BANGKOK -- Advocates of nuclear energy in Thailand, like their counterparts around the world, were given pause when a massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan five years ago triggered a series of meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant -- the worst such accident since Chernobyl in 1986.
Following the Fukushima disaster in March 2011, Thailand's power development plan, which maps out its future energy sources, was almost immediately revised, with the schedule for the country's first nuclear power plant to become operational pushed back from 2020 to 2023.
That date has since been further postponed; the current national power plan, approved in May last year, forecasts that two nuclear power plants will be meeting up to 5% of Thailand's electricity needs by 2036.
But while plans for domestic nuclear energy capacity remain ill-defined, several developments in recent months, including the passage of new nuclear-related legislation, have brought the issue back into focus.
The Nuclear Energy for Peace Act, passed by Thailand's military-appointed National Legislative Assembly in May, sets out regulations for the management of nuclear-related activities and radioactive materials.
Tara Buakamsri, Thailand country director for environmental group Greenpeace, described the law as a "first step" in a protracted process to establish the country's first nuclear power plant -- a project observers have indicated could take up to 10 years.
The bill mandates the establishment of a new body, the Nuclear Energy for Peace Commission, to oversee nuclear energy policy and procedures; monitor compliance with the act; and advise on nuclear safety, among other duties. The commission will be chaired by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.
Under the bill, entities wishing to establish nuclear facilities, including nuclear power plants, will enter a "step-by-step" licensing process, "starting from a site license, a construction license, an operating license, and ending with a decommissioning license," according to an email from the Office of Atoms for Peace, Thailand's chief authority for nuclear research, whose members were involved in drafting the law.
Describing the bill as "much more stringent than the old law," the office said it complied with major international instruments, including the Convention on Nuclear Safety and the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, both of which Thailand is not yet party to.
"The purpose of this law is to protect the public from harmful effects of radiation exposure by regulating all the activities involving nuclear energy for peaceful purposes," the office said. "The Act puts OAP on [the] right path to comprehensively regulate nuclear facilities, including a nuclear power plant. However, many regulations need to be developed in the near future to support the Act."
Meanwhile, Thai energy officials have continued efforts to promote public awareness of nuclear power, a prospect first mooted here in the 1960s.
Members of the state-run Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand have visited potential candidate sites this year and education programs on nuclear power are ongoing in universities, schools and communities, an official from the state body confirmed.
Rachapapon Munchuwong, head of the nuclear safety section at EGAT, would not comment on specific potential locations for future nuclear power plants in Thailand. He was, however, more forthcoming on local communities' views on nuclear energy.
"The response is not good," he said of recent consultation efforts. "They think that nuclear power is very dangerous. They think that renewable energy [sources] are enough for Thailand [but] they don't know about the limits of renewable energy."
He added: "We have to keep on going to educate the people about electricity generation and nuclear power. I think after they have the knowledge, their attitude will be better."
The proposed construction of two 1,000 megawatt capacity nuclear power plants in Thailand is in line with the government's stated desire to diversify energy sources and reduce dependence on natural gas.
Natural gas accounted for 64% of Thailand's power generation in 2014 and the country's latest power plan envisions cutting this share to 30-40% by 2036. The utilization of coal, imported hydropower and renewable energy sources are all forecast to increase.
Echoing the arguments of many nuclear energy proponents, Sirinart Laoharojanaphand, vice-president of the Nuclear Society of Thailand, contends that the nuclear option is reliable, affordable and clean.
"Nuclear power plants, compared to other technology, produce clean [energy]. [They] don't generate carbon dioxide, so what we are trying to do is educate the Thai people about the usefulness of nuclear technology," she told the Nikkei Asian Review. "Nuclear [power] is not something scary."
But activists such as Greenpeace's Tara Buakamsri raise numerous concerns, from the country's lack of expertise in the nuclear field to the financial costs of construction and questions over storing spent fuel and ensuring effective safeguards.
"When it comes to safety or security issues with nuclear power plants, the government says: 'okay, Thailand has no natural disasters, we don't have earthquakes like in Japan or other parts of the world.' But in fact we [still] have to take into account extreme weather events," Tara told the NAR. "I don't think the nuclear power plan right now takes that into account in a comprehensive manner."
Several other countries in Southeast Asia are considering the efficacy of nuclear energy, with Vietnam the most advanced down that path. Despite delays, construction on the country's first nuclear power plant is due to begin in 2020, in cooperation with Russian state-owned nuclear firm Rosatom.
Rosatom, which has been actively promoting the region's potential to harness nuclear power, concluded a memorandum of understanding to cooperate on the peaceful use of nuclear energy with the Thailand Institute of Nuclear Technology in September 2014. The firm has similar agreements with other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations including Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia and Laos.
Egor Simonov, Rosatom's director for Asia, argued that countries such as Thailand would benefit from the "stable, predictable price" of electricity generated from nuclear power.
"In our opinion, nuclear energy can have its own niche in the national energy mix, providing carbon-free base load generation, which is an important condition for sustainable development," Simonov told the NAR by email. He added that other benefits such as job creation in the construction phase would have "a massive cumulative effect for the economy."
Simonov admitted that in Southeast Asia, as elsewhere around the world, "the safety of nuclear technology is always a matter of discussion, especially in light of the region's vulnerability to natural hazards." However, he added, Rosatom's latest reactor technology was increasingly resilient.
"For example, if the reactor we recently launched in India at the Kudankulam NPP [nuclear power plant], was on the site of the Fukushima NPP, then such [an] accident would have never happened," he said.
For Thailand's nuclear lobby, another significant development toward its own progress was the signing in December 2015 of a joint venture involving local company Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding, in partnership with China General Nuclear and Guangxi Investment Group, to construct and operate the second phase of a nuclear power plant in China's Guangxi province.
According to the Thai company, of which EGAT owns a 45% stake, the agreement on development of the Fangchenggang Nuclear Power Project will enable Thai technicians to gain expertise on nuclear power plant technology.
Shah Nawaz Ahmad, a senior adviser with the World Nuclear Association, told the Bangkok Post in February that, owing to the project, "Ratchaburi personnel can form the core of the Thai nuclear plant industry" in the years ahead.
If the Thai government decides to go nuclear, said Sirinart, "all the people in this field are ready to support."
With experience of the industry thus set to increase, it appears that perhaps the biggest obstacle remains convincing a highly skeptical public.