Manila considers nuclear option

Published by rudy Date posted on January 9, 2009

MORONG—The Bataan nuclear power plant stands as a monument to the greed and corruption of the years the Philippines spent under strongman Ferdinand Marcos.

It was originally meant to cost around $500 million, but the final price tag of $2.3 billion was only paid off in April 2007.

A huge slice of the inflated balance was allegedly stolen by Marcos and his cronies.

And it has never powered so much as a light bulb.

In 1986, the year of the Chernobyl disaster, Marcos was ousted by a “people power” revolt and Corazon Aquino became president.

The new government refused to switch on the Bataan plant, fearing it was poorly constructed and too dangerous as it sits at the foot of a potentially active volcano and near a crossroads of geological fault lines.

But by 2011, the Philippines is expected to produce less electricity than it needs, so there’s a plan to bring the gigantic, chipped and rusted white elephant to life.

Doing so would cost another billion dollars.

“We have a nuclear power plant that’s already fully paid for that has never generated a single watt of power,” said Rep. Mark Cojuango, who has drafted a bill to re-commission the plant.

“And I don’t think it would be a big problem to evaluate whether this plant is viable and, if it is, why not run it straight away? I really believe that Bataan does not need that much rehabilitation.”

The outside of the Westinghouse-designed plant is badly worn, with rusted ladders, crumbling masonry and jammed doors.

Inside, the control room looks like the set of a 1970s James Bond film—there’s not a computer in sight and everything is analogue.

But the massive turbine and the surprisingly small reactor look pristine to the naked eye.

Cojuango studied an identical—and much cheaper—plant in South Korea that has run without incident since the mid-1980s. And he believes the people of the Philippines can be persuaded that nuclear power is the future.

“A nuclear plant is only allowed to emit, in one year, the amount of radiation you get from eating one banana,” he said.

“I think these are things that have not been made known to the layman, and when he gets a handle on the relative risk, he’ll find that nuclear power is not that dangerous after all.”

But most of the dangers are not man made.

The Philippines is a geologically volatile country and the land near the plant is particularly vulnerable to seismic activity, much of it caused by the huge Manila Trench fault in the South China Sea to the west of the plant.

In 1991 Mount Pinatubo, a volcano to the north of the plant that was once thought to be dormant, exploded, killing 300 people. Seismologists say Mount Natib nearby is “potentially active.”

Bishop Socrates Villegas, the prelate for the nearby city of Balanga, sees Mount Pinatubo as a warning against commissioning Bataan.

“The nuclear power plant stands at the foot of Mount Natib, which is a volcano,” he said.

“Now, can you imagine a volcano erupting and at the foot of it is a nuclear power plant that did not meet safety standards? Can you imagine the devastation?”

The area is also frequently battered by typhoons. But it’s the lack of human expertise that worries Villegas most.

“We still have living fishermen; they ended up as welders, masons in the construction of the nuclear power plant. They just started to weld, left and right. Can you imagine fishermen becoming welders and masons for a nuclear power plant?” he said.

“We may save some money, some pesos, for cheaper electricity. But the risk to the lives of the people of Bataan is too much.”

The Philippine government recently invited the International Atomic Energy Agency to evaluate the facility and did not rule out the possibility of the plant being put into operation.

“We are seeing now perhaps a period of nuclear renaissance, a lot of countries in the region are going nuclear,” said Energy Secretary Angelo Reyes.

Indeed, the Philippines is not alone in Southeast Asia in considering the nuclear option. Vietnam plans to have four nuclear generation plants in operation by 2025.

In Indonesia, the government aims to have its first nuclear plant some time after 2015. Thailand is also carrying out a feasibility study for a nuclear plant to be built by 2020.

“The Philippine government is now revisiting the nuclear option as a source of energy,” Reyes said.

“We anticipate that by 2010, 2011, we will be experiencing a supply gap in our power requirements. Over the long term we have to ensure that we have sustainable, steady, quality, affordable sources of power. And nuclear power provides exactly that.”

Reyes says he believes the geological fears support the argument for commissioning the plant, as it has stood for 20 years “subjected to all kinds of threats, earthquake, typhoon—and it has withstood all of that.” –Adrian Addison, Agence France-Presse

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