Thailand’s immediate energy dilemma – nuclear and coal debated

BANGKOK (The Nation/ANN) - Thailand's main engery producer, Egat, insisted the country now needs energy from nuclear and coal power plants.

In the quest to meet higher energy demands from the growing economy and population, academics have suggested Thailand should invest in new electricity generating technology.

The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat), on the other hand, says energy security still relies on nuclear and coal sources.

Egat has said it is open to adopting new technologies, but that the technology had to be proven safe and affordable enough for commercial power generation. Nuclear and coal-fired power plants at present are the most reliable sources of energy for Thailand’s future, the authority said.

Egat deputy governor Ratanachai Namwong said new power plant projects are crucial to ensure the nation’s energy stability and sustain its expanding economy because of increasing power consumption.
Nuclear and coal-fired power plants are imperative components in this scenario, Ratanachai said.

“I insist that the fundamental power plants should be powered by gas, coal and nuclear because they can generate power constantly. Renewable energy – which many NGOs support – can only produce power during specific times and in certain environmental conditions, which cannot answer the power demands that [are constant],” Ratanachai said.

However, prominent energy expert Prasart Meetam said nuclear power plants are based on old-fashioned technology and fossil fuels are dirty and worsen climate change. “We should look forward to the new kind of technology that can produce electricity with less environmental harm.”

“Nuclear power may have been the [ideal] choice of power generation at one point of time, but it is out-dated now. The global trend has moved on to renewable energy such as solar, wind and biomass and the old technologies such as fossil fuel engines will disappear in the near future,” Prasart said.

There is certainly historical precedent for believing in the promise of innovation. Nikola Tesla, the famous 19th and 20th century engineer, whose inventions are fundamental to modern alternating current electrical systems, also projected massive strides afforded by technological innovation.

“Technology is progressing at a fast rate. We should be looking for a new way to generate electricity,” Tesla is quoted as saying. “Electricity is everywhere, and it is up to us to find the way to use it so we do not need nuclear or fossil fuel for the future of our energy stability. ”

In an interview with The Nation, professor Jaeyoung Park, president of the commercial fusion company EMC2, urged Thailand to start research on new power generation technologies such as nuclear fusion, which would not produce radioactive threats and could theoretically generate large amounts of clean power.

“Fusion power is the crown jewel of science. If we can achieve this technology, we can get limitless clean power. It emits zero greenhouse gas, produces very little radioactive waste – equal to that of a single hospital – and the power cost is cheap,” Park said.

He said the final phase of scientific proof for Polywell technology, which is a type of nuclear fusion reactor, would be finalised by 2020 – meaning fusion technology is progressing faster than previously thought. If the project succeeds, the first commercial construction of a fusion nuclear power plant could begin as soon as 2030. “We encourage Thailand to take the first step on nuclear fusion research, as Thailand has a potential for energy manufacturing capacity and it should start now,” Park said.

Ratanachai claimed that Egat remains open to the possibility of new power generation technologies and is always monitoring progress of fusion projects. But if Thailand is to adopt new types of power generation, proper study is needed first, he said.

“We have to make sure that the new technology is cheap enough to be commercialised and safe. We need to learn from others that it is worth adopting,” he said.

Whether or not Egat invests in fusion power research and adapts the technology to commercial power generation, Ratanachai said nuclear fusion is an interesting choice of power for the future.

But he said he does not see the technology being successfully studied and commercialised in the near future.

Nuclear fission remains the better choice in terms of practicality, he said.

According to the Egat plan, Thailand will have another three coal-fired power plants – excluding the proposed Krabi and Thepa coal-fired power plants – and two nuclear power plants. The locations of these new nuclear plants are still being kept secret.

The nation’s first nuclear power plant is supposed to start operations in 2036 and the project will have to begin by 2022 at the latest. Ratanachai said nuclear power plants would be totally safe, as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would strictly regulate every step of construction and operations to make Thailand’s nuclear power plants meet international safety standards.

Nuclear waste – each plant will produce 25 tonnes every one and a half years – will be stored inside the plant in radiation-resistant containers.

He said nuclear power plants are initially very expensive with construction costs of about 100 billion baht, but they are cheap to maintain, needing only 25 tonnes of nuclear fuel every year and a half. Therefore, he said, nuclear power would be cheaper than power from gas or renewable energy, and slightly cheaper than coal.

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