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Thailand Looks at Nuclear Power as Part of Alternative Energy Plans

This photo taken 31 Oct 2006 shows a power grid in Jakarta where power blackouts are a daily nuisance

Like many developing countries, Thailand is looking for ways to ease its reliance on costly imported oil and gas. A new government plan includes nuclear power, bio-fuels and solar energy among potential energy sources for the country.

Thailand's goal, set out in a new power development plan, is to almost double energy output over the next decade. To do so will require construction of at least two nuclear power plants.

Tara Buakamsri, a campaign director with the environmental group Greenpeace, says the nuclear path is just one of several the government has considered in its energy strategy.

"They want to diversify because Thailand is very much relying on gas, natural gas so they want to bring in new coal-fired power stations and also nuclear," he explained. "At the moment they are proposing five to seven nuclear reactors into the power development plan. So that's one of the most controversial issues for power development for the next 20 years."

A special study of nuclear power costs and its risks will be done and will be submitted to the Cabinet in 2011.

"Next year the Cabinet will be making a decision whether Thailand should go nuclear or not," he added. "So this is a one-year window for civil society who wants to see a better energy system for Thailand to take on the nuclear debate. So it's not easy for the government - even with political change - if they want to push Thailand to go nuclear."

Another option under the power development plan is for Thailand to draw more energy from neighbors Laos, Burma and China through gas and hydroelectricity. The government plan says Thailand could meet as much as 25 percent of its power needs this way.

But environmentalists raise concerns over relying on external sources of electricity. They also are worried about human rights abuses in Burma caused when the government clears land for hydro-electricity projects.

With oil prices expected to rise in the coming years, Thailand, like many other developing nations, wants to cut oil imports. The Energy Ministry is leading efforts to find alternative fuels, especially for cars.

Twarath Sutabutr, Deputy Director Alternative Energy Program, Ministry of Energy Thailand
Twarath Sutabutr, Deputy Director Alternative Energy Program, Ministry of Energy Thailand

Twarath Sutabutr, a deputy director general handling the ministry's alternative energy programs, says the government wants to boost the role of renewable energy.

"That strategic plan has a proactive target to increase the renewable energy proportion from 6 percent to 20 percent within 15 years," he noted. "In that particular plan we divided each technology and we very much focused on solar and wind, bio-energy, biomass, biogas, bio-fuel, and manageable waste and compressed natural gas for fuels."

Within a few years, the government hopes to see up to one million flexible fuel vehicles, which can use ethanol as fuel, on the road.

Kiat Sitteeamorn, president of the Thailand Trade Representative Office, says alternative fuels are one way to help rural areas develop, since they can be made from tapioca and palm oil.

"Thailand is among the first in ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] member countries that actually embarks on the program to transform tapioca into gasohol," he said. "So now it's being used nationwide for 95 [octane] and 91 [octane] gasoline. So that in itself - we have discovered it helps maintain the price of tapioca very well."

The energy plan sets an investment target of more than $11 billion, which could create more than 40,000 jobs. But by cutting oil and gas imports, the country could save $14 billion.

Twarath says the next step will be to encourage private investors to take part.

"We believe that we have strong resources and strong human capital in bio-energy, in biomass … and we believe that there would be a lot of investment in Thailand in solar and wind as well," added Twarath. "But if you have me pick some kind of leading alternative energy as renewable for Thailand - I would say bio energy would probably be number one."

Direk Lavansiri, chief of Thailand Electricity Regulatory Commission, says investors have already shown interest in solar and wind power.

"So far there are many investors that are interested in renewable energy," he explained. "The high proportion is on the solar energy and the wind. These two categories exceed what is according to the plan, the number of megawatts."

While the government's energy plans are extensive, environmental groups such as Greenpeace say there are significant challenges. First, they say, the government needs to decide if it wants to decentralize power sources - using smaller projects - or to invest in expensive systems such as nuclear power plants. And, they say, the Thai government must work with communities to build acceptance for new power plants and fuel facilities.