Back in July, I took a look at the prospects for completing and starting the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP), and came to the conclusion that given the alternatives—which at this point do not actually physically exist—the BNPP is the most practical and economically sound solution to mitigate what will be, if nothing substantial is done to produce more electricity, a power shortfall of somewhere between 1,600 and 3,300 megawatts in Luzon by 2017 (Reconsidering the BNPP, July 20).
Between then and now, I have heard or read nothing that would cause me to reconsider that conclusion. As I said in my earlier article, if the BNPP did not exist, a nuclear power plant might not be worthwhile. Circumstances being what they are, however, allowing the plant to decay when it could be made operational fairly quickly for an additional investment that is a mere fraction of what has already been spent on it is an unconscionable waste of critically needed infrastructure.
Unfortunately, two recent events may have overwhelmed any hope that practicality might prevail with respect to the BNPP. First, there is the news of the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant, which was wrecked beyond salvaging by the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. The latest problem involves serious leaks of contaminated water from storage tanks at the plant, and it is by no means a small problem—the amount of irradiated water that must be contained is enormous, because it includes not only the highly radioactive water that was in the plant’s four destroyed reactor systems to begin with, but also the countless tons of water used to cool the reactors and fuel storage ponds after the accident, as well as a significant amount of groundwater that flows down from the nearby mountains and constantly seeps into the damaged plant.
The second problem is the ongoing “pork barrel” scandal that has all but paralyzed the government. The immediate issue for the BNPP, and the critical short-term goal for BNPP backers like former representative Mark Cojuangco of Pangasinan, is the restoration to the 2014 General Appropriations Act of the P50-million maintenance budget for the BNPP facility. This funding has allowed the government to maintain the plant in a ready state, safely preserving the vital systems so that if or when the decision is made to complete the work to make it operational, it will be possible to do so. The Aquino administration, which has always had an odd understanding of “math,” just as they have for the preceding three years, removed that appropriation from next year’s budget, considering it a case of throwing good money after bad.
Until now, backers of the BNPP have been able to have the maintenance budget restored to the GAA, but whether they will be able to do so again is far from certain now, because the P50 million is a perfect target for those who are against wasteful or fraudulent spending. President Benigno Aquino 3rd wants the BNPP funding out of the budget because the BNPP was a Marcos project that annoyed his mother; Budget Secretary Butch Abad wants the BNPP funding out of the budget because he does what President Aquino tells him to do. That reasoning wouldn’t ordinarily pass muster even with President Aquino’s extremely accommodating Congress, but the twin coincidences of new problems at Fukushima and the eruption of the “pork barrel” scandal have played right into the administration’s hands: They will now be able to tell a public which is extremely agitated about perceived or actual misuses of taxpayers’ money, “We are putting a stop to this considerable amount of wasteful spending on a white elephant which is probably dangerous. See? We really are on your side!”
That would be dishonest, of course; the funding for BNPP maintenance has never had anything to do with the pork barrel, and as with any nuclear accident, separating technical fact from media hysteria in the case of Fukushima shows that not only is the actual environmental harm probably a lot less than is being reported, the crisis is the result of a chain of events that could never, owing to fundamental physical differences between Fukushima and the BNPP, happen in the same manner here. But convincing the public of all that, which is necessary because they have to be convinced at least enough to make their elected representatives comfortable with the idea of reinserting the maintenance funding into the budget, will be difficult if not completely impossible now, for two reasons.
First, there is no easy way to make the argument in favor of continued caretaking—and ideally, completion and start-up—of the BNPP on a level that can compete with the shallow, sound-bite method by which the mass public obtains the information they use to make decisions. The public personality very much takes a “what have you done for me lately” perspective; this is true of people everywhere, and not just in the Philippines, and P50 million being spent with no immediate benefit is a tough sell. Never mind that it is necessary to spend that to prevent or at least continue to postpone a much greater financial loss of the billions of dollars already spent on the BNPP, or that by continuing to spend that relatively tiny amount now helps to ensure the potential for much greater benefits in the future—if the likes of Mike Enriquez or Noli de Castro can’t shout that at their TV audience in the vernacular in under 15 seconds, the vast majority of people here will never understand it. Rerum natura. That is the way of things.
Second, there is a risk to operating the BNPP, and to nuclear power in general, that even the most confident of nuclear proponents cannot completely dispel. While every notably frightening nuclear accident in history—from Britain’s Windscale, to America’s Three Mile Island, the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl, and Japan’s Fukushima—has been unique and nonrepeatable in technical terms, different kinds of systems in different kinds of physical settings, the one absolute nonvariable in every nuclear calamity is the human factor. Windscale and Chernobyl both suffered accidents as a result of relaxed safety measures and being used for applications for which they were not designed, Three Mile Island was largely the result of a single safety procedure violation by plant operators, and Fukushima was doomed by financial corner-cutting that unsafely modified the site where it was built. When people in countries that have 40 or 50 years of active experience with nuclear power still manage to screw it up, convincing the Philippines—where even Filipinos are not surprised that the country is not exactly a model of reverence for industrial safety—that a nuclear plant can be operated safely here is a long shot at best.
Which is a shame, because it still leaves the country with the unsolved problem of inefficient, insufficient and unreasonably expensive electric power, and raises the prospect of having to write off 30 years of expenditures with nothing to show for them. The rational—although not perfect—alternative is, of course, to proceed with the start-up of the BNPP. But right now, the prospects for that seem as dim as ever.