Reviving the BNPP – a tragedy

AS A MATTER OF FACT - Sara Soliven De Guzman - The Philippine Star

Three months before he steps down from office, President Duterte signed Executive Order (EO) No.164 allowing the country to tap nuclear power as an alternative energy source. He said, “For the country to achieve its sustained growth targets, it must ensure that it has a reliable, secure, sustainable, quality and affordable electricity supply, including sufficient reserve to guarantee that there will be no disruptions in power supply.”

The EO has directed the Department of Energy to conduct a pre-feasibility study on the viability of introducing nuclear power. The Nuclear Energy Program Inter-Agency Committee (NEP-IAC) was also tasked to make recommendations on the use and viability of the four-decade-old mothballed (as everybody would call it) Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) and the establishment of other facilities for the utilization of nuclear energy.

The EO has sparked anew the issue on the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant. It must be recalled that during a Senate committee hearing held last Oct. 13, 2020 on the proposed budget for 2021 of the Department of Energy (DOE), Senator Nancy Binay asked for a comprehensive study on what to do with the power plant and also voiced her concern regarding the expense for the upkeep of the seemingly useless power plant.

At the same hearing, Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, chairman of the committee on energy, reported that for the maintenance of the BNPP, the state-owned National Power Corp. (Napocor) has proposed a 76.92-percent budget increase, from P52 million for 2020 to P92 million for 2021.

Susmariosep! For something that has remained idle to the point of becoming useless, isn’t this too much for the people to carry?

But why was the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant built? It was built in response to the energy crisis in the 1970’s. The 620-megawatt BNPP was constructed in 1976. The plant was supposed to lower the country’s dependence on imported oil and also to develop an alternative source of electricity for the Luzon grid. It was initially cost at $500 million by Westinghouse Electric Co. When it was completed in 1984, the cost was $2.3 billion.

Reports say that Marcos and his confidants pocketed millions of dollars from the contract with Westinghouse and Burns and Roe, as brokered by crony businessman Herminio Disini. It was alleged that the government awarded Westinghouse the BNPP contract without going through the bidding process. Note that the budget for the power plant was loaned from the US Export-Import Bank.

Thirty-eight years has passed since the BNPP was completed. We, the Filipino people, finished paying the loans and interests in 2007. The government has paid a total of P64.7 billion (P43.5 billion for principal amortization and P21.2 billion in interest) for the nuclear power plant that was never used, much more generated a single watt of electricity. By the way, the government continues to pay some P40 to P50 million a year for the maintenance of the BNPP.

Now, the government wants to revive the BNPP? What is the scientific explanation why it is dangerous to re-open the BNPP? The plant is located on Mt. Natib, which according to Phivolcs is a potentially active volcano. Mt. Natib is part of the Bataan Volcanic Arc where other giant volcanoes are situated like Mt. Pinatubo volcano, Natib volcano and Mariveles volcano. It is also in an earthquake zone.

Mt. Pinatubo erupted in 1991. It was classified before as a potentially active volcano just like Natib and Mariveles volcanoes. According to recent studies, Natib volcano last erupted 18,000 years ago. On the other hand, Mariveles volcano erupted 4,000 years ago, according to the Smithsonian Global Volcanism Network. Volcanoes that erupted at least once in the last 10,000 years are active by definition.

Some people will say, so what if the BNPP is on a potentially active volcano? According to the IAEA safety standards on volcanic hazards in site evaluation for nuclear installations, it is important to see the danger of Natib volcano and look at the design of the nuclear power plant and see how it can survive if Natib volcano erupts.

In every stage of the assessment, whether the BNPP is safe or not from the dangers of an active volcano, several questions can be asked. (1) Was there an eruption in 10 million years? Yes. (2) Is there a recent eruption? None. (3) Did Natib volcano erupt in the past 10,000 years? No. (4) According to recent studies, is there a possibility that Natib volcano will erupt again? Yes. (5) Is there danger if Natib volcano will erupt again? Yes. (6) Can Natib volcano bring about threats or danger? Yes.

The answers to these questions show that Natib volcano is indeed a danger to where the BNPP stands. What are these dangers that we need to know?

According to the IAEA safety standards, the pyroclastic density currents that include lava flows, debris avalanches, volcanic ash and hot gases could burn anything and destroy even concrete structures in its path and can move at speeds as fast as 200 m/s. This cannot be handled by any kind of engineering. So, this means that if Natib volcano will erupt again, the BNPP will be in grave danger.

Studies show that the BNPP stands on pyroclastic density current deposits. This is near the lava flow deposits. Also nearby is an eruptive center that measures 5.4 kilometers from the BNPP.

Now, we ask. Is it a good idea that the BNPP stands on a volcano? Is it safe to reopen the power plant at this time? It is very clear that it is not. What if Natib volcano, considered by the IAEA as a capable volcano, erupts again like Mt. Pinatubo? Are we willing to risk the lives of those living in Bataan, Zambales, Pampanga, Bulacan, Metro Manila, Cavite and Laguna? Who will take the responsibility when this happens?

So, what now? Do we just look the other way and pretend that this never happened? Do we say yes to the re-opening of the BNPP despite the danger it will bring to the country and people?

Anything borne out of greed and vested interests is bound to destroy the country. We should never allow this to happen.

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