THE Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) is about as useful to the Philippines as a ski resort, and the country ought to stop wasting its time debating whether or not to put it into operation.
In listening to the opposing views on the BNPP, it is important to realize there are two separate issues that are being rather unhelpfully mixed up by both sides in the debate.
First, there is the broad issue of nuclear energy. Even though the Philippines has precisely zero capacity to develop and manage a nuclear power industry now, it could be acquired; building up the human resources may take a generation, but it could be done, and whether or not it is worthwhile to embark on that effort may be a debate worth having.
Second, there is the matter of the BNPP itself. The insistence of its proponents that it not only should be put to use but that doing so is preferable to other obvious options defies basic logic and should be ignored.
The BNPP is a conventional pressurized water reactor (PWR) built by Westinghouse between 1979 and 1983; thus, the plant itself is more than 30 years old, and its design is about 50 years old. Despite its age, the PWR design is fairly safe; the only plant of similar design to have a very serious accident so far is Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, which suffered a partial meltdown in its Unit 2 reactor in March 1979. Thanks to the plant’s design, however, almost all of the harmful radiation was contained, although that was not well understood at the time by frightened residents of south-central Pennsylvania (myself included, although being evacuated from our home about 30 miles from the plant to Grandma’s house on the other end of the state was more an unexpected adventure than an emergency as far as we kids were concerned).
Likewise, the safety risks to the BNPP due to the Philippines’ natural hazards are probably overstated; the basic structure of the plant is built high enough above sea level to eliminate any threat from a tsunami or typhoons, and is rated to withstand an earthquake of about intensity VII.
Nevertheless, it is still a nuclear plant, and it is still located in a place that presents significant natural hazards. Those two things combined elevate the risk factor, particularly because it is the unavoidable nature of nuclear plants that any significant failure that damages the reactor—even if the resulting release of radioactive products is contained, as it was at Three Mile Island—essentially destroys the plant, leaving behind a costly mess to clean up. It took a little more than 14 years and about $973 million, or about $1.62 billion at current prices, to clean up Three Mile Island.
The accepted estimate of the time and cost required to commission the BNPP is about four years and $1 billion. Those estimates, however, are based on a feasibility study done in 2010, and may be unreliable; whether or not significant policy decisions about things that—however unlikely—potentially present grave safety hazards to people and the environment should be based on outdate technical studies is a question that should be asked.
Overlooking that for the moment, however, and assuming the current four-year, $1 billion estimate is close enough to being correct, the BNPP, which is rated to produce 620 MW of power, still does not present any advantages over its most likely alternative, a coal plant of similar output, which could be built from scratch for about the same investment in time and money.
First, if we assume the risk of catastrophic failure—i.e., an accident that permanently destroys the plant—is about the same for the BNPP or a modern coal plant (and assume it is a reasonably low risk in either case), only a nuclear plant presents a risk of significant off-site damage that could render an area uninhabitable and cause fatal injuries.
Second, the country does not have a regulatory structure or the native technical competence to manage nuclear power on its own, whereas it does when it comes to a coal plant. The difference here is immediate ability to operate a coal facility, versus some number of years to be able to operate a nuclear power plant, without resorting to hiring a foreign operator, which still leaves the regulatory question unanswered.
Third, there is a minor issue in that, under current law (the Electric Power Industry Reform Act of 2001, or Epira), the BNPP must be privatized; at present, it is a non-functioning National Power Corp. (Napocor) asset. Because it is not operating no one really cares if the government owns it or not, but by law, it should be disposed to the private sector, unless the legislature can be encouraged to make significant amendments to the Epira law, something that until now they have been strongly disinclined to do.
I have said this before, and I have yet to be presented with a compelling counter-argument to it: If the BNPP did not exist, the topic of nuclear power would unlikely come up in this country, and the existence of the BNPP alone does not make it imperative that it be used. Building a ski lift on one of the country’s mountains is not going to make it snow. A new coal plant is not an ideal solution, either, but when even something as dubious as coal is a better option than putting in the work to make a decades-old nuclear plant operational—which is exactly what Kepco, the experienced Korean nuclear operator that did the 2010 feasibility study and was the presumptive future operator of the BNPP, decided about two years ago—it is probably time to let go of the idea.