Govt defends plan for nuclear reactor
Locals allege project unsafe and mired in graft
The Thailand Institute of Nuclear Technology (Tint) has tried to quell growing public pressure over the proposed dusting off of a project to build a nuclear research reactor in Ongkharak district of Nakhon Nayok, saying the plan is still at an early stage.
The project has been met with a local protest, which prompted Tint to explain that an Environment and Health Impact Assessment (EHIA) study has yet to be completed.
The institute was reacting to a recent march against the project during which protesters demanded the project be scrapped, insisting the community's health and environment would be under threat if the plan went ahead.
Hannarong Shamsub, Tint deputy director, said that public hearings, which are part of the EHIA, started last year and are expected to finish in the next few months.
He said 90% of local people do not oppose the project because they understand that it is not a nuclear power reactor, but a nuclear research reactor.
He added the technology is crucial for the industrial sector as well as agriculture and public health.
Mr Hannarong said many protesters are outsiders who have attempted to distort the facts.
"We are in the early stages and there is a way to go before the project comes to fruition. It might take at least seven years to construct the research reactor," he said.
He also noted that given the hefty investment needed, it might not be approved by the government.
The then five-billion-baht project, approved by the cabinet in 1989, was then shelved 10 years ago.
More than half of the budget had been spent on construction before state auditors found irregularities and abuse of authority by officials involved.
The dispute between US-based General Atomics, the company which was contracted for construction, and state officials involved has been referred to an arbitrator.
However, due to the low capacity of the existing two-megawatt nuclear research reactor in Bangkok's Bang Khen, Tint has proposed the 20 megawatt-nuclear research reactor at Ongkharak Nuclear Research Centre, with a price tag of 16 billion baht.
Mr Hannarong said that the new research reactor will help the country save money which would otherwise be spent importing radioactive products for cancer treatment.
The research reactor will serve 28 hospitals nationwide.
The tiny scale of production currently offered by the existing Bang Khen nuclear research facility has fallen behind increasing demand.
Regarding the concerns about the environmental impact, he said there have been no reports of radioactive leakage from Bang Khen, which reinforces the fact that officials have the experience and ability to operate the facility safely and efficiently.
Moreover, real-time water and air monitoring will ensure the plant is safe on an around-the-clock basis.
He added that water from the river will be circulated inside the plant with no discharge back into the river.
Meanwhile, Rangsan Padungtham, a key leader of the protest group, said he was unconvinced by the institute's assurances about safety.
He insisted it is hard to believe safety would not be compromised when graft has already been alleged. Nothing can guarantee that no malpractice will repeat itself, he said.
The communities close to the proposed reactor are in the farming zone which could be in danger of radioactive contamination, especially when the river that feeds the proposed plant is only half a kilometre away, according to the activist.
He said the project is being revived to serve the special eastern economic zone and local communities stand to gain nothing from it.
"The government should stop the project because it is not being managed transparently.
"The process of public hearings are being carried out illegally without listening to people who will be directly impacted by the project," he said.
The protesters would try to stop the last public hearing from going ahead next month, if their demand was not met, warned Mr Rangsan.