23 May 2007 - 09:12
  • News Code: 105355

Vehicles are parked near a skytrain station in Bangkok. Fearing a looming electricity shortage, Thailand has for the first time included nuclear power as an option in its long-term energy planning, despite worries about environmental problems.

The government’s planners believe that by the end of the next decade building nuclear plants will be the most affordable way of meeting the country’s rapidly growing energy needs.

“We estimate that by the year 2019, nuclear power plants will be cheapest power plants to generate electricity,“ said Twarath Sutabutr, an official at the energy ministry.

Construction of four conventional power plants has already been approved, but Twarath said the government’s latest 15-year Power Development Plan, which runs through 2021, calls for considering nuclear as a new energy source.

Building a nuclear plant is actually far more expensive than conventional power plants, but the energy produced is much cheaper--especially if global oil and natural gas prices keep rising in the future, Twarath said.

Thailand spent 912 billion baht (26 billion dollars) on energy imports, mainly crude oil, in 2006, up 16 percent year-on-year, according to the ministry.

The government first flirted with nuclear power 30 years ago, but the idea was dropped after the kingdom found natural gas deposits in the Gulf of Thailand.

About 70 percent of Thailand’s electricity comes from natural gas, with the rest from oil, coal and hydropower.

But natural gas reserves are running low, leaving Thailand scratching for new energy sources to ease its dependence on petroleum imports.

“It is quite clear that Thailand needs to diversify its energy sources, and it basically comes down to either nuclear or coal,“ said Martin Daniel, a Singapore-based energy specialist.

Thailand has already embarked on a series of energy deals with neighboring Myanmar, including a six-billion-dollar hydropower project on the Salween River, the longest undammed river in southeast Asia.

Twarath said the nuclear possibility is now back on the table because the government sees limited options for generating affordable electricity in the future.

But environmentalists disagree, and pointed to a recent report by Greenpeace that found construction costs for nuclear plants frequently run over budget--sometimes by as much as 300 percent.

A survey of 75 US nuclear reactors showed that the predicted construction costs were 45 billion dollars, but the actual costs were 145 billion dollars, the Greenpeace report said.

Average construction time has also increased from 66 months in the 1970s to 116 months for reactors that were built between 1995 and 2000, the report said.

Twarath said the government planners also believe that nuclear energy would provide a way of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases that fuel climate change.

That possibility was endorsed in early May at a UN conference on global warming here, after extensive debate among delegates at Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

However, the latest IPCC report also mentions safety concerns, the threat of weapons proliferation and waste disposal as constraints on the use of nuclear power.

Thai environmentalist expert Tara Buakamsri echoed those concerns, pointing to the risk of ecologic damage.

“There could always be a leak from the reactors, and the nuclear waste will make a huge impact on the natural ecology,“ Tara said.

Thailand does not need nuclear power plants. We have many alternative power options,“ including biofuels and wind energy, he said.

Tara also voiced concern that nuclear waste could be used to make weapons, and could make Thailand a target for international terrorism.

Twarath from the energy ministry said the nuclear plan could be shelved if a better choice emerges.



News Code 105355

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