IF the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) had never been built, it seems very unlikely that there would be any reason to have a conversation about nuclear power in the Philippines. Beyond the BNPP, nuclear power has never been seriously considered as an energy option, and as experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have repeatedly pointed out, the framework of native technical training, expertise, and above all, regulation is largely missing here.
All of this makes nuclear power, at least under present circumstances, a poor fit for the Philippines, in spite of its critical need to develop more electric generating capacity for the future. Nevertheless, the Philippines has a nuclear plant, one that has never operated as such but could be brought to operating condition. Whether it should be is a question whose answer has eluded the country for more than 30 years.
According to the National Power Corporation (Napocor), which is responsible for the plant, the BNPP did at one time actually produce electricity, contrary to what is commonly believed; during non-nuclear tests of its steam generation systems in the mid-1980s, the plant was able to generate about 5 MW of electricity. The plant had undergone year-long operating testing in 1983-1984, and had satisfactorily passed two IAEA technical inspections in 1984 and 1985, after a number of defects (which were largely typical of any new, extremely complex installation, and not necessarily alarming) were corrected.
The BNPP, which was built to produce about 620 MW of electricity—about the same as one of the country’s larger coal or gas plants—could have started commercial operations sometime in 1986, but of course, all progress was brought to a halt by fiat of then-President Corazon Aquino, who was on rampage to eradicate as much of the legacy of her despised predecessor Ferdinand Marcos as she could. Since 1986, the plant has been preserved—more or less—at a cost of P40 million to P50 million per year; the $2.3 billion price tag of the plant (of which at least $700 million was interest) was finally paid off in 2007. The estimated cost of rehabilitating the BNPP to a productive state was $1 billion back in 2010, when the most recent detailed analysis of its condition was conducted.
What the BNPP has in its favor is that, first of all, it physically exists; building the same type of plant from scratch would likely cost at least twice the BNPP’s $1.6 billion original cost and take five or six years to complete and bring online, compared with about two years for the BNPP. In terms of potential safety and reliability, the pressurized water reactor (PWR) design of the BNPP is a carbon copy of the Kori-1 plant operated by the Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco). The authors of the 2010 feasibility study and at one time considered the likeliest candidate to operate the BNPP. Kori-1 has operated without serious incident (although to be precise, not completely incident-free) since 1983; it is due to be retired in 2017. The PWR design of the BNPP, while significantly outdated by the improved—and so far, still technically challenging—design of the European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) system under construction in France and Finland, is still considered more advanced and safer than the simpler boiling-water reactor system used in most Japanese and many American reactors. And although fears have been expressed about the risk of earthquakes, and in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, tsunami damage, as far as can be reliably determined, the real threat is minimal; the plant sits about 18 meters above sea level, safely out of the path of any conceivable tsunami, and is sturdily constructed to about twice the tolerances recommended for earthquake resistance.
BNPP, however, has some formidable drawbacks. The Philippines does not have an adequate regulatory agency, something that was noted by the IAEA as recently as 2007, and was a point raised by former Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla in one of his rare moments of lucidity this past June. The Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI), which is under the Department of Science and Technology, is not funded, staffed, or equipped with the necessary facilities to regulate commercial-scale nuclear power. It could be made so, but that will take money and time, especially since the most important component—skilled people—takes the longest to develop.
The problem is a bit of a Catch-22; without a clear commitment to a nuclear power program, there is no point in going to the extra effort and investment to create a global-standard regulatory agency, but without such an agency, any ambition to develop nuclear power is futile.
Some of the plant’s problems are technical, despite its remarkable state of preservation. Back in January 2014, a Kepco official privy to his company’s interest in the BNPP told me confidentially that the Korean operator had all but dismissed the idea of rehabilitating and operating the plant. According to him, Kepco’s assessment from its 2010 feasibility study had changed, and that the project was now considered “not economically advantageous.” While other Kepco officials were not as categorical about it, the company (which operates the 1,200 MW Ilijan gas plant in Batangas through a subsidiary) did seem to signal its preference in June 2014, when it pitched a proposal to the government for a 600 MW coal plant to be built in the BNPP reservation.
We can, of course, assume that if one operator is not interested, another one likely would be, and we might even be right; regardless, the cost and time estimates for dusting off the plant and getting it running are almost certainly too low—the actual cost may still be justifiable, or maybe not. To determine that, the 2010 feasibility study needs to be redone, which also costs money.
Finally, there is the matter of the BNPP’s vintage. If it were refurbished, it would be very close to being a physically brand-new plant, but a very old design; if it had been operating from the time it was intended to, the BNPP would be very close to or even past its useful life now; it is of the same era as the plants the new European EPRs are intended to replace, and the plants in Sweden that are being quickly retired. It is not as efficient as the newer-design systems, and will be more expensive to operate than it would have been when new. That increase in costs, after all, has been the main driver of recent decisions to decommission nuclear plants. Even though the BNPP could hypothetically be operated for a couple of decades, investors very well may view it as throwing money at an obsolete technology, something that lies well outside most investors’ risk limits.
The challenges that have to be overcome to make the BNPP a reliable commercial plant add up to an unjustifiable cost; whether it spends more to refurbish the plant or not, the government is not going to recover the billions that have been spent on building the plant, maintaining it, and dealing with all its associated legal issues. Preserve the plant—if nothing else, it is an interesting tourist attraction, and would be put to even better use as a test and training facility—but focus on developing actual nuclear capabilities in the areas of skilled manpower and productive regulation first before attempting to tame the nuclear dragon.