Nuclear reactor saga rumbles on
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Nuclear reactor saga rumbles on

Nakhon Nayok locals urge further review after safety assurances fail to convince

Thailand's mission to develop a research nuclear reactor to replace the small 58-year-old reactor in Bangkok has been delayed for two decades with the latest attempt to rekindle the project also facing fresh hurdles.

Further signs of trouble came late last month when a civic group in Nakhon Nayok province -- the chosen site for the reactor -- lodged a petition with the Secretariat of The House of Representatives calling for a review of the project, slated to be built in Ongkharak district.

The group, named the "Association of Human Rights Protection for Nakhon Nayok Province", is urging the government to abandon the three-year-old plan to build a 20-megawatt reactor by the Thailand Institute of Nuclear Technology (Tint), a public organisation under the government.

The project was reportedly proposed as the existing reactor in Bang Khen will reach the end of its life in coming years and the initial replacement -- a 10-megawatt facility proposed by the Office of Atoms for Peace (OAP) under the Ministry of Science -- has been beset by corruption allegations.

Capt Vilas Obeouan, head of the civic group told the media the latest plan to develop a domestic reactor should also be shelved.

"We found there are many irregularities surrounding nuclear reactor projects from past to present. Irregularities and questions occurred over safety measures and even how the state agency in the past has managed radioactive waste," said Capt Vilas.

Last October, villagers in Ongkharak district became angry after finding out that radioactive waste from Bang Khen was being transferred to the state nuclear research facility in Nakhon Nayok province.

Suthee Rattanamongkolgul, a lecturer on epidemiology at Srinakharinwirot University in Nakhon Nayok campus, said the latest choice of location is no longer suitable for a nuclear reactor as Nakhon Nayok has transformed over the past 30 years and now has a thriving agriculture industry as well as many homes for the elderly.

"Local people will not be happy if there is radioactive leakage which has a significant negative impact on agriculture in the area," he said.

He also added that radioactive waste management is still a big concern to the nearby community despite the nuclear agency attempting to reassure them that there have been no reports of leakage from the site in Bangkok.

He said the proposed Nakhon Nayok reactor is on a different scale to its Bangkok counterpart and "if something bad happens, the impact will be totally different".

Thailand has only ever had one research reactor -- the small 2-megawatt reactor located at the OAP building on Vibhavadi Road, adjacent to Kasetsart University in Bangkok, which came into operation in 1962.

This research reactor has generally been used by the OAP to produce isotopes for food preservation and medical use.

However, in 1989, the government decided to build a new, larger research reactor outside the capital city in Nakhon Nayok under a five-billion-baht budget.

However, with more than half the original budget having been spent on constructing buildings and offices in Ongkharak district, the project ran into controversy over the transparency of the bidding process which, after a State Audit Office probe, led to it being shelved 10 years ago.

A nuclear research facility is now operational on the site, but there is no reactor as planned.

The government remains embroiled in a legal dispute with the winning concessionaire, US-based General Atomics, with the case having been referred to an arbitrator.

However, due to the low capacity of the existing reactor in Bang Khen, Tint resurrected the plan and now wants to complete the Ongkharak Nuclear Research Centre for a further 16 billion baht.

The justification for the new reactor is it will help the country save money which would otherwise be spent importing radioactive products for cancer treatment, according to Tint.

The research reactor would serve 28 hospitals nationwide.

The final public hearing on the undertaking is expected to take place sometime in September or October of this year, having been pushed back from March due to the Covid-19 outbreak.

"We have done everything transparently and responded to all concerns raised by local groups several times. We answered all their questions and took them to the site to prove everything is being done according to international standards," said Thawatchai Onjun, director of Tint.

He insisted the majority now approves of the project "because of their better understanding that it is for nuclear research and not a nuclear power plant".

According to legal procedure, experts will conduct an Environment and Health Impact Assessment (EHIA) after the final public hearing is finished. Under environmental law, all projects with the potential to pose a risk to public health or safety must pass an EHIA.

The Office of the National Economic and Social Development Council will later consider the project's potential before putting the final blueprint before the cabinet for approval.

Under the regulations of state projects with a value of investment exceeding one billion baht, they must be approved by the office.

According to the latest timeline, further construction of the site is due to get underway in 2024 with the reactor finally becoming operational by 2032, at which point the reactor in Bang Khen will finally be decommissioned after 58 years service.

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