetime of a plant, and for hundreds of years after it is
decommissioned);
government-funded training of nuclear staff (to the tune of hundreds of millions of
dollars for the first decades of construction and operation);
government-funded purchase of uranium fuel (to the tune of dozens of millions of
dollars for each reactor per year); and
government-sponsored insurance in case of accidents (to the tune tens of millions of
dollars per year during the lifetime of a plant).
Thus, any nuclear-produced electricity is only able to be competitively priced because of
the existence of massive subsidies. No other energy option in Thailand receives subsidies
on such grand scales and these subsidies are not calculated into the final cost of the elec-
tricity when the Thai nuclear agencies announce the price per energy unit of their nuclear
programme.
To pay for these subsidies, Thailand will have to go into a special nuclear-made debt
programme. A bevy of environmentalists (Custers 2008, Greenpeace 2008) believe that
a much better (and far cheaper) investment option is to develop an energy conservation
programme which would effectively dismiss the need for the construction of any nuclear
reactors.
Proliferation
Thailand’s nuclear ambitions have been approved by the IAEA (International Atomic
Energy Agency). Before reading too much into this, it should be noted that the IAEA
only started making noises about national nuclear projects in extreme circumstances when
a broad consensus of powerful countries express concern. It should be noted that the IAEA
is a two-headed watchdog. Although it acts to minimize potential proliferation concerns,
the IAEA is actually charged with spreading peaceful nuclear power, and as its membership
(and its staff) comprise pro-nuclear organizations and pro-nuclear individuals from around
the world; so the IAEA generally works to expand the virtues of nuclear energy and spread
nuclear technology. So it happens with Thailand.
So, would a peaceful civil Thai nuclear programme lead to an increase in proliferation
risk? The answer is yes (but most commentators in the world would acknowledge the risk
is rather moderate compared to some other regions of the world). The first risk is associated
with the increased amount of nuclear material and nuclear technology in the region and the
transport of these, via land and sea. If this material and technology is not secured to the best
possible degree, it could be subject to theft by those wishing to develop nuclear potential.
The first on this list of thieves may be Thailand’s closest neighbour Burma. Some in the
Thai government have already expressed worries about Burma’s nuclear bomb desires and
they pointed out clandestine relations between the Burmese military and North Korean
atomic engineers. As is often the case in East Asia, what one nation does with nuclear
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Journal of Asian Public Policy 239
projects often unnerves others (Beng 2004) and it has been indicated that Burma may be
prompted to acquire nuclear weapons as a guard against any nuclear weapon potential that
an expanded civil Thai nuclear programme may offer the Thai military in the future.
Public acceptance
According to national-level surveys, it seems that up until the Fukushima meltdowns, the
Thai populace accepted the idea of nuclear power – but at the same time, rejected the idea
of a plant being built in their own community (Patchimpattapong 2010). This Thai version
of the NIMBY effect might have augured well for any nascent nuclear industry since it is
the coastal areas that were probably to be chosen to host nuclear plants and these areas are
pretty much devoid of demographic importance or political clout. Since the Great 2011
Earthquake in Japan, though, public acceptance of all things nuclear has plummeted all
around Asia, including Thailand.
Although environmental protests are rare in Thailand, the acceptance of nuclear plants
in a Post-Fukushima world has not yet been tested. Anti-nuclear protests in Thailand may
also erupt for two other reasons:
firstly, if the nuclear plants endanger existing industries (e.g. the tourist, fishing or
agricultural industries), and
secondly, if the public start to perceive nuclear agencies as corrupt (as they have
done with many other public bodies).
Climate change
Like other governments, the Thai government is also trying to tie nuclear energy to a cli-
mate change programme as they advertise nuclear power as a carbon-free energy source.
However, while the average nuclear power station produces limited carbon dioxide during
its working lifetime, at every other stage of the nuclear cycle (uranium mining, uranium
enrichment, power plant construction and waste management), carbon dioxide is released
in staggering amounts; even approaching gas and coal emissions as measured per unit of
electricity produced (Caldicott 2007).
It may be true that if you ignore all stages of the nuclear cycle then Thailand’s planned
nuclear plants will produce much lower emissions compared to coal-fired plants. However,
if we compare the greenhouse gas production of the whole cycle of nuclear activities to
a similarly sized renewable energy project (say solar, wave or wind power), then nuclear
power comes out at 4–5 times more polluting.
All this is quite irrelevant, however, when we consider that Thailand is only aiming to
get 10% of its electricity from nuclear. It has no plan to actually stop using its coal and gas
options, so the tiny reduction in greenhouse gases that comes from nuclear is not going to
save the nation, or the world, from future climatic change.
Conclusion
Overall, it can be concluded that Thailand’s aspirations to develop a peaceful nuclear
power programme are not suitable at this moment given problems associated with safety
and security. Any Thai nuclear power station will be prone to natural or man-made dis-
aster. From typhoons to tsunamis through to thefts and terrorism, a nuclear plant will, for
many years beyond its operating lifetime, increase the vulnerability of Thailand to multiple
catastrophes.
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240 A. Marshall
The financial costs of such an endeavour are also immense and the money could be
used better in the area of energy conservation or the development of renewable resources,
both of which are cheaper and more environmental friendly.
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Allison, G.T., 2005. Nuclear terrorism. New York: Henry Holt.
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emerging economies. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 11 (7), 1388–1413.
Beng, P.K., 2004. Japan Leery of China’s nuclear energy plans. Asia Times Online, 11 November.
Bridges, O. and Bridges, J.W., 1995. Radioactive waste problems in Russia. Journal Radiological
Protection, 15 (3), 223–226.
Caldicott, H., 2007. Nuclear power is not the answer. New York: New Press.
Condon, J., 1998. Chernobyl and other nuclear accidents. London: Hodder Wayland.
Custers, P., 2008. Questioning globalizing militarism: nuclear and military production and critical
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Dawson, J.I. and Darst, R.G., 2005. Russia’s proposal for a global nuclear waste repository: safe,
secure, and environmentally just? Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development,
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