Japan's Nuclear Lessons for Thailand

It isn't necessary to know a microSievert from a milliamp to know in your gut when something is just plain wrong, especially given the fast-moving nuclear tragedy unfolding in Japan today. Building nuclear plants in Thailand is just plain wrong.

Forget about the environment for a minute and the fact that the contaminated, radioactive seawater that desperate workers are pouring into Dai-ichi Units 1, 2 and 3 to attempt avert a meltdown will be released back into the ocean and live on in all those lovely fish we'll be eating (Remember mercury? Remember Minamata disease? Anybody out there give up fish?).

Losses from Japan's nuclear accident are estimated at $183 billion, the most expensive accident in history, and will probably rise. Hurricane Katrina, which struck the US city of New Orleans in 2009, only cost $45 billion. Bear in mind that Japan is a first-world, highly-industrialized, high-technology nation with experts and infrastructure—imagine a similar disaster in Thailand or elsewhere in Southeast Asia, like Indonesia, or even Malaysia, where corruption and substandard construction have dogged even the most conventional projects.

On the International Nuclear and Radiological “Event” Scale of 7, Japan's TEPCO reactors scored 5-6 as rated by Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire. Chernobyl (1986) was a 7 (major accident), Kishtym (1957) a six (serious accident), Three Mile Island (1979) was a five (accident with wider consequences). In simple terms, Japan's nuclear ‘event' has become a genuine disaster and it appears to be growing worse every moment.

There are 112 nuclear reactors in Asia, 37 more under construction, a further 84 planned and 80 additional under serious proposal. Thailand has had a “small” research reactor since 1977 and was planning to build a larger one as of early 2010. Vietnam has two plants under construction with two more proposed. Indonesia, a country at least as earthquake (and volcano) prone as Japan, has proposed two plants. The Philippines, another Southeast Asian nation with a long history of earthquakes and volcanoes, faced with some of the worst power shortages in Asia, has for year sought to open a US$2.3 billion, 630-MW plant that was mothballed 25 years ago by former President Corazon Aquino on safety and corruption issues.

After a 35-year nuclear ban placed on India because of its testing of nuclear weapons, New Delhi has leapt into the nuclear game, having concluded bilateral nuclear technology and fuel agreements with countries as diverse as the United States, France, Namibia, Mongolia, Russia, Angola, UK and the European Atomic Energy Community. The lifting of the ban has opened a nuclear market expected to total US$140-150 billion in India, which imports almost 80 percent of its energy requirements. Most of that energy is supplied by coal, which is a major contributor to climate change.

Thailand also has plans to build at least two nuclear power plants with four reactors unilaterally approved in 2007 by the military junta at an estimated cost of Bt242 billion (US$8 billion), with four more proposed over a period of 15 years. Proposals for construction have been submitted by Areva (France, government-owned), and the publicly-traded General Electric (USA), Mitsubishi and Toshiba (Japan).

GE and Toshiba constructed the damaged reactors at Fukushima with further investment by Hitachi and Mitsubishi. CANDU (Canada) and a Russian developer have also expressed into in building Thai reactors.

To quote from Thailand's Nuclear Power Program: “Nuclear power plants should be located adjacent to beaches.” Ao Phai in Chonburi province on the Eastern seaboard is the first location under consideration. Along Thailand's Southern Gulf coast—Ban Bangberd, Ban Lamthaen and Ban Lamyang in Prachuab Khiri Khan; Ban Thongching in Chumpon; and on the Southern Andaman coast, Ban Klongmuang in Phuket were being considered, along with sites in Ranong (Andaman) and Surat Thani (Gulf) as of 2007.

In 2010, the central region's Chai Nat, adjacent to the Chao Phraya River, and Nakhon Si Thammarat's Gulf coast had been added to potential sites, to extensive protests by local residents. I have heard it said that, well, Thailand doesn't have earthquakes. But we certainly had a major tsunami recently from earthquakes elsewhere, precisely the same situation as in Japan.

It takes at least 13 years of construction for a nuclear plant to come online. Greenpeace notes that nuclear plant construction always goes over budget, frequently by over 300 percent. All uranium fuel must be imported, primarily from Australia, which fixes world prices.

The world uses 67,000 tons of uranium per year, leaving about 70 years of supply at the current demand. At highs of US$138 a pound, the annual costs are US$9.25 billion to supply around 1,000 reactors worldwide.

If we continue to rely on nuclear power and build more reactors, we will not only see the end of nuclear fuel in our lifetimes but be faced with hundreds of dead, radioactive reactors and millions of tons of nuclear waste with no realistic means of containment. In other words, we're digging a radioactive grave. Is this the legacy we want to leave our children?

Thailand currently generates its electricity using natural gas imported from neighboring Burma, and hydroelectric power. Current costs of electricity production are estimated to be Bt2 per kilowatt hour for nuclear, Bt5.5 for wind, Bt10.5 for solar, and Bt4.5 for biogas. A report by the Nautilus Institute has produced a chart demonstrating that nuclear power has only been considered in Thailand during the periods of the Thai military's greatest ascendance.

Thailand has a well-documented history of bribery, corruption and kickbacks, from an estimated 90 percent of the cost of Bangkok's new international airport to a US$1 million bribe for the Bangkok International Film Festival. Can we really think the Thai military's recurrent interest in nuclear power has to do with anything other than personal enrichment?

My guess is that many readers are too young to remember a 1979 film called The China Syndrome. The movie predicated a nuclear meltdown to the center of the Earth. Have we all become too brainwashed by greed to think such dangers are an acceptable risk for our own comfort?

Approval for nuclear energy in Thailand is the only issue for which I would consider nonviolent civil disobedience in my adopted country. All of us have a responsibility to Thailand's future to stop the construction of nuclear plants before they start.

C J Hinke is with Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT)