Time to revisit nuclear energy for us

Published by rudy Date posted on April 17, 2007

I was spring cleaning when I came across Marcos’ handwritten notes on receivables from Westinghouse. It was under a column marked foreign investments. Marcos was accused of making $80M in kickbacks on the plant. With Iran’s current struggle to be nuclear empowered, it is tempting to compare Manila and Tehran and how differently their governments approached the problem. Of course, Tehran is a big oil rich country in a troubled region and has the muscle and determination to fight those who do not want it nuclear empowered.

Not so with the Philippines. It may not have the clout but it was first in the nuclear scene before Iran. It may be worthwhile to review how we botched our chance for nuclear energy. We could have succeeded and would have been miles ahead if we had a different public and more daring leaders. The credit for the idea of a nuclear power plant goes to Marcos during the oil crisis of 1973. But the idea went to nothing. Instead it became the most flagrant example of corrupt lending (note that: not borrowing).

Just how little the Americans think of the Philippines was expressed by US Eximbank chairman and former CIA director, Bill Casey. “If the Westinghouse charge too much, the Philippines has to pay for it. They have to protect themselves from being fleeced. We cannot nor would we do it for them.” The US Export-Import Bank lent us $644 million which is said to be the single biggest sum it had packaged on any project when it showed we had no capacity to repay the amount then.

That original amount ballooned to $2.3 billion and we are still paying for it at more than $100,000 a day until 2018 even if it has not produced a single watt of electricity. Bataan is the country’s biggest single debt, and accounts for more than 5 percent of total debt. It is also said that it cost three times the price of a comparable plant built by the same US company in South Korea. * * *
It may be true that the Bataan nuclear plant symbolized the excesses of the Marcos regime, but the Aquino government could have done better to save the situation other than accepting the crippling debt repayment without putting it to good use. We have to look back and review other reasons for the failure. For example, it was wrong and unnecessary to make Filipinos completely turn off nuclear energy. True, nuclear accidents in Three Mile Island and Chernobyl contributed to this rejection, but how many Filipinos know that France is almost entirely run by nuclear energy? So is Japan.

The first stop is to educate Filipinos into accepting that nuclear energy does not need to be unsafe. It can be made safe. I suspect that the idea then of spreading that Bataan was built on a fault line was intended to frighten Filipinos. Indeed it became the banner of the incoming Aquino government. Why else would Cory Aquino seal the rejection by putting it in the Constitution that the Philippines will never use nuclear energy whatever the cost?

We should revisit experts’ reports that this defect was amply compensated for and safeguards could be added to make it safe. These reports argue Bataan is the best possible site for the plant. This is confirmed by both local and international (IAEA) experts. “The plant has also been designed to withstand an earthquake up to 0.4g of acceleration while the strongest earthquake that can hit the area could only generate up to 0.35g ground acceleration.

It is protected from any lava flows that may come from a dormant, but maybe active, volcano, Mt. Natib because it sits on a high ground (18 meters above sea level) and is surrounded by deep valleys. Furthermore, its 18 meters above sea level location protects it from tidal waves, the highest one to hit the area being only 16 meters in height”, according to a UP report.

Even if we grant that the nuclear plant was unsafe, how come all attempts to rehabilitate it has not been actively pursued? According to my French friends, as early as April and July 1986 a couple of meetings were held at a private residence in Makati with Mr. Paul Amaury, general manager of SOFRATOME-France and the following: Carlos Romulo, Vicente Paterno, Jaime Guerrero, Teofisto Guingona, Lorenzo Tanada (the old man) Gabriel Singson and a few others. Rene Saguisag and Joker Arroyo did not come to this meeting. All very distinctive men but nothing came of it.

Interestingly when the government sued Westinghouse for overpricing and bribery it was ultimately rejected by an American court. You’d think that having rejected any solution to BNPP, the Aquino government would have tried to compensate and found alternative energy sources. But it didn’t so. We were inflicted with blackouts lasting for hours in the 1980s and early 1990s from the lack of new power plants. Moreover, old power plants were so badly maintained that even then people were willing to reconsider nuclear energy. The consensus has been reached that the Philippines cannot be an industrialized country without nuclear energy.

But much work needs to be done especially on public perception of nuclear energy. As argued by proponents nuclear energy is a cheap and to a certain extent renewable source of energy. It will decrease the country’s dependence on imported oil.

Toshiba which has bought Westinghouse is looking into how the situation can be saved.

But there is a serious obstacle. We will have to wait for Charter change to remove Cory’s nuclear ban. For the moment we just have to keep an open mind and be ready to accept we may need nuclear power soon. The Iran crisis has underlined that need. And to think that Iran has all the oil. It argues that it has the right under Article 4 of the Non Proliferation Treaty which says all members are entitled to access nuclear technology for peaceful purposes and that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is bound to see to it that this is materialized. Like Iran we should think of the future for the sake of the coming generations. Oil-rich Malaysia and Indonesia are doing the same. Taiwan and South Korea are said to be building or have built new nuclear plants. We should be, too.

My e-mail is cpedrosaster@gmail.com –Carmen N. Pedrosa M, Philippine Star

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