Mekong Utility Watch

Full-power PR

Bangkok Post
November 29, 1998
NUCLEAR POWER: As many developed countries close down their nuclear power plants, nuclear industry sales teams are turning to the Asia Pacific to hock their wares. Using a variety of public relations tactics, biased information is being presented to the Thai people, particularly in the provinces where the plants will likely be located.

The scene pans over lush, rolling fields. Our hero moves in the foreground. In the background stands a nuclear power plant. As music plays, slick graphics boast the project’s sizable budget.

This eight-minute cartoon, An Ad venture Into the Nuclear World, was financed by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) and produced by a Thai production agency.

An Egat PR official says the energy giant did not pay to broadcast the cartoon on every television channel.

“Last year we got about 7.1 million baht for nuclear power public relations work,” said Mr Wiroj Teranaew, public relations pointman for Egat’s nuclear power project.

Since 1974, Egat’s public relations budget has been steady, and remains so, despite the economic recession and the slowing demand for electricity.

“We need about one billion baht for public relations for a large-scale project such as a 100-billion-baht nuclear power plant. Such a project needs to spend about one or two percent of its budget just for public relations,” said Mr Wiroj.

Despite the large outlay of ready cash, Mr Wiroj complains that nobody seems to be really interested in taking on this job.

What should the public know? Last week, at the National Public Information Seminar on Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy in Thailand, most speakers expressed their confidence and belief that nuclear power is safe and clean. They said it has low production costs and great spin-off benefits for developing countries. It has nothing to do with the proliferation of nuclear weapons, they said.

For many decades of operations, 437 power plants worldwide have released a small volume of radioactive waste, they claimed. Moreover, some speakers claimed that there is a suitable technical measure to safely dispose of high level radioactive waste.

If these claims are true, why do Thai officials and nuclear marketing teams dump huge sums of money for public relations? And why are they quiet about news reports about problems in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea regarding the search for radioactive waste dump sites? Residents in those countries have protested against nuclear power, but the Thai government does not explain this.

Surprisingly, the economic recession has not deterred nuclear industry salesmen from contacting the decision-makers in the Thai government.

“We are looking at long-term investments in future generations of Thailand,” said Asian regional director Dr Therry Thomson of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) who visited the Bangkok Post office.

The dearth of markets in richer countries has prompted the nuclear industry to sweeten deals as much as possible.

“We will provide commercial financial assistance for Thailand if Thailand decides to buy Candu technology,” said Dr Thomson.

While claiming that its Candu technology is clean and safe, AECL will not take responsibility for nuclear waste disposal. Nor will they provide safety insurance. Their answers are very pat indeed.

“We have no policy to take back spent fuel,” said Mr Murray J. Stewart, president & CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association.

“You see, when the airplane you buy crashes, you blame the pilot, not the manufacturing company,” said a company representative from South Korea.

Again, the AECL team claims that their Candu technology has all the advantages.

“The only weakness is, Thais have to make a tough decision to buy it, because a nuclear power plant is expensive technology,” they said.

Nuclear power supporters in Japan are also trying to score PR points. Mr Tetsuya Endo, commissioner of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, has expressed his willingness to support an international cooperation for human resources development.

Distorted view: Earlier this month, in an EPSI (Electricity Power Supply Industry) conference, Egat governor Virawat Chalayon said nuclear power plants are common in Europe, the United States and Japan because they have low production costs. Currently, he said, more than 60 percent of the world’s power supply is derived from nuclear energy.

“This is breathtakingly ignorant,” said Grainne Ryder, director of PROBE International in Canada, when she read Mr Virawat’s statements. “Nuclear power generates only 17 percent of world electricity.”

This is echoed by WISE International in Amsterdam, an NGO which collects worldwide data. Its information claims nuclear plants generate only 351,795 MW or about 17 percent of total energy in the world.

Egat must be treading very carefully and has likely mulled over various strategies to convince the country’s rural residents to allow a nuclear power plant in their towns without appearing to ram the project down the public’s throat.

To this end, Egat has distributed booklets, leaflets and videos throughout the southern provinces where nuclear power plants would be constructed. And that’s not all.

“Egat officials came here to help people build day care centres and implement social work programmes,” said Mr Damnoen Voraphan of Patiew district of Chumphon province.

Egat officials are using various government agencies to distribute information at the grassroots level. For instance, in May and August last year, the public library and the Non-formal Education Centre in Nakhon Si Thammarat province offered pro-nuclear leaflets.

Other channels are also being exploited, such as airing An Adventure Into the Nuclear World on television, buying space in newspapers, and circulating leaflets, all promoting nuclear power as the best energy choice.

“Egat and the Office of Atomic Energy for Peace are using the same old tactics,” said Ms Watcharee Paolungthong of the Alternative Energy Project for Sustainability (AEPS).

“They are using the media to make people accept the project, but they won’t consult people about this project,” she added.

Negative public reaction may stem not only from nuclear power per se, but because people are aware they are being underestimated, patronised, and manipulated.

“The materials do not inform us about radioactive waste management or about health problems,” said Achariya Wichachoo from Nakhon Si Thammarat.

“Why are we subjected to one-sided information? Why don’t they allow us access to any information we want about nuclear power and related matters, so we can make our own decisions?” Ms Achariya asked.

“It is not proper for state agencies to spend our money to feed us biased information,” said Ms Watcharee.

Aside from ignoring the negative effects of nuclear power production, the cartoon also misleads.

“Why is the cartoon telling us that the radioactive waste can be kept underground and left that way and will die itself? Why show the uranium and spent fuel can be handled by hands?” asked Suban Bailaman from Songkhla province.

“Contrary to what the cartoon implies, it is not safe to handle uranium with bare hands, and I still wonder what kind of material can keep the radioactive waste for 10,000 years. At present, cement can be used for only 60 years and other metals about 100 years,” said Mahidol University environmental scientist Dr Jirapol Sintunawa.

Moreover, the series does not even mention that nuclear waste has a half-life of tens of thousands of years, or that over this time it may leak and seep into the environment mutating or destroying all life forms, added Dr Jirapol.

There is also no mention that many industrial nations are shutting down their nuclear power plants. To date, seven nuclear reactors in Canada, one in the Netherlands and three in the US have been closed. In each case, the reason behind the closures is that the power produced was too little relative to the budget required to maintain the project.

“Thailand has the best and brightest people to handle high technology,” said Watcharee. “But we must also have transparency in government and in agencies. They should sincerely work for people’s benefits, not pay lip service to make us believe,” said Watcharee.

Getting at the truth: Bringing the other side of the debate to the public is no small task, said Dr Ubonrat Siriyuvasak of Chulalongkorn University.

“The advocates of these big projects have access to the media. However, those who want to reveal contrary information are disadvantaged,” said the Mass Communications lecturer.

“The nuclear issue is crucial. I believe that if concerned agencies refrain from revealing biased information, they (proponents of nuclear energy) will get people’s trust,” Dr Ubonrat added.

One-sided information and public relations may convince people at first, but progress will become more difficult when they find out that they are being manipulated, added Dr Ubonrat.

State agencies claim to serve the public, which is belied by the fact that most of the  information they release about state projects is more for public relations than for the sake of real information.

“Public relations aims to make people understand what the project is all about and what they want people to know,” said Mass Communications lecturer Supaporn Phokhew of Chulalongkorn University. “PR is necessarily selective information.”

Mr Chan Petrat, a native of Surat Thani province, said that media power and financial might is not enough to foist falsehoods – or even half-truths – on the public.

“Those who advocate nuclear energy have funds to make people accept their project. But we have people’s power,” he said.

“If Egat comes and buys our land without telling us why, and if we find that later it is for a nuclear power plant, we will do all we can to stop its construction,” a local leader of Chumphon’s Patiew district said.

“And if they succeed in that, we will stop them from operating,” he said.

The lesson that Thailand should learn is that of the Philippines’ nuclear power initiative. According to the Berkeley-based Plutonium-Free Future, the Philippines pays $300,000 a day in interest alone to the US Export-Import Bank for a nuclear power plant in Bataan that has never produced a single megawatt of electricity.

“The Philippine nuclear power plant in Bataan was built under the corrupt Marcos government. This led to technical faults in the plant. The people opposed it,” said Mrs Corazon Fabros of the Nuclear-Free Philippines Coalition.

Indeed, on the issue of environmental protection, the powers-that-be in Thailand may have met their match in the south.

“You know the power of the southern people,” said a Surat Thani science teacher.

“If the government pushed on with its project without listening to the people, I’m afraid that they would repeat an experience in Phuket where the locals burnt down a tantalum smelting plant,” the teacher said. “Whatever choice the people will make, let them make it and let them be responsible for it. It is not for the government and state agencies to push for their own goals without involving the people in the process,” said Dr Ubonrat.

Together with many other academics, Dr Ubonrat believes that public education and involvement in decision-making is vital, whether for large or small projects, when it directly affects their lives.

“The government should not make their own decision without public consultation and public participation,” she said.

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