Thailand: How Not To Manage Nuclear Waste


Richard Broinowski

Although it has no nuclear power plants, Thailand has had nuclear aspirations, and does have rudimentary nuclear research technology. Under the United States ďAtoms for PeaceĒ program of the sixties, it acquired a research reactor. A nuclear power feasibility study commissioned in the early 1970s then recommended construction of at least one nuclear power reactor.

Thailandís plans for nuclear power are currently on the shelf. But like most of its ASEAN colleagues, it remains in the international nuclear technology loop through an official government agency - in its case the Office of Atomic Energy for Peace in Bangkok. The Office is supposed to monitor and regulate Thai nuclear research, and enforce safeguards standards for the handling of nuclear materials in the country.

Despite the efforts of this watch dog, a nuclear accident in February showed how appallingly lax Thai nuclear handling practices are. Spent tubes of radioactive material, containing the highly toxic isotope Cobalt 60, were allegedly stolen by scrap metal dealers from Kamol Sukosol Electric Co. One of the tubes was sawn up by a worker, who with a colleague, became immediately and critically ill from acute radiation poisoning. Other workers and neighbours in Samut Prakan, an industrial satellite town south of Bangkok, complained of symptoms similar to radiation sickness.

The area was quarantined by an embarrassed Thai Government, and senior officials in the Office of Atomic Energy for Peace were severely criticised by the Minister for Science Arthit Ourairat.

Arthitís outrage is justified on at least three counts. First, it has been revealed that the company importing Cobalt 60 for cancer treatment in Thai hospitals is supposed to return the material to the country of origin for treatment or immobilisation. It routinely failed to do so because of the expense, and instead, stored the spent tubes at local dumps and warehouses. Naturally, the theft of the Cobalt 60 from these dumps went unreported.

Second is the ignorant and dangerous way in which workers were sent to the scrap dealerís premises where the Cobalt was found to search for more. They wore no protective clothing except white gloves and linen face masks, and were instructed to spend less than a minute inside the yard, and then rest for 10 minutes outside - an egregiously inadequate time.

Third is the weakness of Thai protective legislation - the Act governing radioactive waste provides a maximum penalty for breaching handling procedures of 10,000 baht (about $A400).

Minister Arthit has ordered three new inquiries, one to find a new storage site until reshipment, another to examine the 30-year old Act, and a third to examine the policies and structures of the Office of Atomic Energy for Peace. The accident may shake some officials out of their complacency. It may also have the broader result of setting back even further than in the current straightened times, any consideration of nuclear power or other nuclear industries in Thailand.

WATCHPOINT: Will the accident galvanize the Thai Government to take its nuclear materials safeguarding responsibilities more seriously?


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