Thursday, January 24, 2008

Thai business leaders back nuclear plants

Rapid action urged to stay competitive

NAREERAT WIRIYAPONG

Business leaders yesterday called on the new government to push ahead with the $4 billion nuclear power programme, saying nuclear energy was vital to strengthen economic competitiveness against regional rivals. Boonyasith Chokewattana, chairman of the consumer goods conglomerate Saha Group, said Thailand should speed up the construction of the first nuclear plant to complete the project ahead of Vietnam and Indonesia.

Thailand and the two neighbouring countries are in various stages of developing nuclear plants, aiming to start operations around 2020.

Vietnam has already sent personnel to France for nuclear training.

''Even though we started the project later than those countries, we should speed up our development to be the first one in the Southeast Asia,'' said Mr Boonyasith.

''The faster the better, otherwise we will be left behind regional competitors.''

He said nuclear energy would help the private sector save energy, and boost exporters' competitiveness.

Despite its high investment cost, energy officials said nuclear is cheaper and greener than coal, gas and oil-fired plants.

''As oil prices keep rising, our products might not be able to compete in export markets in the future without nuclear plants,'' said Mr Boonyasith. ''Meanwhile, foreign investors are keen to know whether Thailand has secure energy supplies, otherwise, they would invest in Vietnam and Indonesia instead.''

Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, deputy secretary-general of the Thai Chamber of Commerce and head of its energy committee, also urged the government to hasten development of nuclear fuel, saying it was critical to the nation's energy security in the future.

The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) has embarked on a detailed three-year study that is expected to be ready for government approval by 2011.

The Saha Group is understood to be interested in investing in the nuclear power-plant business.

''Nowadays, we see a rise in fuel prices. In the future, energy supply could insufficient to serve our demand. No matter how much the energy we can save, consumption in China and India would continue the growth substantially,'' said Ms Kobkarn, who is also the chairwoman of Toshiba Thailand.

For example, fuel costs were only 30% of the total production cost for fluorescent light tubes, but they have risen to 40-50%, she added.

''If the government is too worried about activists and criticism, the project will not go ahead in three years.''

Ms Kobkarn said all parties needed to promote understanding among the public especially about the safety of nuclear energy.

''If we prepare the project in advance, we will have enough time to make sure the safety measures are well in place and also we will have time to make the public understand why we need this project,'' she said.

''Drawing public support must take place as soon as possible. The government needs to take action right now.''

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