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

Bangkok Post - - SPOTLIGHT -

Ihave 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 staterun 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.

The res­i­dents of Ongkharak share one wish [and a plea to the pow­ers-that-be] that there will be no nu­clear re­ac­tor in their home­town.

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