Nuclear power: Energy agency wants objective study by independent party

Bataan Nuclear Power Plant
Entrance to controversial power plant in Bataan —PHOTO COURTESY OF DR. CARLO ARCILLA/PNRI

(Last of two parts)

President Marcos Jr. is all for the idea of reviving the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP), but the Department of Energy (DoE) is leaving no stone unturned to ensure the safety, if at all possible, of the controversial facility that has been lying dormant for nearly 40 years. 

Weeks after Mr. Marcos met with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol to discuss cooperation on reviving the 620-megawatt nuclear power plant, the DoE announced a plan to hire a third-party evaluator in 2023 to assess its viability. “We have to make sure that it’s safe, secure and still functional,” Energy Undersecretary Sharon Garin told via Zoom.  

Sharon Garin, Department of Energy undersecretary —PHOTO FROM PNA.GOV.PH

Despite the numerous studies done on the BNPP by various companies and experts, the DoE wants “a more objective assessment” by an independent party, Garin said. The assessment will cover everything, from construction to quality control and from waste disposal to emergency response in case of a disaster—a costly procedure, according to her.  

“The sentiment is that it is there, sayang naman (a pity if it goes to waste). But we don’t want to risk the safety of the people,” Garin said. “If it’s deemed feasible, then we’ll do the project. If not, then it’s not the end of it. We have other sites that we can explore.” 

‘Like forum-shopping’ 

The DoE plan does not sit well with a long-time nuclear energy advocate, Pangasinan Rep. Mark Cojuangco, who called it a “deliberate slow-walking” tactic.  

“We’ve been debating this for 37 years,” Cojuangco said in an interview. “Now they want a new study? This is like forum-shopping. If they don’t get the result that nuclear is bad for us, they won’t accept it.”  

Commissioning the 38-year-old corruption-mired BNPP won’t be a walk in the park. The assessment alone may take years. 

If its offer to rehabilitate the plant gets the government greenlight, Korea Hydro Nuclear Power Co. (KHNP)—or any other company—will have to apply for a license to build and operate the facility from the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI). 

The company will have to hurdle “all regulatory and permitting processes” to secure a safety assessment report from the PNRI, the government agency mandated to undertake research and development on the use of nuclear technology, and regulate it.  

“It will have to pass PNRI regulations on safety and security safeguards,” PNRI Director Carlo Arcilla said. “It’s not a free pass. If it fails, it fails.’’  

Besides, any nuclear program will have to comply with the guidelines of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Arcilla told “If a country goes nuclear, they will have to do a checklist according to the [global agency’s] best practices.’’ 

Survey necessary

The other order of business is to survey the residents living in the vicinity of the Bataan plant, in keeping with IAEA standards, said Garin, who also chairs the National Energy Program Inter-Agency Committee tasked with developing nuclear energy plans.  

This survey on public acceptance can be done simultaneously with the assessment, she said.

A 2019 DoE-commissioned survey showed that 79 percent of the respondents approved of the BNPP revival. But Bataan Rep. Albert Garcia, apart from certain geologists, has repeatedly warned of the risks of such a move.  

Eventually the DoE plans to do a similar survey in certain provinces where the government can build and operate 10 conventional and 10 modular nuclear power plants in the future.  

“Before you start a project, it has to have public acceptance. If public acceptance is still not that convincing, then maybe we need to talk more with the stakeholders,’’ Garin said. 

The BNPP remains viable, according to Arcilla, and proof of that is the Korean company’s offer to get it restarted in five years. He believes that it is the fastest way for the Philippines to go nuclear. 

“If it’s not [viable], why will a Korean company which constructs nuclear plants make that offer? Ultimately, if it fails, then their investment fails, right?” he said.  

After years of crossing swords with fellow geologists and academicians over safety concerns, Arcilla has not budged from his stance that the BNPP is safe to operate and entails no carbon dioxide emission.  

He said South Korea had been operating an exact model of the BNPP in its own backyard as well as in Slovenia and Brazil for the last 40 years. “Those three plants are still running very well, very safe and very profitable,” he said. “So when they make an offer to rehabilitate the BNPP, they have credibility because they have a working model.” 

‘3 times stronger’

A rerun of the 2011 disaster in Fukushima, Japan, where a powerful earthquake and a tsunami sparked multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, should not be a cause for worry either, Arcilla said.  

According to him, the BNPP has a higher seismic rating than the Fukushima plant and, hence, can withstand a powerful earthquake.

“The BNPP is three times stronger than the Fukushima plant. Magnitude 9 happens in Japan, which has never happened in the Philippines. Why? The earthquake is proportional to the contiguous length of the faults. The Philippine faults break, but in Japan, they’re continuous. That’s why they have powerful quakes,” Arcilla said. 

And since the plant is built at a higher elevation on the Philippines’ western coast, it’s safe from any tsunami that could trigger an explosion, as had happened at the Fukushima plant, he said.  

What about the disposal of radioactive materials that can last for 10,000 years?

Arcilla said the wastes could be buried in 3-kilometer-deep bore holes or mine depositories that should be sealed with bentonite clay to prevent uranium leak. He then made an astounding suggestion: “Why not put these on Pag-asa Island so it won’t be claimed by the Chinese?”—a reference to the largest island occupied by Philippine troops in the disputed Spratlys and home to a hundred Filipino civilians.

As the Philippines looks for alternative energy resources amid the global shortage of fuel, Arcilla believes that nuclear energy can eventually backstop coal, which in 2021 accounted for 58% of power generation, as well as renewable energy which contributed 22%, natural gas 18%, and oil 2%.  

The country imports more than 90 percent of its coal supply from Indonesia as well as oil. Its main gas field, Malampaya, is being depleted. 

Early this year, the Philippines sent its diplomats to plead with Indonesia after it threatened to cut the coal supply to Manila a few months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to Arcilla.  

“Why can’t nuclear replace coal eventually and then maybe, Malampaya gas?” he said, projecting that the eventual operation of more nuclear power plants would reduce the high cost of electricity. “If you spend 10 percent of your monthly pay for electricity, that is f-cking oppressive.”

‘Unsafe’ option

But Gerry Arances, convenor of the Power for People Coalition, insisted that going nuclear was an “unsafe” option for Filipinos and not the solution to the energy crisis. 

Arances said the DoE would do well to instead launch more programs improving the grid “for the integration of existing yet unmaximized renewable energy capacities,” deploy small-scale renewables, and address storage needs. 

“We would rather see the DoE coming out with its long overdue 100-percent renewable energy transition plan instead of spilling millions of pesos more of taxpayer money on developing nuclear energy, which is unsafe and incapable of urgently addressing the energy crisis, manifested by the soaring prices of electricity,” he said.

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