The damaging myth of nuclear energy as cheap power

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The Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, one of the monuments of fraud under the Marcos, Sr. dictatorship that lies idle for 38 years now in Morong, Bataan, is alive again. Apparently, the BNPP is proof that the Marcoses have never left our political life despite ousted from power in 1986, and – as in the case of BNPP, mothballed because of safety and large scale corruption issues.

This is not the first time, however, that the BNPP is resurrected. It attempted to come alive with every new administration since 1992 and with every political lobbyist working actively in between to ensure it is preserved in the power development agenda.

Now that both have resurrected after decades of slumber (in disguise), large peddlers of myths using half-truths have marched on, especially among executives from the Dept. of Energy, Dept. of Science and Technology-Philippine Nuclear Research Institute together with the obstinate protagonists in Congress promising safe, clean, and cheap electricity. The voices for BNPP recommissioning have widened under the new administration and they have become assertive.

Believe me, reviving the BNPP is a useless effort and debating on it is a waste of saliva. Almost, if not all, researches done for the purpose of looking deeper into the possibility of operating it once and for all have pointed out the same unresolved issues – unsafe, expensive, not worth reinvesting. In fact, the BNPP complex is worth converting into a war games venue to become useful instead of running its power generation purpose.

Myth 1 – It’s cheaper to re-commission BNPP than to construct a new power plant. Baseless and outright stupidity. Just a year before the 2016 elections, two of my colleagues and I in the Center for Power Issues and Initiatives revisited the BNPP considering efforts of its revival. Our findings were published in a paper: “Bury It Deep: Disposing the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant” by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung-Philippine Office.  

Our research validated claims why recommissioning the BNPP is nonsense apart from immoral. For instance, the conservative cost estimate to revive the BNPP was US$1 billion. The amount alone will make the BNPP one of the smallest but the most expensive nuclear plant with at least US$5.3 million per megawatt. This is far above expensive than new nuclear plants being developed, say in UK, at estimated cost of US$17 billion with a per megawatt cost of US$5 million.

The bid to rehabilitate the BNPP had then DoE under Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi commissioned a pre-feasibility study by Korean and Russian experts in 2017. The proposal from the Koreans was US$1 billion while the Russians from US$2 billion to US$3 billion.

The Marcos, Jr. regime must rather invest on additional power generation capacity using renewable energy sources than reviving the BNPP. The antiquated nuclear plant is good as a tourist attraction. One can count how many times they’ll bow their head while walking on its claustrophobic passage way going up to its control room like what I did when I toured the colossal monster of Morong years back.

Myth 2 – Nuclear power is clean. Yes, if you look at it from a single perspective, but that is not modern thinking, much less scientific. This is a claim that is similar to “clean coal” but the assertion that nuclear is clean as far as carbon dioxide emissions is concerned is false considering that the value chain of Uranium as fuel is toxic pollution at every step. Fossil fuel is mobilized to mine, mill, and process Uranium in a tiny volume similar to the amount of ink stored in the ink chamber of the ball pen or even less.

In addition, the International Panel on Climate Change highlighted in a 2014 report that nuclear energy is not contributing to the lowering of carbon dioxide emissions despite being considered a source of “mature low greenhouse gas emissions” because of other contributing risks like operational risk and associated concerns, Uranium mining risks, financial and regulatory risks and unresolved waste management issues.

The unresolved waste management issues is the biggest, if not the single most important point, why nuclear power is not clean. According to DOST-PNRI Director Carlo Arcilla, nuclear power has been with us for almost 60 years without carbon emissions, but by downgrading the radioactive nuclear waste that remains stored by power generators considering that there is no place on earth where these wastes can be disposed.

Hence, bury the nuclear waste deep, but where? The cost of waste storage will flow in as passed on cost on your electricity bill. I bet on that.

Myth 3 – BNPP is technically sound and remains as the most modern. Garbage! The BNPP was completed without all the required clearances, it has 4,000 construction defects, and poorly preserved for more than 30 years because of budget constraints by the government.

The smell of its insides alone is like an old dying cabinet. Its sad state give credence to the findings of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that the BNPP has “high uncertainty of functionality” and which also runs consistent with Russian Ambassador Igor Khovaev when he was quoted saying that the BNPP was “absolutely outdated” in a CNN interview in 2018, but which was brushed aside by experts from Russian Nuclear firm Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corp. that the ambassador only made a mistake.

From the outset, the BNPP was marred by safety issues from inadequate seismic tests to lack of safeguards, and so on. This prompted the Marcos dictatorship to commission a three-man team to look into it, then Philippine Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) also examined safety issues, and the IAEA went on a mission to scrutinize it. The result was a re-negotiation of contract for additional safeguards from its favored contractor the Westinghouse bringing the cost of the single reactor plant to US$1.8-billion from the original base price of US$500 million for two 620-MW reactor (June 1973) going higher to US$695 million in just four months, and to US$1.1 billion when the contract was signed (February 1976).  

Until today the BNPP remains under preservation by the government and with engineers assigned to dust off the facility at P40 million to P50 million a year since 1986. The National Power Corp. who is in charge of its maintenance and preservation has in fact proposed a 76.92 percent budget increase for 2021 at P92 million.

This is not enough. An estimated P72 billion of taxpayer’s money were paid by the Philippine government to US Export Import Bank from 1986 to 2007, which means that the BNPP has been fully paid despite not generating a single kilowatt of electricity. Cheap nuclear power? An electrifying myth.




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