Nuclear Option

N-energy as an option

BOONSONG KOSITCHOTETHANA , Bangkok Post, August 1, 2007

Nuclear power is a controversial subject around the world, with both critics and proponents very keen to have their views heard. The debate whether the world should build more nuclear power plants to meet the estimated 50% surge in global electricity demand in the next 25 years, is now upon us here in Thailand.

Nuclear power has become a hot issue here after the government in April approved a master plan for power supply development which called for the installation of 31,790 MW in additional generating capacity over the next 15 years. For the first time, nuclear energy was specifically included in the plan, with a 4,000 MW capacity plant to be put in place by 2020-2021 at an estimated cost of US$8 billion.

Fuelling the debate is the recent advocacy of the Thai plan made in Bangkok by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Mohamed ElBaradei. The statement was endorsed by Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, but was promptly rejected by Greenpeace. The 6.8 tremor which struck central Japan on July 16, causing some damage to the 8,212 MW Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant, has also renewed concern about radiation, because some water from the spent-fuel pool leaked into the Sea of Japan (though most of it was far less active than common natural radiation sources). That occurrence has brought up the question whether we should allow the case to compound earlier worries of risks to citizens’ health and safety due to possible accidents and radiation from nuclear power stations.

Should we allow the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster to continue to haunt us and stop us from exploring for new power sources as they did in many countries in the latter part of the 20th century?

What nuclear offers is a choice. Not an easy one, but one that needs to be considered on the basis of its merits and weaknesses, as all energy options should be. There is no panacea. We should not reject the nuclear option outright based on perceptions that resolutely bill nuclear as a pariah, ignoring the benefits it offers. Many experts agree that nuclear energy is the only non-greenhouse gas emitting power source that can effectively replace fossil fuels and that can produce the large amounts of “baseload” power supplies needed to satisfy day-to-day electricity demands.

With worries about terrorism now paramount in the minds of the world’s public and political leaders, concerns about safety that haunted nuclear utilities for decades appear to be receding. Many societies are becoming more aware of the scientific fact that the rate of fission in a reactor is not capable of reaching sufficient levels to trigger a nuclear explosion because commercial reactor grade nuclear fuel is not enriched to a high enough level. In fact, nuclear plants have by and large proven to be safe, thanks to new technology, stringent regulatory frameworks and strict operation controls. The World Nuclear Association offered a comparison of death due to accident among different forms of energy production – death per TWy of electricity produced is 885 for hydropower, 342 for coal, 85 for natural gas and eight for nuclear.

With electricity shortage, the increase in prices of fossil fuels, global warming from fossil fuel use, safer nuclear technology and national energy security, the world is left with little choice but to embrace nuclear power in a broader way. As of 2004, nuclear power provided 6.5% of the world’s energy and 15.7% of the world’s electricity, with the US, France and Japan together accounting for 57% of all nuclear-generated electricity.

At present, the IAEA reports, there are 435 nuclear power reactors in operation in 31 different countries, providing about 17% of the world’s electricity. As far as Thailand is concerned, a diversification of power source is necessary as the Kingdom is heavily relying on natural gas, which generates about 70% of total power supply. If everything goes according to plan, nuclear would represent only 7% of the country’s total generation in 2011.

Excluding hydropower, nuclear power promises to offer the least generating cost at 2.05 baht/kWh, compared to 2.07 baht from coal-fired thermal plant, 2.24 baht from coal-fired combined cycle plant, 4.02 baht from oil-fired thermal plant and 7.77 baht from gas-turbines.

According to a recent government study, the estimated generation cost from renewals are 20.20 baht for solar, 5.98 baht for wind turbine, 4.63 baht from waste and 2.63 baht from biomass. The current average power charge paid by the public is around 3 baht/kWh.

Boonsong Kositchotethana is Deputy Assignment Editor (Business), Bangkok Post.

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