By Ben Kritz, Manila Times, 4 Oct 2020
Promoting nuclear power anywhere in the world at this point makes about as much sense as promoting zeppelins as a practical transportation option, and nowhere more so than in the Philippines. Reality and common sense, however, have never been much of an impediment to this country’s “nuclear advocacy,” and through sheer persistence it has managed to once again attract some media attention for the issue, if only as a page filler for the business sections of the country’s newspapers.
In the latest news, the pro-nuclear camp — by “camp,” I actually mean “mostly just this one guy” — has prevailed upon President Rodrigo Duterte to direct the Department of Energy (DoE) to study the “reopening” of the more than 40-year-old, aborted Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP). The BNPP was one of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ grandiose public-works flops, an expensive mistake that was only aggravated by his successor Cory Aquino’s ordering the facility mothballed before it ever operated.
Duterte’s directive was the result of a meeting with Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi and the “one guy,” former Pangasinan representative and ardent nuclear proponent Mark Cojuangco. The meeting was a follow-up to an executive order issued back in July for the formation of a Nuclear Energy Program Inter-Agency Committee headed by the DoE to assess the viability of adding nuclear power to the country’s energy mix. This is at least the second time since 2017 that such an effort has been proposed; whether it would make any significant progress this time around remains to be seen, but given the somewhat muted enthusiasm the president expressed in directing the DoE to reexamine the case of the BNPP — for one thing, he made it a point that the community around the derelict plant be formally consulted for a change — that wouldn’t seem to be a very sure bet.
The reason it isn’t is that, the existence of the BNPP notwithstanding, there has never been a very good use case for nuclear power in the Philippines. Making comparisons with South Korea, which is the go-to example for local nuclear advocates because it has plants nearly identical to the BNPP, is not useful because South Korea is an energy resource-poor country, whereas the Philippines is not. That lack of applicability of the technology may have been corrected to some extent if the vindictive Cory Aquino had allowed the BNPP to operate, which was a stupid decision on her part, even though the plant shouldn’t have been built in the first place, but the window of opportunity to extract some value from Marcos’ folly closed a long time ago, probably sometime during the Ramos administration.
The industry-backed nuclear advocacy (although this is a relationship I am almost certain Cojuangco would deny exists) will argue in the course of the DoE-led assessment of nuclear feasibility in the Philippines — should that study actually take place — that nuclear power in general is the best option for the Philippines on the basis of worn-out, familiar assertions about reliability, economy and environmental sustainability, and that the BNPP, in particular, is a viable option because it exists.
None of that is true, of course, but I think the nuclear proponents should do exactly as the president said. In fact, consider this a challenge for them to do so. I challenge Cojuangco and Cusi to do that “from the ground up” assessment and bring forth the best arguments in favor of nuclear power and the BNPP that they can muster. If, in order to give them a fair public hearing it is necessary to share those arguments in this space, I will gladly do so, in wholly unaltered form.
Then, it will be my turn.