Push to revive Bataan nuclear plant timely?

By Leilani Chavez, abs-cbnNEWS.com

Posted at Dec 21 2009 06:25 PM | Updated as of Dec 24 2009 12:29 AM

Proponents cite current volatile oil prices and clean debt slate of the mothballed power plant. But the 2010 elections is 6 months away. 

MANILA, Philippines – From afar, the edifice known as the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) sits in quiet solitude atop the 3.5 square kilometer government property in Napot Point, framed by the lush mountainside of Mt. Natib and the clear azure skies of Morong. The power plant overlooks the South China Sea, where the sound of crashing waves drown every other sound, from seagulls to motors to the tedious community life.

But within the white structure, encased in 124-feet concrete cylinder and enclosed in layers of cement, lie the source of decades-old fear and dread: a pressurized water reactor—whose meltdown, in worst case scenarios, could spew highly toxic radioactive chemicals in surrounding areas.

Timeline: Nuclear Power in the Philippines

1955 – The Philippine government under President Ramon Magsaysay signs an agreement with the United States under the Atoms for Peace Program. The program stipulates the peaceful use of atomic energy.

1956 – Together with 82 nations, the Philippines joins the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in a United Nations meeting in Geneva.

Magsaysay accidentally dies in a plane accident. Vice-President Carlos P. Garcia assumes office.

1957 – American-owned Meralco commissions US consulting firm Gilbert Associates to undertake a preliminary feasibility study of putting up a nuclear power plant in the country. The study concludes that such projects are not yet timely and should be entertained only by the 70s.

The use of nuclear power in energy generation has always been a hot topic in the Philippines, where images of mushroom clouds and deadly chemicals are as contested as a comprehensive reproductive health bill. But as oil and electricity prices peak and scenarios of energy shortages emerge, groups are pushing for the rehabilitation of what critics called the “monster” of Morong.

Legislative hurdle

The renewed road to the rehabilitation of the mothballed plant fueled over discussions at the south lounge in the House of Representatives, where Pangasinan Representative Mark Cojuangco discusses with vigor the country’s energy situation with colleagues.

As global oil prices peaked and electricity rates increased in 2007, Cojuangco submitted House Bill 4631, a bill that earmarks $1 billion for the immediate re-commissioning and rehabilitation of BNPP. The bill was supported by 184 representatives, a number big enough to assure its immediate passage in the Lower House, which was then composed of 240 representatives. (Read: Cojuangco son ponders reopening Marcos-era nuclear plant)

“I feel that I have a good chance…because my colleagues have already been bombarded with the arguments, both pros and cons. I think its coming to a critical mass of like-minded thinking that BNPP is viable, safe and the way to go,” Cojuangco shared with abs-cbnNEWS.com.

However, it took 10 months and 8 meetings before the bill got approved by the committees of energy, appropriations, and rules. By May 2009, House bill 6300, which required a feasibility study to be conducted before rehabilitation resumes, replaced the original bill. The study was given a P100 million budget.

The bill was not one of the priority bills of the 14th Congress. The House of Representatives tackled it at the plenary level but has yet to pass the measure as of writing.

A senate counterpart, Senate Bill 2665 filed by energy committee chair Miriam Santiago, has not been scheduled for hearings. Members of the energy committee told abs-cbnNEWS.com that the bill has little chance of being discussed as election nears.

Same old struggle

History was never lenient to the affairs of the BNPP. Any law related to the plant and to nuclear power itself was immediately shelved in both houses of Congress after it was mothballed in 1986.

“After the Chernobyl accident, the whole world was scared of nuclear power. The PNPP [Philippine Nuclear Power Plant, now BNPP] was very controversial as it became the statue of Marcos’s corruption,” shared Rene Saguisag, former senator under President Corazon Aquino’s democratic government and one of the members of the Senate Ad Hoc Committee on BNPP.

Neric Acosta, environmentalist and former representative from Bukidnon, told abs-cbnNEWS.com that during his stint in the science and technology committee, BNPP issues were always snubbed and put on the side.

It was only during Cojuangco’s third term in the lower house had the rehabilitation option been opened. “There were no plans to rehabilitate it [BNPP] before Mark (Cojuangco)’s bill,” Marcelo narrated.

The newfound interest in the BNPP is timely. The foreign loans attributed to it have been fully paid in 2007. In the same year, global oil prices hit the ceiling, prompting a global mood to seek alternative energy sources that are not fossil-based and environmentally friendly.

Current Energy Secretary Angelo Reyes joined the chorus. He said the department should “seriously consider” the rehabilitation of the plant due to “skyrocketing oil prices.” The government also asked International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to check the plant’s condition.

“We've lived the risk of nuclear but we have not shared any of its benefits. Sayang [It’s a waste],” Cojuangco said.

Running costs

For critics, the BNPP has financially scarred the nation for decades. Loans dubiously contracted in 1976 to build it ballooned to $2.18 billion. It was the Philippines’ single largest foreign debt. In 2005, the government was paying around P5.8 billion a day for that debt. It sucked state funds that could have been used to develop crucial social services. (see: Timeline: Nuclear Power in the Philippines)

Yet, while the white elephant in Bataan has never produced a kilowatt of electricity, it remains to be a financial burden as the government has to keep on spending to preserve it.

Since it was placed under preservation mode during former President Fidel Ramos’s term, the government has been spending an average of P40 million a year for maintenance and preservation.

This amount can already support more than 2,000 families for the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program for a year, or build 10 two-storey buildings, each having 4 classrooms.

This monthly bill is already less than half of the amount the government used to spend on the plant prior to 1996 when government was maintaining it in such a way as to allow it to be activated anytime.

From 1986 to mid-2009, the state-owned National Power Corporation (Napocor) has spent P4.1 billion on plant maintenance alone, on top of debt servicing. This is because from 1986 to 1996, Napocor was spending P100 million or more a year to maintain and preserve the BNPP.

At the time, the plant had 200 employees. Apart from the personnel, costs included nuclear grade preservation, a pricey maintenance of the nuclear steam system.

Mauro Marcelo, head of the BNPP-Asset Preservation Group of Napocor, noted that if the plant gets rehabilitated, additional people will be added and spending will increase.

Conversion options were also pushed during the Ramos administration. According to then energy secretary Francisco Viray, now the current chair of Transoil Asia, the BNPP was included in a package deal for the bidding out of the Malampaya natural gas project.

One group showed interest in spending for Malampaya and converting BNPP to a natural gas plant, but the winner of the bid chose to buy only the former and leave the mothballed plant. (See: METTS Conversion Option for the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant)

Select parts of the plant, like fuel, have already been sold. Marcelo added that dismantling parts of the plant costs more than the price of scrap materials it will produce. “Nobody wants it. If there are interested parties, it would have been bidded out long ago,” Marcelo shared.

‘Just scrap it’

Despite the P40 million yearly cost to maintain the BNPP, Etta Rosales of Freedom from Debt Coalition (FDC) still opposed the rehabilitation and re-commissioning of the plant. According to Rosales, the BNPP is an accident waiting to happen.

“The BNPP should be completely scrapped,” she told abs-cbnNEWS.com. “If it’s going to be opened, it should be something that is not dangerous, like a cultural museum—but definitely not as a nuclear power plant.”

Rosales noted numerous studies and investigations that indicated technical flaws in the plant from its initial conception up to its eventual closure after former president Corazon Aquino assumed power through the EDSA revolution.

Walden Bello, Akbayan party-list representative and the most vocal critic of the rehabilitation move in the lower house, said that even after more than 2 decades, the old problems of the BNPP had not been resolved.

Bello enumerated 3 persisting problems of the plant: 1) nuclear waste disposal, 2) geological hazards, and 3) unfinished debt payments. (Read: Revisiting the case for or against nuclear power)

Bello and Rosales both claim that, even now, the country is still paying the BNPP debts as the money used to pay-off the initial debts came from loans made by the national government. If rehabilitated, they say, the BNPP will become another fiscal nightmare.

“Rehabilitating the plant is throwing good money after bad money,” Bello said.

Napocor president Froilan Tampinco, however, said that a feasibility study submitted by the Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco), South Korea’s state-owned energy corporation, confirmed the viability of rehabilitating BNPP.

The Kepco study, however, did not include the price for rehabilitation. Tampinco said the cost will determine whether Napocor will participate in rehabilitating the mothballed plant. (Read: Decision on nuclear power plant re-activation out soon)

Decide soon

With BNPP’s long winding history of intertwined politics, business, and never-ending controversies, former energy secretary Viray said rehabilitating it requires 2 important things: strong political will and social transformation. “Even if you rehabilitate it, if your community is not ready. It will become another white elephant.”

The chances of passing the bill and starting the re-commissioning of the plant under the Arroyo administration is slowly, if not immediately, going dim. With only 6 months left before the 2010 national elections, the decision will depend on the energy track of the next administration.

“The calendar is not on the side of the pro; I doubt if the bill will gain political support especially with the coming elections,” shared Saguisag. “The decision to re-commission or to scrap should be settled soon,” Saguisag concluded. – Leilani Chavez, abs-cbnNEWS.com