Thailand is closer to nuclear energy than we thought


Over 100 journalists from around the globe were among 4,500 participants from 55 countries gathered in Moscow last week for the 8th International Forum Atomexpo 2016. The forum is hosted annually by Russia’s nuclear energy agency, Rosatom.

The journalists were from countries that have clinched deals with Rosatom for development of their own budding nuclear power programmes. 
In a session titled “Future of Nuclear Power: New Players”, representatives from Egypt, Jordan, Nigeria, Bolivia, Bangladesh and Cambodia shared reasons why they were taking nuclear energy seriously. 
During the three-day event, countries also signed around 30 different agreements with Rosatom. One example was the deal to establish a new atomic research centre in Nigeria, bringing the number of such facilities around the world to 53. The estimated value of agreements signed was US$10 billion, according to former Russian prime minister and now head of Rosatom Sergey Kiriyenko. No surprise then that the representatives prefaced their speeches with thanks to Rosatom. 
Some of the agreements involved tangential use of atomic energy, such as for hygienic irradiation in the food industry, but all the countries represented in Moscow are apparently exploring opportunities to generate electricity from nuclear energy.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), 30 developing countries have nuclear-power ambitions, three of which have reached the preparatory stage.
As a journalist from a country where public resistance to nuclear energy is sky-high, I couldn’t help feeling surprised. If all these countries follow through on their plans, nuclear power plants will mushroom all over the world. 
Countries considering building plants must comply with the IAEA’s 19 safety standards. Last year the atomic agency carried out compliance checks in Kazakhstan and Malaysia, with more planned this year in Indonesia, Poland and Bangladesh.
“We have different programmes for newcomer countries to prepare for safe operations for many, many years without accidents,” said IAEA deputy director general Mikhail Chudakov.
Those words are unlikely to reassure environmentalist, for whom last week’s conference was a nightmare come true.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the meltdown at Chernobyl’s Reactor No 4, when radioactive particles released into the atmosphere destroyed the environment for hundreds of villages in what was then Russia and is now part of Ukraine. The death toll from that accident is incalculable.
It also marks the fifth anniversary of the meltdowns at Fukushima in Japan, dubbed the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Though no deaths or cases of radiation sickness were reported this time, over 100,000 people were displaced and the clean-up operation will continue for decades.
For most Thai environmentalists, the risks of nuclear energy remain too high; our country cannot afford to adopt the technology without a far better guarantee of safety than is currently available. 
As part of their three-day trip to Russia, journalists were taken to the cutting-edge Novovoronezh power plant, some 500 kilometres south of Moscow and dubbed the world’s first successful example of the Generation 3+ nuclear technology also being developed in the United States, France and elsewhere. Engineers proudly presented new safety features initiated after the Fukushima incident, explaining that in the unlikely event of an accident at the upgraded reactors, radioactivity would be better contained. Nobody dared to say that accidents would never happen, however.
Novovoronezh boasts seven nuclear power units, able to generate electricity for more than 650,000 standard nine-floor 80-apartment blocks in the nearby city of Voronezh and surrounds. Despite memories of Chernobyl, people in Voronezh appear to wholeheartedly support the giant power plant. Unlike Chernobyl, it has suffered no accidents since it began operating in 1964, and is now used by Russia as a showcase of the country’s decades of nuclear experience and safety. The plant also employs 37,000 people from the city, generates about 60 per cent of its budget and contributes substantial sums to the city’s stadium, park and other facilities.
In Thailand, the national Power Development Plan projects nuclear energy will account for 0-5 per cent of the country’s energy mix by 2036. Five per cent is equivalent to about 2,500 megawatts of the estimated 49,655-megawatt power demand in 2036. The rest will come from natural gas (30-40 per cent), coal (20-25 per cent), imported hydropower (15-20 per cent), and renewable energy including hydro (15-20 per cent).  
Environmentalists in Thailand are especially concerned at the potential for human-related nuclear accidents, given the poor record of accountability here. Novovoronezh boasts that its five accident-free decades are down to extensive staff training. 
Operatives don’t get access to the control room until they have worked on the ground for at least three years and earned a licence from regulator. Given our own poor record in the aviation industry, how could Thais trust any future nuclear energy licensing system here?
But like it or not, we need to accept that more and more nuclear power plants will be rise across the globe. 
In Moscow, the head of Bangladesh’s Atomic Energy Commission Ali Zurkarneyn announced his country was building a nuclear power plant to increase access to electricity and rebalance the energy mix. Bangladesh’s neighbours China and India are active proponents of nuclear energy. “Our people will be surrounded by NPPs [nuclear power plants],” Zurkarneyn said. “We thus decided to build our own.”
Thailand’s neighbourhood already features a nuclear plant, in Vietnam, with plans for more in Indonesia and Malaysia. It seems the only way to halt their construction is to reduce energy demand. Well, if we fear nuclear energy that much, perhaps its time to start flicking off switches for unnecessary lighting and other wasteful luxuries.