Retelling the natural hazards, dangers of the Bataan nuclear power plant

Retelling the natural hazards, dangers of the Bataan nuclear power plant
Bataan nuclear power plant
Bataan Nuclear Power Plant.

Nuclear energy first came to the Philippines in 1958 when the United States gifted the Philippines with a nuclear fission reactor. The government then established the Philippine Atomic Energy Commission (Paec) on the University of the Philippines’ Diliman campus. The Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP), on the other hand, was approved by the Marcos regime in July 1973 and the contract granted to Westinghouse Electric. The project was completed in 1984.

Controversy accompanied the BNPP from the start. The dictator, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., overruled the recommendations of an ad hoc committee he created and the National Power Corp. in awarding the contract to Westinghouse despite a lower bid from General Electric. The original project cost of $700 million ballooned to $2.2 billion. 

Allegations surfaced involving millions of US dollars in bribe money paid to top government officials, a Marcos crony, and to a firm that was tasked with undertaking safety checks of the plant and the site. In 2012, the Sandiganbayan antigraft court ordered the Marcos crony, Herminio Disini, to return the $50 million in “commissions” he got from Westinghouse for brokering the BNPP deal. 

In June 2021, the Supreme Court ordered Disini to pay the Philippine government PhP1.1 billion in damages for liability in using his close ties to Marcos to wield undue influence in the awarding of the power plant’s construction to Westinghouse. 

When Corazon Aquino took over the presidency in 1986, the government contracted an advisor from the International Atomic Energy Agency (Iaea) who discovered issues related to poor structural quality control. The Philippine government sued Westinghouse in the United States for the BNPP irregularities but was rejected by a US court.

The BNPP was financed by a $1.2-billion loan from a syndicate led by the US Export Import Bank, Citicorp, and Swiss and Japanese banks. Interest on the loan amounted to $350,000 a day or $240 million a year. The debt servicing lasted for more than 30 years and ended only in 2007. Maintenance costs for the non-operating plant amounted to P40 million a year. 

Nuclear energy

This year, there have been renewed calls for the activation of the BNPP. On March 3, President Duterte signed Executive Order No. 164 that added nuclear energy to the country’s energy mix. President-in-waiting Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., during the election campaign period, expressed interest in utilizing nuclear energy to meet the country’s power needs. In a press conference on May 24, Marcos reported on his talks with the South Korean ambassador about the BNPP’s activation. 

The estimated cost of operationalizing the plant could reach $1 billion and it would take four years for it to be fully operational. This is mainly because the BNPP is the product of a 40-year-old design and would use old analog technology.

Nuclear energy in general and the BNPP in particular will be the subject of discussions and debates in the coming months. As 30 more sites have been identified in various parts of the country for nuclear power plants, it would thus be pertinent to review what scientist-experts have repeatedly pointed out over the last 45 years about the natural hazards and dangers accompanying the BNPP.

The following discussion draws from the scientific review on the Bataan plant by Dr. Kelvin Rodolfo, a Filipino-American geologist and a professor emeritus of earth and environmental sciences at University of Illinois and a senior research fellow at the Manila Observatory. In 2016, he warned that “the activation of the Bataan plant poses the greatest threat to the well-being of the Filipino people and their environment.” 

Related: Nuclear power: Rehab of Bataan plant pushed in big way

Dangers, hazards

The first of these dangers is the earthquake hazard due to active faulting occurring at the BNPP site. This assessment was arrived at in a 1977 Report by nuclear technologists Elmer Hernandez and Gabriel Santos, Jr. who noted that the “proposed site … is very near the Manila Trench – Luzon Trough tectonic structures, … (and) is literally bracketed by significant and very strong historical earthquakes…within a 100 kilometer radius.” 

The 1977 Report concluded that “the probability of an epicenter of an earthquake occurring at the site is unacceptably very high …” as “49 significant earthquakes” have struck within the previous 74 years “within 1-2 kilometers of the proposed site” itself. This constitutes “high risk potential for the protection of the health and safety of the public.” 

A 1979 Report by geophysicist Ernesto Sonido suggested that the BNPP plant site “had been tectonically active” due to the existence of a fault zone “with a width equal to the width of a river south of Napot Point” with the river itself seated along a fault. 

Volcanoes in peninsula

The second danger is volcanic eruption. Rodolfo explains that “the Bataan peninsula is entirely composed of two large volcanoes” – Mt. Natib in the north and Mt. Mariveles in the south. Mt. Natib, the nearest to the BNPP, has two existing “calderas” or “large depressions at its summit” the larger one 5 x 7 kilometers in size and the “smaller,” 2 kilometers in diameter and similar in size to the one formed on Pinatubo during its 1991 eruption.”

Rodolfo also cited the “single most-stubborn problem facing the nuclear power plant industry” – that of the safe disposal of high-level and high-heat emitting radioactive nuclear waste. The scientific journal “Nature.” the world’s most respected scientific publication, reports that “no country in the world has yet solved this problem.” 

Highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel rods can only be effective for 4.5 to 6 years but although no longer used for the power plant, continues to produce “a large amount of heat through radioactive decay” and have to be cooled by immersing them in millions of gallons of water that 

are also used to cool the reactor core. 

Rodolfo questioned “the impact of millions of gallons of seawater heated and released every day, on Subic Bay and adjacent coastal environments and ecosystems should BNPP be operated” and wondered whether the Environmental Impact Statement for the BNPP had taken this into consideration. 

The fourth hazard involves the BNPP’s poor quality construction, a defect reported by the 1990 Technical Audit commissioned by the Philippine Senate, which said: “[T]he project’s Quality Assurance Program was sloppy and below regulatory standards …” Earlier in June 1984, IAaea experts noted the breakdown in quality control during construction that resulted in “badly welded hangers for base plates, badly installed base plates,” and leaking underground vaults that were simply remedied by what one expert termed “a Band-Aid fix.”

Scientific studies

The fifth hazard, according to Rodolfo, is “the disregard, misuse and misinterpretations of numerous scientific field studies on the dangers and hazards accompanying the BNPP.” Thus, the BNPP’s “natural dangers are being greatly compounded by nuclear proponents of great influence who know little geology (and) and select ‘facts’ that defend the safety of the plant site, and ignore ‘inconvenient’ scientific truths that are easily available and verifiable.” Rodolfo laments that “this is not only dismissive of the dangers to the people, it is a great disrespect and disdain for natural-hazard science.”

Sixth and last is the absence within the country of a “culture of safety” that pervades in technologically advanced countries like Japan, the US, and in Western Europe but where a number of nuclear power accidents still take place. Can the technologically challenged Philippines be expected to do better? 

The above factors point to the likelihood of a nuclear accident in case the BNPP is activated. A total of 131 accidents in nuclear power plants have so far been recorded all over the world from 1952 to 2019. The United States had 53 accidents, followed by Japan (20), France (12), Canada (10), United Kingdom (8), Russia (7), India (6), Belgium (5), Germany (3), Ukraine (2), and one each from Pakistan, South Korea, Serbia, Switzerland, and Taiwan.

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