[OPINION] 7,101 Three-mile Islands 1

[OPINION] 7,101 Three-mile Islands

Dean Dela Paz

Posted at Jun 16 2022 04:06 AM

Crawling out from under the rubble of an economy plundered and bankrupted from two decades of corruption and crony capitalism, the government of Corazon C. Aquino, while enjoying unprecedented popularity having just then restored democracy was beset with a myriad of challenges. In 1986, one of those was the corruption-ridden Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP).

The BNPP never operated. In 1976 when it was constructed, Philippine GDP was $17 billion against a fiscal budget of $1.5 billion. Ruling by decree, Ferdinand Marcos however, decided to borrow. Half a century hence, accounting for over 10% of our external debt, BNPP’s $2.3 billion 621-megawatt reactor became the country’s largest single debt drain and would take over thirty years to pay off. That did not include litigation costs and the massive amounts to simply keep it mothballed.

In 2012, the Sandiganbayan ruled that a Marcos crony ‘’had received $50 million (P2.5 billion) in commissions from Westinghouse and had exerted undue influence in the awarding of the Bataan contract.’’ That decision was later affirmed by the Supreme Court in 2021 when it ordered a repayment for damages.

Reminiscent of another rotted cadaver, preserved to look alive to attract gawking tourists for those morbidly curious about our history’s darkest decades, since mothballing, the BNPP has been largely preserved as a curiosity. Unfortunately, like a display of 2,700 shoes depicting shameful extravagance, it is an expensive tourist destination eliciting both disgust and embarrassment. Since 2007, the BNPP has been costing us over P43.2 million yearly simply to keep the corpus delicti looking alive.

Facing the prospect of an archipelago of 112 million glow worms, to understand the obsession to resurrect a Marcos-era corpse and the insistent peddling by out-going officials to spread small modular reactors across the islands, allow us to frame the discussion inside a thought polyhedron comprised of historic events.

All occurred in first-world economies known for their high levels of technology in state-of-the-art nuclear power science. By no means were they banana republics.

The first is the 1979 nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, USA. Caused by a combination of equipment failure and operator error, it is the most serious of fifty-six nuclear accidents in the United States. On a seven-point nuclear event scale, it was rated category-five.

The clean-up period had taken over 14 years. Meanwhile, inside five years there have been 150 reports of other nuclear plants operating below safety limits. Since 2001, there have also been over 4,000 inspection findings on safety compliance with 75% of all US nuclear plants under increased oversight.

The more apocalyptic event was the 1986 category-seven explosion and core meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine. Due to operator negligence and design flaws, a nuclear chain reaction caused several explosions that destroyed the reactor building and released deadly airborne radioactive contamination that precipitated over the USSR and large parts of Western Europe. Radiation-induced cancer continued to kill over ten years thereafter and childhood cancer incidents continued to be documented up to 2011. 

The radioactive material released was 400 times more than those in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Post-mortem studies ‘’predict(ed) 4,000 fatalities when solely assessing the three most contaminated former Soviet states.’’ These bloat to 9,000 to 16,000 when assessing the whole of Europe as radioactive contamination reached as far as Belarus, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Austria, Norway, Greece, and Belgium. Add Northern England, Italy, Moldova, Switzerland, Bulgaria, and Slovenia.

To reduce the continuing spread of radioactive contamination, a giant sarcophagus was built around the plant. Unfortunately, even the sarcophagus continued to deteriorate and a larger one was built over it. Clean-up continues and is scheduled to be completed in 2065.

The third event is also a category-seven nuclear accident. The 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster was caused by two natural events. An earthquake triggered the automatic shutdown of the plant, and a resulting tsunami caused its emergency generators to fail. That led to the loss of power to pumps that cooled the reactor core. These led to three meltdowns, three explosions and the release of radioactive contamination.

Note ominous commonalities. The BNPP is in an earthquake zone atop an active volcano with two other volcanoes nearby. It is part of the Bataan Volcanic Arc.

The question of whether to spread nukes across the islands or revive the BNPP cannot simply be relegated under ill-defined nebulous fuel-neutral energy policies that muddle the failures of the Department of Energy to supply adequate baseload capacity. Beyond a desire to distort political history and sanitize the stench of a legacy of corruption, there is also the question of inflexible and inelastic nuclear energy given the large intra-day widely fluctuating disparity between demand and supply.

Our recent and unfortunate experience with machines that we do not understand and have little control over demands an abundance of caution. More so where the rest of the planet is phasing out this potentially apocalyptic option. This time we could lose more than just our frail democracy.

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(Dean dela Paz is a former investment banker and a managing director of a New Jersey-based power company operating in the Philippines. He is the chairman of the board of a renewable energy company and is a retired Business Policy, Finance and Mathematics professor.)

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.