Reconsidering nuclear
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Reconsidering nuclear

Economic progress may need the much-shunned technology.

A man undergoes a chest X-ray during an anti-tuberculosis campaign organised by the Rak Thai and Supamitr foundations at Hua Lamphong station. Nuclear technology is being used more frequently to provide accurate diagnoses. (Photo by Seksan Rojjanametakul)
A man undergoes a chest X-ray during an anti-tuberculosis campaign organised by the Rak Thai and Supamitr foundations at Hua Lamphong station. Nuclear technology is being used more frequently to provide accurate diagnoses. (Photo by Seksan Rojjanametakul)

The devastating accident at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011 sparked worldwide fears and forced many countries, including Thailand, to scrap their nuclear power development plans.

However, experts still believe that the technology is needed to help drive Thailand's economic transformation forward.

Radioactive experts say areas suitable for developing new nuclear power plants are limited because several countries are still afraid of radioactive leakage and its harmful effect on health.

In Thailand, radioactive leakage fears started long before Fukushima. Concerns about nuclear power and radioactive leakage began after the 1986 Chernobyl blast, while the accident at Fukushima further escalated fears.

But Thailand's ambitious goal to transform into a next-generation industrial base with innovation and higher technology may force the country to rethink its stance on nuclear.

Assistant Professor Phongphaeth Pengvanich, head of the nuclear engineering department at Chulalongkorn University, said Thai perceptions about nuclear technology remain coloured by the limited sphere of nuclear power.

He said nuclear technology has been applied to several purposes for many years, including food processing, agriculture and even medical equipment to help save lives.

The government's Thailand 4.0 initiative, which focuses on next-generation industries and innovation, will need more nuclear-related technology and more radioactive technology and equipment.

"The accuracy from radioactive equipment is very high compared with the same jobs performed by human labour," Asst Prof Phongphaeth said. "This helps improve efficiency, which is why nuclear technology is widely accepted in developed countries."

Phiriyatorn Suwanmala, a radiation scientist from the Thailand Institute of Nuclear Technology (TINT), said Thailand should rev up the creation of human resources for the nuclear sector, since nuclear technology will become crucial over the next few years.

For instance, Thailand will need human resources to operate and maintain nuclear equipment, particularly over the next few years, as it aims to become a hub for food processing and medical equipment in the region, for which higher nuclear technology and radioactive-related equipment are needed.

Ms Phiriyatorn said radiation plays a major role in the food processing sector in killing pests, increasing agricultural productivity and enhancing plants' resistance to drought.

In the medical sector, nuclear and radiation technology also play a major role in increasing the accuracy of the disease diagnosis process and help kill cancer cells, she said.

Sarayut Tunmee, a beamline scientist from the Synchrotron Light Research Institute, said nuclear technology is expected to improve to the level that will allow scientists, or doctors, to diagnosis health problems and other diseases at the cellular level, meaning higher accuracy of lab tests and medical diagnoses.

Other industrial sectors such as petrochemicals, ceramics and steel will also have to adopt nuclear technology to keep pace.

Kitti Suttisumpun, a director of the Laem Chabang Port Customs Bureau, said radiation has facilitated the customs process over the last decade by increasing the accuracy of surveillance.

The higher accuracy of surveillance could also enhance Thailand's efficiency in detecting other illegal goods, such as endangered species.

The dean of Chulalongkorn University's engineering faculty, Supot Teachavorasinkun, said the university has opened a new bachelor's degree in nuclear engineering, starting from the 2017 academic year.

Under the country's Power Development Plan (PDP) 2015, Thailand is set to have two nuclear power plant units, which are due to start operation during 2035-36, assuming that construction begins by 2020, said Norachai Limsirorat, director for the nuclear energy division and power plant engineering management at the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat).

"The widespread use of nuclear power depends on the decision of the new government and the Thai people, which should become clear during 2022-24," Mr Norachai said.

With strong opposition from civilian groups, plus incoming political changes, the idea of adopting more nuclear technology for the development of the Thai economy remains a far-fetched notion at this stage, he said.

In 1976, Thailand scrapped a plan to develop its first nuclear power plant with a generating capacity of 600 megawatts when natural gas resources were found in the Gulf of Thailand, galvanising the country's policymakers to immediately switch from nuclear ambitions to gas-fired power plants, resulting in the country's heavy reliance on gas.

More than 60% of the total power-generating system is sourced through gas, the supplies of which are rapidly approaching depletion.

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