Navigating Thailand’s energy transition


In Thailand’s National Energy Plan (NEP) — a blueprint outlining the country’s energy strategy from 2023 to 2037 — a small portion of nuclear energy is included as one form of alternative energy.

The NEP has set the goal that 50% of energy for consumption must come from clean and renewable sources like wind, solar, hydro, biomass and small modular reactors (SMRs), according to Prasert Sinsukprasert, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Energy.

Small modular reactors (SMRs) are advanced nuclear reactors that have a power capacity of up to 300 MW(e) per unit, which is about one-third of the generating capacity of traditional nuclear power reactors. The small size makes them easy to build, transport and install.

Thailand’s nuclear ambitions

Thailand was the pioneer in Southeast Asia for nuclear research. The country launched its first nuclear reactor in 1962, albeit for research purposes. In the early 1970s, the government launched a plan to build the first nuclear power plant in Chon Buri province. The initiative did not take off, however, because of the high cost, time-consuming construction and the fear of a nuclear accident.

Two decades ago, policymakers at the Ministry of Energy tried to revive the nuclear energy plan. But the dream was curtailed by a tsunami-driven accident that damaged a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011. 

The advancement of SMR technology has revived Bangkok’s interest in nuclear energy. SMRs, while generating less power than standard reactors, are considered safer. Several countries, including the US, UK and China, are making significant progress in advancing SMR technology.

The dream drew closer in November 2022 when the US reportedly pledged technical support for SMRs to the Thai government under the leadership of then-prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.

The current leader, PM Srettha Thavisin, mentioned that he discussed the possibility of introducing nuclear power with US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo during their meeting in Bangkok on March 14.

Mr Srettha also stated that Thailand would assess the safety of SMRs and seek public opinion.

Economic viability

Nuclear energy is often seen as a clean energy source because it generates almost no carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases.

It is also considered more reliable for supplying consistent electricity compared to renewable sources like solar and wind.

However, challenges persist in managing spent fuel from reactors. So far, there is no risk-free disposal method.

Nuclear energy is used in 32 countries globally, accounting for roughly 10% of the world’s total electricity capacity.

Leading users of nuclear power include the United States, France and China.

Meanwhile, nations such as Bangladesh, Egypt and Turkey are in the process of adopting nuclear power. Worldwide, there are over 400 active nuclear power plants, with more than 50 currently being built. 

Barriers to entry

The key barrier to implementing nuclear power plants in Thailand is not the technological limitations but rather commercial feasibility.

Despite its potential, the Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE) for nuclear power plants is still higher than those of other renewable energy sources.

The LCOE is the average cost of a reactor during its lifespan, including construction, fuel as well as operation and maintenance costs.

The current cost of generating electricity from nuclear power is US$180 (6,664 baht) per megawatt-hour, which is higher than the cost of electricity from popular fossil fuels like natural gas and coal, as well as from renewable energy sources.

Nuclear energy is 2.5 to 3 times more expensive than solar and wind power. 

Energy grid and nuclear energy?

Thailand is not lacking in terms of its electricity supply. The country’s power generation capacity exceeded demand by 34 percent in 2022, with a total capacity of 49,099 megawatts, higher than the peak demand of 32,250MW.

The surplus comes from the over-projection of energy demand by policymakers. The surplus is transferred to consumers. The cost of surplus electricity is factored into the FT (fuel transfer) in monthly utility bills.

Introducing nuclear power into the grid could increase costs further. As nuclear comes with higher overheads, the government should use other renewable energy forms like solar energy — something that can be produced locally.

Greenpeace states that Thailand has the capacity for more than 35,000MW of renewable energy, based on their research. However, the government is only buying 100MW a year, which falls short of this potential.

Thai policymakers can emulate Vietnam. According to the Ember Global Electricity Review, Vietnam is acting aggressively in adopting solar and wind energy while also trying to reduce its dependence on fossil fuel. In 2021, solar power generation increased by 337%, leading to more reductions in coal and gas use.

The International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) notes that renewable energy projects launched in emerging economies in 2020 could save up to $156 billion throughout their lifetimes. This highlights the importance of accelerating renewable adoption as a cost-effective route to decarbonising power systems.

Looking ahead, the cost of solar and wind energy is expected to continue declining due to ongoing research and development. In contrast, nuclear power, except for nuclear fusion, may lack such support, making it an unlikely alternative energy option in Thailand due to the higher costs. 

* First published on the Bangkok Post

As a communicator and researcher at Climate Finance Network Thailand, Kongpob brings a dynamic background in journalism, specializing in human rights and environmental issues. With an educational background in International Relations and Applied Economics, he has seamlessly merged a passion for reading and outdoor activities with a commitment to understanding the intersection of finance and climate change.