Sleeping atop Napot Point, 18 meters above sea level, the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) stands as a concrete reminder for unrealized plans of energy sustainability.

The Philippines, now facing surging oil prices and a strained power grid, has had two consecutive presidents putting their stake on nuclear energy, but the matter has remained controversial. Nuclear power in the country, with a history impossible to disentangle from Philippine politics, is an often misunderstood science.

With the promise and potential of the now-defunct BNPP back in the national discourse, the onus is now on us to determine: what should Filipinos know, look forward to, and watch out for?

Diagram of how nuclear power is generated. | STOCK VECTOR| Image by brgfx on Freepik

Nuclear power was considered as an option to meet the Philippines’ energy needs as early as the 1960s. The Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI), formerly known as the Philippine Atomic Energy Commission, was established in 1958 as “the center of nuclear science and technology activities.”

In 1973, multiple factors allowed the construction of a nuclear plant to materialize: the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) embargoed the oil supply, halting US exports and boosting the price of oil, which the Philippines was importing. The resulting global crisis led to the rationing of gas.

Come February 1976 and a contract was signed between the Philippine government through NPC and Westinghouse to build the first nuclear power plant in the country, to reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuel oil.

If operated, the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) would have generated 620 megawatts of electricity, which today constitutes 5% of the energy requirement of Luzon. In the early 1980s, it would have been enough to supply one-third of Luzon’s power.

“They started looking for oil and they found oil but not much. They went looking for coal and found coal but not much. We looked for geothermal — fantastic, we’re now number three in the world,” said PNRI Director Carlo A. Arcilla. “Then we constructed a nuclear power plant.”

Photo credits BNPP

Photo credits BNPP

LAYING THE BLOCKS 

LAYING THE BLOCKS 

When he was assigned at the BNPP in the late 1970s, Wilfredo P. Torres, an electrical engineer, started out installing lighting at the plant during its construction. He was later promoted to conduct functional testing of the equipment. Upon the mothballing of the plant, his experience qualified him for the calibration and preservation of the unused machinery within.

“It was stuff that you only see in James Bond movies,” he said in the vernacular, describing the technology that was considered state-of-the-art at the time. This included computerized self-diagnostic and troubleshooting mechanisms and even biometrics at the entrance.

Mr. Torres was only one of thousands of employees from various agencies — including the National Power Corporation (NPC), US-based Westinghouse Electric Company, and the Meralco Industrial Engineering Services Corporation (MIESCOR) — that oversaw the construction and testing of the plant.

Experienced engineers from all parts of the globe worked on BNPP, according to Karen Janes-Ungar, daughter of one Jack Janes.

Mr. Janes, whose career in nuclear energy spanned 30 years, brought his family to NPC compound in Bataan, where they lived from 1983 to 1986.

Photo courtesy of Karen Janes-Ungar

“It was a tightknit community of engineers and their families. We attended school at the Westinghouse Philippine Day School that is now used for Coast Guard training and spent weekends at Montemar watching the fishermen drag in their nets,” she recalled in an e-mail.

“If you go out in the sea, you can see the cooling towers of the power plant. I explained [to my kids] that their grandpa helped build it but unfortunately it was never turned on.”

In 1986, the Philippine government depowered BNPP due to concerns about safety and corruption. Mr. Janes and his family moved out of the compound, while Mr. Torres’ job shifted to calibration and maintenance of the plant’s electrical measuring instruments.

ENSURING SAFETY 

ENSURING SAFETY 

The biggest argument against the nuclear plant is its location near Mount Natib, a dormant stratovolcano within its vicinity.

Kelvin S. Rodolfo, an environmental science professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, has argued that though it hasn’t had major eruptions, Natib is classified by the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) as “potentially active.”

His many objections against BNPP are chronicled in a book titled Tilting at the Monster of Morong, excerpts of which have been published on Rappler since 2021.

STRICT ASSESSMENT INVOLVED 

STRICT ASSESSMENT INVOLVED 

Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI) director Carlo A. Arcilla said in an interview with BusinessWorld that Phivolcs is welcome to conduct a geologic study of Mount Natib to ensure that there is no danger.

The BNPP being unsafe is what he calls “the greatest piece of fake news in the history of the Philippines,” adding that its construction involved strict assessment by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

“When you build a nuclear plant, all of the laws to protect public safety are our main concern,” he said. “If nuclear plants will be operated, the inspectors will inspect it and there will be a final safety assessment report.”

The IAEA report includes 19 safety milestones, which all nuclear plants must strictly follow.

The IAEA developed the approach to provide its member states with a guide as they progress with the planning stages of a nuclear power plant. It addresses various infrastructure issues under regulation, emergency planning, environmental protection, and nuclear waste management, among others.

If the Philippines decides to restore BNPP, which will take about half a decade, or build a new nuclear power plant, it will have to go through IAEA’s rigorous checking again, said Dr. Arcilla.

NUCLEAR WASTE
MANAGEMENT

NUCLEAR WASTE
MANAGEMENT

A

nother concern is the handling of the used radioactive fuel, which can be destructive to both people and the environment, according to Dr. Rodolfo. Filipinos also question the government’s ability to allot the proper funds to ensure safety from this waste.

Still, there are trusted geological measures for disposing of and isolating these materials that Filipino scientists and engineers are capable of, Dr. Arcilla said.

“The waste will last for 10,000 years. That’s a long time, so you don’t want that material to be interacting with human activities. So, you put [the uranium] back deep inside the earth where it came from,” he explained.

By wrapping nuclear waste in bentonite clay, which has a layered crystal structure with a negative charge, the positive-charged uranium will have no chance of escaping. The waste can then be buried very deep in an uninhabited island and sealed away.

As for nuclear leaks from the plant itself, longtime BNPP electrical engineer Mr. Torres assured that there are safeguards in place.

“The shielding of the reactor is made of combined lead and steel, making it impossible for radiation to pass through. There’s even a steel containment vessel that’s one-inch thick inside a one-meter thick concrete wall. There’s also one-meter space of negative pressure, meaning any possible leak can be absorbed by the vacuum,” he explained.

AWARENESS AND EDUCATION 

AWARENESS AND EDUCATION 

Jose G. Manalo, the principal engineer at BNPP who is in charge of preservation and maintenance, can be found manning the gargantuan structure, armed with historical tidbits about the plant and its technology.

The facility is open to tourists, he told BusinessWorld, because of the importance of awareness and education for the Filipino public. Engineering students who want to learn about nuclear technology are also very welcome, he said.

BNPP MOTHBALLED

BNPP MOTHBALLED

Corruption allegations under the dictatorship of then-president Ferdinand E. Marcos brought the integrity of the plant and its funding into question. The project came to a halt in 1986 when Mr. Marcos was ousted and replaced by Corazon C. Aquino.

Aside from being a political decision, the shutdown of the plant that Mrs. Aquino ordered via Executive Order (EO) 55 was influenced by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Filipinos’ safety was a big concern, especially with BNPP located near the “potentially active” Mount Natib.

Mothballing the plant in 1986 despite its readiness cost the economy at least $13 billion, Dr. Arcilla said, citing 2022 study on nuclear energy in the Philippines.

“There were power failures,” Dr. Arcilla said. “Our GDP (gross domestic product) would have been much more had we opened the plant because of the energy problems that came out of the closure. There were brownouts galore in the following three years.”

The brownouts carried over to the presidential term of Fidel V. Ramos, who signed several expensive power generation deals to encourage companies to build power plants, giving rise to high costs of electricity up to present day.

THE BATAAN NUCLEAR POWER PLANT 

AN INTERACTIVE TIMELINE 

THE BATAAN NUCLEAR POWER PLANT 

AN INTERACTIVE TIMELINE 

INTEREST RENEWED

INTEREST RENEWED

Following visits by Korean nuclear experts to the plant in the 2000s, the Department of Energy (DoE) is once again reconsidering repowering BNPP, most recently welcoming a pre-feasibility study in 2022 conducted by experts from Russia and Korea.

This came after previous president Rodrigo R. Duterte’s signing of EO 164, which called for the adoption of nuclear energy in the Philippines’ energy mix.

Interest in nuclear energy grew even further when President Ferdinand “Bongbong” R. Marcos, Jr., vowed to look into nuclear energy to address electricity costs that have gone up, especially with the looming depletion of the Malampaya gas field in the next few years and the threat to coal exports because of the Russia-Ukraine war.

“We need wind and solar energy but they cannot supply what we call the base load of electricity because wind and sun are not there all the time … There must be another source that’s not typically coal,” PNRI’s Dr. Arcilla said. “Nuclear can supply that.”

He clarified that the clean energy transition is all about having a diversified mix that includes wind, solar, geothermal, and also nuclear, which has at least almost 4 million times the energy found in a similar amount of coal gas.

For example, a half-inch tall uranium fuel pellet that is used for nuclear power contains the energy equivalent of one ton of coal.

Mini nuclear power plants producing about 70 megawatts — called small modular reactors (SMRs) — are also being considered to supply energy to isolated islands not connected to the grid, places that tend to have the most expensive power costs.

“This is now the big nuclear renaissance. Everyone’s talking about it but there’s still about six to eight years down the road because no one has built that yet,” said Dr. Arcilla.

PNRI, which has been using a reactor for medical and agricultural research purposes for around 60 years, proves Filipinos scientists’ ability to train with the technology, from neutron dynamics and shielding studies to nuclear medicine, said Dr. Arcilla.

“Nuclear technology is quite mature and old technology. A jet plane is more complicated than a nuclear power plant, and who maintains our jet planes? Filipino engineers,” he said. “It’s an insult to think that our engineers cannot run a nuclear plant.”

Dr. Rodolfo, on the other hand, explained that the issue is not individual Filipinos’ capacity, but the entire country’s capacity to support such a risky source of energy outside of the research reactor.

“The worst thing in the world being talked about nuclear is that it’s carbon-free. But consider that uranium fuel still has to be mined. It’s very expensive to mine and make the fuel, all of which generates CO2 [carbon dioxide],” he said.

He added that the Philippines is better off investing more in the renewable sources that it already has, so that the country can become a leader in alternative energy.

PCOO

Pangasinan Rep. Mark O. Cojuangco, head of the recently convened House committee on nuclear energy, told BusinessWorld in September that regulations for a safe nuclear power transition are in place, dating back to the Philippine Science Act of 1958.

The next step is for lawmakers to legislate the creation of the Philippine Atomic Regulatory Authority, as required by the IAEA, so that the Philippines has an independent regulator for nuclear power — not just the existing PNRI.

The latest offer to rehabilitate the BNPP stands at $1.19 billion, put forward in 2017 by South Korea. In January 2023, the U.S. also revealed that it is in talks to assist the Philippines in its transition to nuclear energy.

To meet the country’s rising energy needs, many Filipinos are starting to warm up to the idea and reconsider nuclear as the way to go due to its dependability, inexpensiveness, and “cleaner” nature compared to coal, but only time will tell if it is to be included as part of the Philippines’ energy mix.

 

Credits: Report by Bronte H. Lacsamana, Produced by Jino D. Nicolas and Sam L. Marcelo, Photos and Videos by Earl R. Lagundino and Joseph Emmanuel L. Garcia, Graphic Design by Fortunato V. Dañas, Layout and Web Development by Criselda R. Valentin

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