MORONG, Bataan—The incoming administration of President-apparent Benigno Aquino III should seriously consider the use of nuclear energy, including the opening of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP), nuclear power experts said at the weekend. They also think the government should make available the needed power supply amid the increasing energy shortage that has been causing hours-long brownouts all over the country.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh in South Asia, which has been at the bottom of the world development index, is already planning to build a nuclear power plant, according to Mauro Marcelo Jr., manager of the nuclear energy core group of the National Power Corp. (Napocor). He addressed members of the media in an orientation seminar on nuclear power and a visit to the BNPP over the weekend.
This would mean, Marcelo said, that Bangladesh would be able to get its energy requirements from nuclear power.
Dr. Sueo Machi, a Japanese nuclear expert, told the BusinessMirror earlier that if Bangladesh’s plan to build two 600-MW nuclear power plants pushes through, it might surpass the Philippines’ own development.
Machi explained that having a stable source of energy would support industries and encourage their expansion, thereby bring economic development.
The Philippines’ Asean neighbors are already considering nuclear power, Marcelo said. They are Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Machi told the BusinessMirror early this year that Indonesia is planning to put up two nuclear-power plants; Thailand, two; Vietnam, four; while Malaysia’s plan is in the feasibility study stage.
If the Asean countries push through with their plans and are able to support the power needs of their industries, their economic development would surge—leaving the Philippines behind, Marcelo said.
An open mind on BNPP, nuke
Marcelo said the Interagency Core Group on Nuclear Energy would provide the incoming Aquino government a report on the status of the nuclear option in the country, Marcelo, a member of the group, said.
“We will inform him [Aquino] about nuclear power,” Marcelo said.
Specifically, Fe Medina, special technical assistant at the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI) and a member of the interagency core group, said the group will submit a report to whoever will become Energy secretary, and ultimately to the President.
“The [opening of] BNPP is a challenge to Noynoy [Aquino]. I hope he would have an open mind and should look at it scientifically, and not just follow what the administration of his mother [the late former President Corazon Aquino] did,” Medina told the BusinessMirror at the sidelines of the seminar.
Medina was referring to the decision of Mrs. Aquino’s government to mothball the BNPP in 1986 amid protests that it was unsafe—later debunked by international and local experts—and corruption, not to mention its strong association with the deposed President Marcos. Thus, its mothballing, nuclear scientists claimed, was based mainly on political, not on scientific, reasons.
She said that 24 years after the BNPP was mothballed and after the government has fully paid in 2007 its $2.3-billion loan to build the power plant, “it is time the people would benefit from it.”
Marcelo said the government has been spending P40 million a year in preserving and maintaining the BNPP since 1986. It has spent P4 billion for its maintenance since 1986.
Medina explained, however, that if the Aquino government decides to open the BNPP, it would still have to undergo a thorough technical study and rehabilitation so it can conform with current international standards. She said many foreign nuclear engineers would help to maintain its safety.
“The nuclear energy industry, which is strictly regulated, would not allow any defect in a nuclear power plant because that would diminish the credibility of the industry,” she said.
Aquino III, during the election campaign early this year, was quoted to have said that he is not in favor of opening the BNPP, but is open to have a new nuclear-power plant built in another area.
Long-term nuclear option
The Arroyo administration has considered the “long-term option” of using nuclear power in its Philippine Energy Plan that will be effective until 2030, Dennis Gana, Napocor spokesman, said in the media seminar. He said the plan has a 15-year window for the adoption of nuclear power.
He, however, clarified that there is “no definite policy” yet on whether or not the government will proceed to use nuclear energy.
Formulated last year, the energy plan was crafted amid the rise in the global oil prices. It includes other energy sources, such as renewable energy, oil and coal.
The Interagency Core Group on Nuclear Energy is chaired by the Department of Energy, and cochaired by the Department of Science and Technology, and Napocor.
The group formulated an information and education campaign (IEC) to inform the public about the benefits of nuclear power and “let them decide if they want nuclear power,” Medina said.
The group has held nine IECs around the country where most participants were receptive to the use of nuclear energy. The media seminar over the weekend was part of the IEC.
“I hope whoever will be Energy secretary will have the strong political will to recommend the use of nuclear power,” Marcelo, also a member of the interagency group, told the BusinessMirror at the sidelines of the seminar.
New energy base load needed
He said the country needs a new source of energy base load, like nuclear power, in order to support the industries’ power needs and future development. An energy baseload source provides power all year-round, not just seasonal as in the case of hydropower which capacity declines during the dry season.
“The country’s base load energy source should be much more than the current requirement, not just supply the demand, so that it could support the future demand of industries that would inevitably lead to the country’s economic development,” he pointed out.
He said that if no new base load energy source is created soon, the country will experience a crisis that will adversely affect business, and ultimately, left behind in development.
Marcelo, however, clarified that although nuclear power could not be immediately used because the BNPP has yet to be rehabilitated or a new power plant would still need to be constructed, it is best that the government adopt its nuclear power policy now while it is acquiring short- or medium-term energy sources in order to avoid an energy crisis and the occurrence of long brownouts in the long-term.
The Arroyo administration—which is bowing out on June 30—had recognized in 2006 the option of including nuclear power in its energy mix, although up to this time it has not yet made a definite policy that it will go nuclear.
This led to the PNRI to ask the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to look into the viability of the BNPP, which was never used 24 years after it was constructed.
The IAEA recommended after its team visited the BNPP that the Philippines should “do a thorough technical feasibility study, including economic [study], to determine whether that plant [BNPP] can still be rehabilitated.”
Napocor, in a memorandum of understanding with the Korean Electric Corp. (Kepco), asked the latter to undertake a feasibility study on the BNPP.
Kepco said the power plant is still viable and could be recommissioned if it is rehabilitated—for a price tag of $1 billion that would take four years to do.
The estimated cost of constructing a new nuclear power plant is $4 billion to $5 billion, and will take seven to 10 years.
Marcelo said Napocor is validating the findings of Kepco on the BNPP rehabilitation until the end of July. He explained that Napocor is looking at the details of the Kepco proposal and put the equivalent costs on them.
Many quarters are still against the opening of BNPP for safety reasons—it is over or near an earthquake fault, near a volcano and building defects—which international and local nuclear power experts have repeatedly debunked.
But still, many are suggesting that if a nuclear power will be used, a new power plant should be built in a “safer” place.
Marcelo said in his presentation at the seminar that the sites being considered if a new nuclear plant will be built are San Juan in Batangas; Padre Burgos in Quezon; Port Irene/Matara Point and Rakat Hill in Cagayan; Ternate in Cavite; Talunan Point in Sipalay, Negros Occidental; Baluangan in Cauayan, Negros Oriental; Cansilan Point, Bayawan in Negros Oriental; Inagauan and Tabanag in Palawan; Siocon, Zamboanga del Norte; and the General Santos-Sarangani area.
At the same time, the local governments of Pangasinan, Cebu and Davao region recently passed resolutions in favor of constructing a nuclear power plant in their localities.
“They see the need for nuclear power because of the energy crisis,” Medina told the BusinessMirror.
Nuclear power is safe
Marcelo, an electrical engineer who was with the then-Philippine Atomic Energy Commission, the precursor of PNRI, in the mid-1970s and later in Napocor when the BNPP was being constructed, said in his presentation that the power plant has multiple shields. The reactor vessel, made of carbon steel, is 6.63 inches thick, while its concrete shield wall is 1-meter thick.
“It does not have even a small needle hole,” he said in Filipino.
He said that since the construction of the BNPP was started in 1976 several review and safety missions were conducted by the IAEA to ensure the power plant’s safety, and they “didn’t see any defect” and gave the go signal that the plant “could proceed with core [nuclear fuel] loading.”
The uranium fuel was delivered to the country in 1984 and was about to be operated, but it was mothballed in April 1986. The nuclear fuel was sold in 1997.
Gana also attested to the strength of the BNPP, noting the Mount Pinatubo eruption in 1991 and the killer earthquake in 1990 had no adverse effect on the structure.
Marcelo said the nuclear industry’s safety record is “second to none” because nuclear installations have safety as the highest priority.
To achieve optimum safety, he said the industry currently uses high-quality design and construction; uses equipment which prevents operational disturbances; uses redundant and diverse systems to detect problems, control damage to the fuel and prevent radioactive releases.
He added that past mistakes or accidents “have been acted on.” The only “two major accidents” in the history of civilian use of nuclear power were the Three Mile Island in the US in 1979, which was contained without harming anyone, and the Chernobyl in Ukraine in April 1986, which involved an intense fire, it having no containment. Only minor “events” have occurred recently, he said.
Being a “green” energy source because it has the least carbon footprint, a stable supply of energy and cost-competitive, there is currently a “nuclear power renaissance” with the growing number of nuclear-power plants being built worldwide.
IAEA December 2009 data showed there are currently 436 operational nuclear power reactors—half of which are of the same generation as the BNPP like that in South Korea—operating in 30 countries with almost 370,304 megawatts capacity.
There are 53 nuclear-power plants under construction in 14 countries. –Lyn Resurreccion / Science Editor, Businessmirror