This story is the first of a three-installment feature on the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant. Read more on the costs of building a new nuke plant, and why people are saying we should forget about nuclear energy.
The mothballed Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) has been in the spotlight since the Department of Energy (DOE) admitted they are looking at the possibility of utilizing nuclear energy to augment the country’s power supply as our growth rate progresses.
The Philippines has the second highest electricity rate in Asia next to Japan. The DOE estimates that we will need an additional 10, 191 megawatts (MW) of power to meet the country’s demands until 2030.
Energy secretary Alfonso Cusi said 7, 200 MW will be coming from baseload plants and 2, 931 MW will be supplied by mid-merit or peaking plants.
The private sector places the country’s current power requirement at 11, 500 MW, which can increase to 14, 000 MW in five years and 17, 500 MW in 10 years.
What can we gain from opening the plant?
The BNPP, with a capacity of 620 megawatts (MW), was also expected to supply at least 10 percent of the country’s total projected demand.
Its operations will also lower the risk of power shortages in the country and avoid raising yellow and red alerts on the grid.
A yellow alert means the power supply has gone to a level below the required reserve or the capacity of the largest running power plant in the grid, which is the Sual power plant with a capacity of 647 MW.
A red alert status signifies that there is not enough supply for the electricity demand.
Opening the BNPP will help the country achieve lower electricity prices. Nuclear plants can lower the costs of electricity to up to P2 per kWh, in comparison with the rates of coal-fired power plants which can go for as much as P6 kWh.
Much of the opinion surrounding the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant is concerned with the political issues involving dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who allegedly received $80 million in kickbacks from the plant developer Westinghouse.
In 2007, the Philippines finally completed the $2.3-billion debt that funded the construction of BNPP between 1976 and 1984.
Following the Chernobyl incident in 1986, President Cory Aquino mothballed the plant. She signed an executive order that would maintain the plant until such time that the Philippine government can decide what to do with it. Annual maintenance costs ranged from P40 to P50 million.
During his term, former president Benigno Aquino III said he had no plans to reopen the BNPP. In contrast, his cousin Mark Cojuangco is an advocate for nuclear power.
Cojuangco’s father, Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco is the chairman of San Miguel Corporation (SMC), the largest food and beverage company in the country. SMC has assets in the energy sector.
Previously, the National Power Corporation (Napocor) signed a memorandum of agreement (MoA) with the Korean Electric Power Company (KEPCO) to conduct a feasibility study on the plant. However, talks halted after the Fukushima incident in Japan.
In 2011, the government turned the BNPP into a tourist attraction to gain revenue, with scheduled tours. During one of these tours, Mark Cojuangco claimed that eating a banana actually exposes people to more radioactivity as opposed to standing in front of a nuclear plant for a whole year.
A banana has 0.1 microsieverts of radiation while a year of exposure to a nuclear plant has only 0.09 microsieverts of radiation, he said.
“Not an answer to climate crisis”
Despite the claims that nuclear power emits less carbon dioxide than coal plants, which typically generate 3.5 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, some argue that “the BNPP is not an answer to climate crisis, nor an alternative to renewable energy.”
This is because mining uranium, the fuel used to run nuclear plants, as well as the milling, plant construction and decommissioning of plants all emit carbon dioxide. Uranium, however, is only available in a few countries. Importing these will not be cost-effective as it seems, as it is subject to price hikes.
A case for uranium has been laid out: it contains 120, 000 times more energy per kilogram compared to the country’s main source of energy, coal. In addition, only 20 tons of this fuel is needed to operate a nuclear power plant for 18 months. This will allow the BNPP to generate 8.1 billion kWh over this period.
The cost of rehabilitation
Rehabilitating the BNPP is more cost-efficient than building a new one, as it will only cost $1 billion and four years to train operators. However, it must be noted that the construction of existing nuclear plants commonly went over-budget with two to three times higher than the estimates.
As part of its rehabilitation, over 80 percent of the plant needed to be overhauled while the rest had to be replaced.
There are many safety concerns involved in the plant, since its location is less than 100 miles away from four volcanoes and three geological faults.
However, Renato Solidum of the Philippines Institute of Volcanology and Seismology previously said that BNPP is at least 64 kilometers south of the Iba Fault in Zambales, 78 kilometers northwest of the West Valley Fault system in Marikina, and 83 kilometers south of the East Zambales Fault. This, Solidum said, puts the BNPP away from the hazard of ground rupture when faults move.
The BNPP’s design is said to be safer than its sister plant in Busan, South Korea, and the Fukushima plant in Japan. The Fukushima plant was designed to withstand an intensity 7 earthquake, which it did, before being submerged by the tsunami that followed.
In comparison, the BNPP was designed to withstand an intensity 9 earthquake and is located 18 meters above sea level. An intensity 9 earthquake will typically result in a 10 meter tsunami.
Richard Lazatin, a former executive at the National Power Corporation, said that Bagac, Bataan, the site of the BNPP housing 16 kilometers from the plant site in Morong, was also meant to be the construction site for the plant. However, site studies found a record of a 35-feet tsunami that hit Western Bataan. During this time, the Bagac site was only five to 10 meters above sea level and the designers decided to move the site to Morong, which increased the costs by $50 million.
During the time that the BNPP was being built, planning nuclear power plant facilities did not take into account internationally accepted guidelines regarding volcanic hazards, and permits were granted based on studies guided by local practices based on science that do not take into account the developments in nuclear power and volcanology in the last few decades.
Lazatin said, however, that the BNPP was designed to address volcanic hazards from the nearby volcanoes Mt. Natib and Mt. Pinatubo.
A study conducted by The Geological Society of London in 2012 revealed the probability of a volcanic eruption on Mt. Natib, the site where the BNPP is located, and said that “Natib’s active volcanic hydrothermal system means that Natib has credible potential for future eruption.”
The roofs of the BNPP were also designed to withstand the weight of 12 inches of wet ash fall. The Pinatubo ash fall was only two inches at the plant’s site.
The site is also underlain by deposits of pyroclastic flows and surges and lahars. Lava deposits were found proximal to the site. Pyroclastic density and lava flows cannot be addressed by engineering solutions, but the potential hazards of lahar can be solved by engineering design.
In the event of any nuclear incident, living within a 10-mile radius of a nuclear power plant will make the air unsafe to breath. Water and food sources within 50 miles may also be unsafe.
And while the DOE is exploring all options to address the power supply shortage in the coming years, Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi said he is in favor of using nuclear energy to meet the country’s energy needs.
“My point is just that, with all the new findings, technological advancements and successful experiences of countries around the world, nuclear energy holds much promise for our national interest, especially in light of our collective quest to implement our long-term energy plans,” Cusi said.
He added that while using nuclear energy might not be a popular choice, but it is the country’s responsibility to look at all options and study it for nation building.