In March 2011, Japan suffered a catastrophe of such a scale that had it been the plot of a movie, it would have been scoffed at for being unrealistic. Part of that disaster, of course, was the complete breakdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant after it was swamped by the tsunami created by the 9.0-magnitude Tohoku Earthquake. The ensuing nuclear emergency was given a rating of 7 on the International Nuclear Emergency Scale—only the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine in 1985 was rated that high before Fukushima—and caused large-scale evacuations of the area around the plant.
The Fukushima accident provoked a serious backlash against nuclear power around the world. Germany, for example, announced it would begin phasing out its nuclear power plants, and here in the Philippines, the first serious discussions in years about completing and operating the long-dormant Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) were shelved by the Aquino administration within hours of the first reports of trouble at the tsunami-shattered Japanese plant.
In the case of the BNPP, the Fukushima accident was as much a fortuitous excuse as it was a possible warning of the dangers of nuclear power as far as the administration was concerned; operating on the Aquino family doctrine that halted development of the plant in the first place—that anything associated with the Marcos regime is by definition evil—President Benigno Aquino 3rd and his minions have been trying to scrap the BNPP with finality for years, with the P50-million maintenance budget for the dormant facility being the subject of a tense annual budget fight between the administration and Congress. This issue has recently been raised again, with Budget Secretary Florencio “Butch” Abad Jr. announcing that he intended to suspend the funding from the 2014 budget, incurring the wrath of BNPP’s biggest advocates, former Pangasinan representative Mark Cojuangco and his wife (and current Congresswoman) Kimi, who have condemned Abad’s move as “conspiracy and economic sabotage.”
The Cojuangcos do have a point. As Mark points out, comparisons to the two worst nuclear disasters in history, Chernobyl and Fukushima, are not entirely fair. Chernobyl was a very poor design for a power plant—a graphite-moderated reactor called an RMBK, originally intended for weapons production—and was doomed by poor operation and an experiment done on the reactor that should have never been permitted (since it caused the reactor to explode). Fukushima, on the other hand, withstood the tremendous earthquake, but was done in by its poor layout; the site where the plant was located had been leveled during construction, and the seawall provided to protect the plant was obviously inadequate. Neither of those things would have been a problem, however, had the plant’s builders not decided to locate the emergency generators (needed to keep cooling water flowing in the case of a power outage) in the basement, where they were quickly flooded by the incoming tsunami.
The reason Fukushima turned into a radiation emergency is because the reactors (four out of the six at the plant were destroyed in the accident) were of a type known as a boiling-water reactor (BWR); the cooling water for the reactor is also the water used to generate steam for the turbines that drive the electric generators. BNPP, by contrast, is a pressurized-water reactor (PWR) design—not as efficient as a BWR, but much safer, as the steam-producing water is heated in a separate loop from the cooling water. In addition, BNPP is located 18 meters above sea level—a change from its original location, done at the insistence of the Marcos administration to increase safety—and according to Mark Cojuangco, designed to withstand a ground acceleration above 0.4 g, which is an intensity 8 or higher earthquake.
The biggest argument in favor of the BNPP, however, is economic.
According to Department of Energy (DOE) estimates, the Luzon grid will need to develop about 470 megawatts (MW) of additional capacity—taking into account the 1,130 MW that is already planned or under development—by 2017. According to the Philippine Independent Power Producers Association, this estimate is way too low; their calculations suggest the real shortfall is somewhere between 2,150 and 3,280 MW.
BNPP, which can be brought online in three to four years—the minimum time to build a coal plant from scratch—for about $1 billion (roughly one-fifth the cost of a new coal plant) is rated for 620 MW, a significant contribution against the imminent power deficit.
And that power would be available at far less than the atrocious price Philippine businesses and consumers must now pay for electricity. Based on prevailing fuel prices and taking into account proposed add-on charges for the disposition of spent reactor fuel and a fund for the eventual decommissioning of the plant, BNPP could produce power at a cost of about P2.50 per kilowatt-hour (kWh), as opposed to the current P11.00/kWh average cost of electricity.
The push to keep the BNPP option alive comes at an interesting time for one other reason as well. At the end of last month, the Philippines Climate Change Commission in conjunction with the environmental think-tank Worldwatch Institute announced, much to everyone’s surprise, that the Philippine government has apparently adopted a policy to switch to “100-percent renewable energy within 10 years” (the release is available on the Internet at http://www.worldwatch.org/ philippines-maps-out-plan-switch-100-percent-renewables-10-years). Given the slow pace of approvals of any renewable energy projects by the DOE so far (compared to the relative fast-track given to proposals for new coal plants), the claim sounds insincere; in any case, it is unrealistic.
Germany’s sudden push for an all-renewable energy portfolio has resulted in a huge consumer backlash, as customers have become frustrated by costs that have increased by as much as 60 percent. The bigger problem is that current renewable energy technology has not kept pace with demand. With the exception of geothermal power (which is already used extensively in the Philippines) and the prohibitively expensive tidal power technology renewable energy options are intermittent at best; and as an augmentation for conventional power supplies, renewable energy has proven to be more expensive in actual practice than in theory. Nuclear power is not, strictly speaking, a form of renewable energy; it is, however, far more environmental friendly than conventional options like coal or oil, and far more efficient.
But the BNPP is a nuclear plant, and nuclear frightens people; as Mark Cojuangco points out, the biggest challenge is overcoming public fear and the impacts of misinformation about the technology. And no matter how sound the system or how well it is operated, there is one risk to nuclear power that is not shared by other forms of energy: If something does go wrong, there is a much greater likelihood that it will destroy the plant.
The Three Mile Island accident in 1979, for example, was almost completely contained within Unit 2 where it happened (although those of us living nearby at the time did not know that), but the plant was fatally damaged, reducing the output of the whole facility by half. Likewise with Fukushima, which has permanently lost four of its six reactors.
Nevertheless, the objectively very good overall safety record of nuclear power worldwide suggests that, all things being equal, the odds of a catastrophic failure are very low.
If the BNPP did not exist and was not being maintained in a nearly ready state, building a new nuclear plant might not be a good option. But the BNPP presents an immediate opportunity to solve some of the country’s persistent energy problems. The option should not be dismissed out-of-hand by Abad for cheap political reasons—particularly when he and his colleagues have shown no inclination to exercise policy responsibility and propose comparable alternatives.