IN a television interview last week, Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI) Director Carlo Arcilla made the shocking suggestion that the nuclear waste repository that would be needed if the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) is rehabilitated and put into operation could be located on Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea (WPS). In our view, there could hardly be a worse idea for handling nuclear waste than this, and it is deeply disturbing that the head of the country's only nuclear agency would offer such an irresponsible solution.
Arcilla's comment came in an interview about the potential for resurrecting the mothballed BNPP, a possibility that incoming president Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos has emphasized he would like the government to explore, and an idea that we continue to maintain should be strongly discouraged. While the Philippines should remain open-minded about and study the potential of nuclear technology to meet its energy needs, rehabilitating the outdated BNPP would be unjustifiably problematic for a number of reasons.
Any use of nuclear energy in the Philippines, whether that is the BNPP or some other safer, more efficient and more cost-effective form of the technology, will require that the country have secure and well-managed waste disposal facilities and infrastructure. All nuclear power systems produce a considerable amount of potentially harmful waste that must be stored in a secure disposal facility. A relatively small amount of this is the extremely dangerous high-level waste consisting of spent nuclear fuel, discarded fuel assemblies, and other reactor system components; and a much larger volume of waste with lower levels of radioactivity, much of it water, along with irradiated equipment and components that are used and disposed of in the normal course of operations.
Thus, no matter what technology the Philippines employs, waste disposal is a problem that must be solved before any nuclear generating facility is activated. It will be a much easier problem to solve for a system other than the BNPP, as newer technologies produce far less waste than plants of its 50-year-old design. Either way, it is an unavoidable issue, and one that is worthwhile to discuss now.
Unfortunately, the idea presented by PNRI's Arcilla violates almost all of the basic criteria for a "safe" location for nuclear waste disposal. Guidelines from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) direct that nuclear waste disposal areas should be located away from populated or ecologically sensitive areas; should be in geologically stable areas safe from risks from earthquakes, flooding, or other hazards; should be located in areas where the risk to populations from transporting the waste from the nuclear facilities is minimized as much as possible; and should be in locations where site security can be easily maintained.
A waste site on Pag-asa Island would have to be excavated partly under the village located on the island, due to the island's small size (about 37 hectares), and would be located in an environmentally sensitive area. As it would have to be excavated below sea level, the proposed site would have a heightened risk of flooding, which could be mitigated, but at much greater cost than a site on land.
Transporting the waste by ship does keep it away from populated areas in transit, but carries a risk of an accident that could result in waste being lost at sea. Finally, Pag-asa Island, though it is pretty clearly part of the Philippine sovereign territory, is in the area disputed by China, which raises all sorts of questions about whether proper security of the site can be maintained.
It was, in fact, the ongoing dispute over control of the WPS that apparently inspired Arcilla to make his reckless suggestion; in his interview, he explained that parties coveting the territory of Pag-asa Island might not find it so attractive if there was a nuclear waste dump there.
As we have maintained, developing a framework for the safe and productive use of nuclear energy is a worthwhile objective for the Philippines, so that the country may take advantage of opportunities that become available. The irresponsible idea from the head of the PNRI, however, suggests that the agency, or at least its present personnel, may not be the best ones to lead that development.