“The public, and investors, can only be assured that new nuclear technology is safer if they know why the older technology was not.”
As much of Europe seems to be wrestling with its moral conscience over nuclear power, with an active debate in Germany over the planned phase out of nuclear capacity and a similar debate in the UK as the government nears the end of its nuclear consultation, there are signs of similar developments in Asia.
While Japan, Korea and China seem content to develop their nuclear capacity, with China |on a fairly aggressive nuclear investment programme, some of the other countries in the region are now facing up to the twin challenges of supply and climate security and coming to the conclusion that nuclear power represents the best opportunity.
Leading the way in the new nuclear resurgence are Indonesia and Thailand, while Vietnam is also planning to build its first nuclear power plant. As with the West, the governments of Indonesia and Thailand are both starting to face the backlash from environmentalists that has been all too common in Europe. Indonesia is also facing opposition from the powerful Muslim clerics.
In both Indonesia and Thailand there is an urgent need to develop a long-term energy policy that meets both environmental and supply security objectives. Thailand sources 70% of its power from oil and gas, with coal and hydropower being the other major sources of generation. While the country also wants to promote biomass for generation it has ruled out other renewable generation sources, such as wind or wave/tidal power in favour of nuclear with the military government wanting to build at least four nuclear power stations.
Energy minister Piyasvasti Amranand reasons: ‘In the long run, we have to look at something that is sustainable, cost effective and something that doesn’t worsen global warming. The only answer is clear. Without nuclear, you couldn’t reduce greenhouse gases.’
The Thai government envisages the first 4GW plant becoming operational by 2020, but needs at least four plants, and maybe as many as six, to make nuclear cost effective. Thailand’s generation needs are two-fold; it wants to reduce its dependence on oil and gas imports and has to address an annual electricity consumption growth rate of around 5%.
Natural resource and environment minister Kasem Sanitwong Na Ayutthaya concedes that nuclear is a major option, reasoning that there are no other alternative energy sources that could meet the country’s energy demands in the short-term. ‘In the near future, what kind of alternative sources of energy are there? If you look at wind power in Thailand, there is no hope. Solar energy, there is no way at this moment. We use solar energy for small scale use, not for industries.’
According to Thailand’s 2007 Power Development Plan (PDP) the country needs an additional 6402MW of installed capacity by the end if this decade. This will be sourced from new capacity being built by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, independent power producers and small power producers, and from power plants in Laos and other sources. In the second phase of the PDP from 2011 through 2031 another 31 791 MW of installed capacity will be required. It is the scale of demand that has forced the government to take the nuclear route, but if it is to gain the public support that is critical for developing nuclear capacity it should learn some lessons from the somewhat shambolic nuclear consultation process currently being conducted in the UK. But the early signs are that the government is adopting a similarly arrogant approach to what is a highly sensitive topic.
In August the Office of Atomic Energy for Peace (OAEP) launched one of its first programmes to educate the public on nuclear energy at Bangkok’s annual national science fair. The publicity blitz was aimed at students and was rather subtle, given that the public perception of nuclear in much of Asia remains largely negative. Everyone seems to have a long-term memory when it comes to nuclear – Three Mile Island thirty years ago and Chernobyl two decades ago – while largely ignoring the past twenty years when there have been no major incidents.
If Thailand is to proceed with nuclear power, which it should, it first needs to properly educate the market in an open and unbiased way. The approach taken by the OAEP at the recent science fair suggests the government needs a crash course in public relations and marketing. Following the fair a typical message posted by students was ‘I love nuclear power because it’s safe and does not emit carbon dioxide.’ Of course there is nothing wrong with this comment, as nuclear generation is safe and carbon free, but would these students have posted such glowing endorsements of nuclear power if the science fair had addressed the issues of radiation leakage, waste disposal, decommissioning and cost? Maybe not.
In a free world the public has to be given all the background information if it is to make an informed decision. It is simply wrong to limit the information to achieve the desired consensus, but that is what the Thai government is seemingly doing. As the Nuclear Society of Thailand vice president Pricha Karasuddhi explained after the science fair: ‘To create public acceptance we shouldn’t talk about previous accidents because a new generation of technology is safer than before.’ He is wrong. The public, and investors, can only be assured that new nuclear technology is safer if they understand why the older technology was not.
There is a similar single-minded approach to nuclear power being taken in Indonesia. In the face of opposition from environmentalists and Muslim clerics the country’s research and technology minister Kusmayanto Kadiman is adamant that the government will stick to its plans to operate a nuclear plant by 2015 to meet its growing energy needs. ‘We are not going to shelve our plans to develop a nuclear power plant. Whatever is said of the project, we are going ahead.’
Thailand will benefit from nuclear power but the next government, following a general election scheduled for 23 December, will likely face a political challenge in educating the market. It has to educate the public on the economics of nuclear versus oil, coal and gas, it has to educate the public on waste management, and it has to educate the public on the benefits provided by nuclear towards long-term supply security and emissions reduction. If the government can conduct this education process in an open and unbiased fashion the probability is that it will gradually gain the public’s acceptance of nuclear. And if it takes this education route other Asian economies should follow its lead.
Nuclear is far from being Asia’s energy solution, but it has a vital role to play. It is now up to the region’s governments to make the case for nuclear.
Jeremy Wilcox is managing director of the Energy Partnership, an independent UK-based energy and environment consulting firm.