“Don’t get yourself exposed to radiation.”
Those were my wife’s words before I left for the educational trip to the Bataan Nuclear Plant (BNPP) that former Congressman Mark Cojuangco of the 5th District of Pangasinan organized for a select group of media and bloggers yesterday, May 28, 2013. (The visit was to commemorate the 29th “birthday” of the BNPP, when it passed a test run on May 28, 1984, proving its operability at that time.)
Of course, my wife said that in jest. But, it reflects one of the many fears regarding the BNPP that Cong. Cojuangco waves off as having no basis whatsoever. In fact, if the BNPP is running today, standing in front of the nuclear plant for a year will give me a radiation dose of 0.009 millirem. (If you search online, a millirem is a unit to measure radiation dosage.) That dose is equivalent to a year of watching TV. In comparison, I would get 0.01 millirem when I eat a banana. (Three puffs on a cigarette would give a smoker 1 millirem!) And since the BNPP is not actually running today and has no radioactive materials in its facility, there’s really no radiation at all.
The bare, drab concrete wall of the BNPP welcomed us. “It could use a coat of paint,” a blogger commented. But I heard that usually nuclear plants are not really painted. After all, it has no need for aesthetics. If the BNPP is operational now, access to it will be so restricted and it won’t be a US$2.1M “tourist spot” as it is now. (By the way, schools and organizations can organize educational tours there in coordination with the National Power Corporation or NAPOCOR.) The thick concrete walls are not made of hollow blocks but of solid concrete (In Filipino, “buhos.”) and reinforced with steel plates made with the same steel used in the Golden Gate Bridge and the Hoover Dam in the US of A. According to Engr. Mauro L. Marcelo, Jr., a department manager of NAPOCOR, “The BNPP structure is so strong that even if a 747 jet crashes on it, the reactor won’t be affected.”
Some fear that it’s a ticking nuclear bomb sitting on a faultline. That what happened in the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant could happen to us. The BNPP is located at the tip of the peninsula in Morong, Bataan. It’s positioned 19 meters above sea level. (If you remember, the tsunami that hit Fukushima back in 2011 was 15 meters in height.) Regarding the rumors that it’s supposedly close to a faultline, as long as a structure is not sitting on a fault line and it is situated at least 5 meters from it, that’s enough buffer zone, according to the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS). But, of course, this is a nuclear power plant. Yet, Cong. Cojuangco furnished us copies of a letter from PHIVOLCS Director Renato Solidum, Jr., dated December 4, 2008, which states: “The BNPP is at least 64 kilometers south of the Iba Fault in Zambales… Thus, the BNPP is safe from the hazard of ground rupture related to fault movement.” Also, the Fukushima plant was designed for a 0.18G seismic acceleration while the BNPP was designed for a 0.4G seismic acceleration. But, in a worst-case scenario, the BNPP won’t explode. A uranium fuel rod has only 2% of U235. (U235 is the active ingredient in uranium for nuclear bombs.) A nuclear bomb on the other hand has at least 80% of it.
Cong. Cojuangco sought to dispel those meltdown fears. “In the 50 years of nuclear use, it has only three disasters. No one was killed or injured in the Three-Mile Island partial meltdown in 1979. The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine was originally designed as a weapons plant but was converted into a nuclear power plant. Since it only has a warehouse type building structure and has a closed system (not open for outside review at that time), it was not prepared against the catastrophic fire that occurred in 1986. Its military management performed an illegal experiment that led to the accident. However, Westinghouse built the BNPP as a commercial power plant. As such, it won’t be subject to experiments. It is also subject to international peer review.” There’s also a major difference between the reactors of Fukushima and the BNPP. The Fukushima plant has a boiling water reactor where, as the name implies, water boils in the reactor while the BNPP has a pressurized water reactor where water does not boil in the reactor. Some may also ask if ever the almost three-decade power plant could still work. Cojuangco pointed that many nuclear power plants with the same design and age are still operating now.
What about pollution and nuclear waste disposal? The BNPP could be more fuel-efficient than a coal plant. A 620MW coal plant (our Sual coal plant is 1000MW) would need 15,843 metric tons of coal every 3 days. If that coal were transported using a single train, we would need a train with 116 cars, which will stretch as long as 1.94 kilometers. We need 107 train deliveries every year. In contrast, the BNPP would require uranium fuel every 18 months. The amount of fuel it needs for a year could fit in a medium-sized, Elf truck. A coal plant is more hazardous than a nuclear plant. Quoting Dr. Steven Chu, the US Secretary of Energy, Cong. Cojuangco says, “A typical coal plant emits 100 times more radiation than a nuclear plant, given the fly ash emissions of radioactive particles.” The spent rods or “nuclear waste” of a nuclear plant, on the other hand, could be stored for future use. (Remember, gasoline used to be considered a waste before people discovered it could also be fuel.)
What about renewable energy (R.E.) sources? According to Cong. Cojuangco, “R.E.s are a losing proposition.” He showed us a letter from The NorthWind Power Development Corporation that runs the wind farm in Bangui, Ilocos Norte. In that letter dated February 18, 2009, Atty. Ferdinand Dumlao, chairman of the NorthWind board, admitted that “Wind power plants are NOT ‘stand alone’ plants, meaning they cannot continuously supply or generate power because of the natural characteristic of wind velocity and availability, which is erratic, variable and seasonal. Therefore, a wind power plant cannot be relied upon as a sole producer of power or electricity on a continuous basis.” Dumlao added that a “wind power plant is still 2 to 3 times cheaper than solar power.”
The government through the efforts of Cong. Cojuangco allocated a P50M budget per year for its maintenance, an amount that just a day’s operation of the BNPP could pay for. In a year, it could have produced 4.5B KWH of electricity. That’s P20B in today’s prices. So, since 1986 till now, we already lost 103B KWH or P460B worth of power due to its non-operation! We are not yet counting the trillions of pesos lost in economic gains. One of the drawbacks why investors are having second thoughts pouring their money here is the high cost of power. In fact, we have the most expensive electricity in Asia. If we go nuclear, our power cost will be more competitive since investors are looking for cheap power rates. According to Cong. Cojuangco, it would take $1B to recertify the BNPP to run. A new coal plant could cost as much and that is about the same amount our government doles out to the poor thru its Conditional Cash Transfer program. To clear any suspicion, Cong. Cojuangco also denied any stake in the power business.
Yes, it’s a long way to go before we go nuclear here in the Philippines. But with a looming power crisis that could bring back 8-hour brownouts here, it is imperative that we should more-light-than-heat dialogues about the fate of the BNPP.
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