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Sufficiency economy must be applied to boost fusion

Fusion, a more environmentally friendly form of energy that operates at the nuclear level, but by combining atoms -- typically forms of hydrogen -- is a potential new answer not only for Thailand's quest for clean energy but for the requirements of the entire planet, and especially economies in transition.

With its sustainable and clean nature, the development of fusion is in line with the Sufficiency Economy Philosophy (SEP) -- the national concept of Buddhist economics that the Thai government has lobbied for in the international community, in particular with the G77 UN voting bloc, which it chairs.

If successfully deployed, the SEP, which is potentially holistic in nature, can go hand-in-hand with the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially those which focus on poverty relief and energy provision. Similarly to the SDGs, the SEP is harmonious with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which seeks to avoid abrupt climate change by keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius through transferring technology from the Global North to the Global South.

Fusion can be an alternative choice of energy given that it does not involve harmful uranium or plutonium, nor can it melt down. Because it relies on a constant source of energy rather than a fission chain reaction, it can be switched off.

Due to safety concerns, more countries have turned away from fission. Last week the UK government made an announcement to delay the implementation of the £18 billion (828 billion baht) Hinkley Point C nuclear fission power plant, which is due to produce 7% of the country's electricity. This has cast yet another cloud over an industry which is desperate to produce a safer working fourth-generation plant.

It is estimated that commercial net energy gain fusion is only a decade away. Under that time frame, the potential technology transfer of commercial fusion to the G77 is a unique opportunity to apply the SEP as a philosophical matrix. Via the SEP's lens, the G77, actually 134 countries, can assess, develop and implement this emerging energy source globally.

The world's leading, publicly-funded fusion experiment, the French-based International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), is only likely to develop commercial nuclear fusion in the 2040s. The alternative, the 10-year time frame, is one endorsed by leading

US-based fusion scientists and based on developments made by US companies, such as EMC2.

A 2014 American Security Project publication, signed by key MIT, Princeton and General Atomics scientists, states, "a device that would test key fusion technologies and ultimately produce demonstration levels of electric power could begin operations about 10 years from now".

Applying the SEP means Thailand must reconcile the ITER and US approaches. Thailand must re-avow to actually lead the G77 and potentially champion a partnership with the Global North on fusion. It must engage with European and US fusion experts, together with commercial companies, in an urgent G77 dialogue that will benefit the Global South. This is critical because Thailand's G77 chairmanship expires this year.

Furthermore, the accelerated commercialisation and mass production of fusion engines would be highly disruptive, especially to coal exporters such as India, China and fellow Asean countries like Indonesia. In SEP terms, the resilience of these G77 countries would be threatened, risking tens of billions of dollars, a matter Thailand as chair of the G77 cannot ignore.

The SEP is suited to assessing the potential of fusion energy. It is designed to "ensure balance and readiness to cope with fast and extensive changes with respect to materials, society, environment, and culture". It was intended to be a paradigm shift and to overcome crises, originally the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, "against the backdrop of globalisation-driven integration of the world and the pace of technological-cultural-social changes". Applying the SEP to evaluating commercial fusion serves both Thai and G77 interests in preventing future environmental crises.

At a June SEP event, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha stated, "It is important that G77 member nations move in the same direction together in turning policies and plans to realities." The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has associated the SEP with the UN's SDGs under the "sufficiency for sustainability" concept. It is crucial that Thailand not neglect the promise of fusion and instead lead the G77 in taking the proper action regarding a technology which, together with renewables, could assist in making our planet sufficient in energy in a sustainable fashion.

Finally, the SEP dictates that knowledge and morality are both vital. In leading the G77, Thailand must demonstrate breadth and thoroughness in judging its potential, as well as in obtaining expert knowledge in implementing plans for commercialisation and mass production.

If Thailand, fails to act, the energy and environment debate will be dominated by a one-sided, neo-colonial, outlook imposed by the main developers of fusion, the countries of the Global North. Thailand must incorporate the future of fusion into a fuller implementation of the SEP and demonstrate determined leadership at a global level. Thailand's credibility as an international statesman is at stake.

 

This column, with the kind understanding of the Bangkok Post and in partnership with Dr. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa, addresses a pressing issue in the world of energy via the lens of the Philosophy of Sufficiency Economy (PSE). For proponents of Buddhist Economics, the PSE represents Thailand's best chance to make a mark globally, as Bhutan did with Gross National Happiness. This column explains how.