Facing the nuclear bogeyman

Published by rudy Date posted on March 19, 2011

ONe of my favorite broadsheet columnists, fraternity brod Randy David, has commented insightfully on our very Filipino reaction to the risk issues inherent in nuclear power that were so forcefully thrown up at us by the ongoing debacle at all four nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan.

If I may paraphrase Randy, the modern society that is Japan understands that risk is present everywhere—varying only in degree—and so it forges ahead with building its reactors on the Pacific “ring of fire” because it accepts that calculated risk-taking is the price to be paid for progress. In contrast, our own traditional society is much more intimidated by life’s inevitable dangers—which we variously ascribe to nature, fate, bad luck, or the supernatural—and so we forego the opportunities that come our way because of the risks that also come with them.

Whenever we are confronted most brutally by the capriciousness of, say, Mother Nature—as in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami that Japan is now recovering from—that is precisely the moment when it is also most important for us to abide by the light of human reasoning—with which no other of God’s creatures is blessed—and keep our feet firmly planted on the bedrock of facts—which include the probability distributions that, most certainly, underlie even the most seemingly capricious of events.

Keeping this in mind, let’s review some of the facts about nuclear power in relation to—but without being overwhelmed by the immediacy of—the ongoing crisis in Fukushima. Let’s try looking at risk as something that can and should be (i) measured and (ii) traded off against potential rewards:

• Since the highly publicized major breakdowns in Three Mile Island and then Chernobyl, decades ago, the technology to make nuclear plants safer has gotten better simply with the passage of time, assisted by the occasional minor accidents and near-accidents that periodically lend added urgency. This is illustrated by the following comparisons between the troubled nuclear plant at Fukushima and our own mothballed Bataan nuclear plant, which were helpfully sent to me by Congressman Mark Cojuangco:

1. Fukushima was designed to a seismic load of 0.18 G, the earthquake was much stronger than this load, and yet the plant did not crumble outright. This is because nuclear plant designs add substantial “overkill” safety factors on top of the design basis. By comparison, Bataan was designed to a much higher load of 0.40 G. Since the Japan earthquake at 8.9 was already near the top of the Richter scale, the likelihood of a far stronger tectonic event that could blow apart the Bataan plant is a risk that would not be unreasonable for us to consider taking.

2. The four Fukushima reactors used a boiling water reactor design with only one cooling circuit. By comparison, Bataan plant is a pressurized water reactor with two separate cooling circuits. It is both more expensive and somewhat less efficient than BWR, but it is also much more dependable under extremely stressful conditions. PWR appears to have been developed in response to the anti-nuke movement of the seventies, and is today the design employed by most nuclear plants in the US.

3. Parenthetically, Cojuangco adds that the Bataan plant was built on top of an 18-meter hill, higher than the average wave heights reported for the tsunami that hit Japan’s north east coastline.

• Director Alumanda de la Rosa of the Phil Nuclear Research Institute likened the current situation in Fukushima to an alert level of zero if the Chernobyl crisis of 1986 were rated at level seven. For his part, Science and Technology Secretary Mario Montejo initially opined that “even in a worst case scenario…the chances of radiation reaching the Philippines [from Japan] are almost nil”. [Subsequently, though, he ratcheted up his level of alarm in pace with the administration’s official line.]

I quote these experts just to make the point how differently people might have reacted to them. The anti-nuke hardliners of course would be wringing their hands: “We’re lucky we don’t have our own nuclear plant!” The more religious might add: “This is God’s warning/punishment to us!” Whereas the proper response of the modern mind would be: “Thank God the technology proved that it could take the punishment. It proved that the risks from nuclear power are still worth calculating as a trade-off for the potential benefits from its use.”

In case we’ve already forgotten, what again are the reasons why—beyond the anti-Marcos slogans, the environmentalists’ hype, and the fears of the superstitious—we should be considering nuclear power?

• Our country now has the highest power costs in the region, recently overtaking Japan. This is an obstacle to investment and development maybe even bigger than not having a daang matuwid. If you doubt this, just think back to the productivity losses and economic damage caused by the all-day brownouts during President Cory’s time. As a matter of fact, your memory may start being refreshed when the brownouts start again this summer, maybe April or May, according to her son’s own energy bureaucrats.

• At the rate our population and economy are growing, our absolute dependence on importing oil from chronically unstable countries in the Middle East will only grow over time. As a minor market facing a global oil oligopoly, we will continue to be buffeted by the volatility of oil prices. On the other hand, we still need to subsidize non-oil alternative energy technologies that are still immature and/or expensive. [And if the leftists have their way, we may also end up subsidizing even oil consumption as well.]

• Nuclear power is still the only form of alternative energy—not based on oil, coal, or natural gas, which all contribute to the global carbon footprint—that is capable of consistently delivering baseload power generation to a national grid. [We used to think that hydro was also a great idea, but after the brownouts in Mindanao last year when droughts dried up its reservoirs, and with the prospect of recurrent El Niños and long-term global warming, I think we now realize that there are risks here too.]

• The capital and other start-up costs for a nuclear plant are of course substantial, but in exchange you get a clean, non-stop, and virtually inexhaustible source of electric power at baseload levels of capacity and reliability. In other words, the payback on the investment is very attractive.

What is most distressing to me in this entire matter, though, is the inferiority complex I can read between the lines of the critics: “If the Japanese couldn’t avoid the problem, who are we to think that we can do better than them?” Unfortunately this is something that is not as easily fixed as our power shortage, and for which no amount of facts and calculations can give us the proper redress. –Gary Olivar, Manila Standard Today

(E-mail gary.olivar@censeisolutions.com)

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