A saga of half-lives and half-truths
In the midst of simmering public worries about a research reactor project in Nakhon Nayok's Ongkharak district, former journalist Supara Janchitfah digs deep into the dispute
I have more questions than answers upon reading the reply from the Thailand Institute of Nuclear Technology (TINT). Although I appreciate the organisation's attempts to address my long list of questions regarding the controversial multi-billion-baht plan to revive a research reactor project in Ongkharak, Nakhon Nayok province, I am not convinced by their presentation of puzzlingly self-contradictory "facts".
Due to space limitations, I can discuss only some of the key points in my correspondences with TINT here, as I also want to provide readers with historical background and pertinent facts I have discovered from my research. In my heyday as an investigative journalist, I used to cover nuclear issues extensively, be they in Thailand, Taiwan and South Korea, including spending a year in Japan researching the Fukushima aftermath.
My question: Has there been a liability law in case of accidents? TINT's reply: No, but we usually have insurance to compensate victims in case of such a possibility. My subsequent question is: nuclear accidents are not completely inconceivable. I wonder which insurance companies will accept such risky coverage. Think of the Fukushima disaster. Considering Thailand's lower safety standards than Japan, can we afford to have a radioactive time bomb ticking away in a residential area?
Actually, my first question to TINT concerns the site where the reactor is supposed to be built and whether or not there has been an environmental and health impact assessment (EHIA) done. The organisation gave me a rather vague reply: it was still reviewing the feasibility of the original site at Ongkharak that had been approved by the cabinet in 1993.
TINT, a public organisation, argued the original site chosen by the then Office of Atomic Energy for Peace (OAEP) which is now the Office of Atoms for Peace (OAP), had been in compliance with the rules on site selection stipulated by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). However, the landscape has changed drastically over the past 30 years.
The areas are home to a big state-run university campus accommodating over 10,000 students and personnel, the Princess Sirindhorn Hospital serving about 2,000 patients a day, and various other institutions.
Alarmed by the news about the project revival in their backyard, Ongkharak residents have been working hard to oppose it. Together they set up an entity called "the Association of Human Rights Protection of Nakhon Nayok (APN)", consisting of villagers, local academics and a doctor whose house is located a mere 5km from the project site. Despite difficulties getting access to information, the APN has managed to unearth a number of irregularities in how TINT and OAEP/OAP have gone about promoting this megaproject. The APN also questions the lack of genuine public participation and consultation throughout the process.
For the people of Ongkharak, facts don't come easily. They had to submit numerous petition letters to various state agencies, and still received only partial information. Last October, they staged an overnight sit-in, which prompted TINT to allow them to survey the Ongkharak site, upon which they discovered a huge number of barrels containing radioactive waste in one of the office buildings. The immediate question that came up in their mind: was the storage method really up to the international safety standards for radioactive waste disposal?
That is only the tip of the radioactive iceberg. After years of protracted scandals, in 2006 the OAEP eventually shelved the 10-MW nuclear reactor project at Ongkharak (intriguingly the same year when TINT was established).
According to the Council of State's Letter of Completion number 286/ 2009, all the OAEP's assets and debts must be transferred to TINT, including the properties in Ongkharak. However, there are a few disputes yet to be resolved by the arbitration tribunal. One notable issue is the lawsuit filed by the OAEP on May 14, 2007 seeking compensation worth 8.89 billion baht from General Atomics (GA), the reactor supplier. TINT said it had asked the Executive Director of Arbitrator to handle the case.
Among the hurdles delaying the previous reactor project, one stemmed from GA's inability to secure a safety analysis review from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission for operation of the particular reactor type to be commissioned by OAEP outside the US, GA's headquarters' home country. Prior to the decision to halt the project in 2006, OAEP had already paid GA about 1.8 billion baht. The agency repeatedly granted extra time to the American company totalling 1,739 days, and still the conditions were not met.
Meanwhile, GA requested OAEP to increase the budget from 3.3 billion baht in 1997 to 6.8 billion baht in 2001. On top of this, OAEP paid 247 million baht in consultation fees to the Electrowatt Engineering Services and another 111.4 million baht for the cost of acquiring uranium 235 fuel.
I also inquired: What happened to the uranium fuel? TINT made no mention of the financial bill, only stating that the fuel has been kept in France. It claimed that the uranium purchase was made according to Contract No. 56/ 1997. However, during a parliamentary inquiry on Sept 17, 2008, the Science and Technology Minister at the time revealed the purchase of uranium was made on Feb 14, 2001, two years ahead of the construction permission. TINT did not mention how much more has been spent to store it in that foreign country all these years.
The more I read TINT's reply to me, the more mystified and frustrated I have become. In fact, the sums cited above are only some of the taxpayers' money that has been spent and reported. Otherwise, the public has been kept mostly in the dark.
In the letter I just received, there is no specific mention of the budget for the new reactor (which the APN argued will skyrocket to about 1.6 billion baht), the size of the reactor (most reports cited 20 MWs), and even on the latest status of the lawsuits against GA.
TINT insisted it was just continuing the "old" project that had already been approved by the previous cabinet, but at the same time it is deemed a "new" project so that it does not have to wait for the final resolution by the arbitration tribunal before pursuing it further. What logic!
One undeniable fact to consider: according to the Council of State's stipulation in 2009, TINT would be able to renew and/or embark on a new contract, only when a "new contractor" would be responsible for all incurred expenses and it can be proved that the "contractor" is the one who has broken "the June 26, 1997 contract."
The much-touted benefits of a nuclear research reactor in Ongkharak may not be that promising. It appears TINT has a growing number of competitors offering radioactive isotopes and radiopharmaceuticals for medical, agricultural and industrial uses.
Nowadays more hospitals in Thailand have greater capacities to produce "radiopharmaceuticals", a group of pharmaceutical drugs containing radioactive isotopes, for their own use and even for sale to other hospitals.
Among them are the Chulabhorn Hospital's National Cyclotron and PET Scan Centre, and the PET/CT & Cyclotron Centre at Chiang Mai University (CMU). In response, TINT said the research reactor and the Cyclotron produce different radiopharmaceuticals.
According to CMU's website, the Cyclotron and PET scan machines cost about 230 million baht, with 12 million baht for annual maintenance expenditures. CMU Hospital serves as the centre for the northern region.
Similar setups might be replicated nationwide, with each regional-centre hospital being equipped with the machine to serve the locals. Even at that, the total budget would still be far smaller than the pricey nuclear reactor scheme.
TINT should not risk embarking on a new project, which will require a hefty investment with questionable returns. Despite citing the 1997 Information Bill, which stipulates the citizens' right to know, the locals at Ongkharak have difficulty accessing the Environmental and Health Impact Assessment reports.
With no real participation from the very beginning, any public hearings TINT will stage, as part of the requisites to get a green light for construction (reportedly slated to begin next year), will serve only as a mere farce, just for show. It remains doubtful who will gain from this project. For sure, the taxpayers are the ones who are likely to lose -- again.
Former Bangkok Post journalist
Supara Janchitfah is a former Bangkok Post journalist.