Sunday, March 01, 2009

BNPP-Bataan Nuclear Power Plant: Buy Nuclear, Poor Perish

NO to the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (from
NO to the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (from

Once again, there are talks about operating the Marcos white elephant Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) with Pangasinan Rep. Mark Cojuangco filing a revised House Bill no. 4631 calling for the “rehabilitation, commissioning and commercial operation of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP)” after immediate and widespread opposition to the first draft of the bill. Rep. Cojuangco and the few pushing for nuclear power state that the country needs a cheap, reliable source of electricity before the energy shortage that is expected to occur in 2012.

Others have implied that nuclear power safety has improved in industrialized countries, including Japan as Inquirer columnist and economics professor Solita Collas-Monsod wrote recently. Therefore, the same standards can be applied to the Philippines. Third, having spent more than $2 billion dollars on initial investments and debt servicing, the BNPP should be put to good use to recoup these investments as Department of Energy Angelo Reyes was quoted earlier. These reasons are, to this writer, not enough to risk operating the BNPP. I have very, very strong reservations AGAINST nuclear power as a source of electricity.

Mothballed Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, Philippines (photo by I. Rotaru at IAEA website)
Mothballed Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, Philippines (photo by I. Rotaru at IAEA website)
The research field of risk and society posits that the nuclear power sector is a “very tightly coupled” sector. That means that the operations are complex, require a very high degree of coordination and communication, and are very “unforgiving of error” as L.M Lidsky and M. M. Miller write in Science and Global Security. Nuclear power plants have catastrophic consequences when things go wrong. This is because of their complex, tightly coupled, and highly interactive systems of operation. Charles Perrow wrote about this in his best selling book Normal Accidents where he analyzed the Three Mile nuclear plant accident from a risk perspective.

Nuclear plants in particular require a high level of redundant safety and operating systems and procedures, highly trained operators, and up-to-date technology. It is interactive because all these need to be simply in sync with one another. Linear systems are best represented by an assembly line that is relatively loosely organized/coupled. Breakdowns are easily managed and the losses are in monetary and time parameters. Nuclear plants are complex systems and tightly coupled with varying and multiple consequences.

Coupling is a engineering concept wherein loosely coupled systems are flexible enough to address “shocks, failures, and pressure for change without destabilization”(Pickard 2005). Tightly coupled systems are more sensitive to changes and the response could be catastrophic if not handled properly. Nuclear power plants are time and sequential-dependent and leave little room for error because of the chemical reaction processes and safety procedures involved. There is little room for slack, error, and delay. Accidents and incidents occur not only in linear (cause-effect) but in complex ways (multiple causes-multiple effects and consequences over time and space). While redundant systems are possible, this is very expensive and does not fully address the human-error, human neglect, and human laziness aspects.

Assessing the risks, impacts, and costs of nuclear power has to include the nuclear fuel cycle. This includes uranium ore deposit exploration; mining of uranium ores; refining; enriching; processing and fabricating of fuel; construction of nuclear power plant; operation of reactor; re-processing of used fuel; fabricating new fuel; treatment of radioactive wastes; long-term storage of the wastes; and de-commissioning the reactor after its end-life. Emeritus professor at the University of Illinois and adjunct geology professor at the University of the Philippines Kelvin S. Rodolfo recently wrote a position paper on the risks of operating the BNPP.

Specifically for nuclear power, you will also have to create an institution similar to the church with its long lasting existence to take care of the wastes, which degrade only after thousands of years. All these have implications on cost, time, and effort, which make nuclear power generation a very expensive endeavor.

Is this the legacy we want to leave future generations?

Prof. Monsod raised the good nuclear safety record of Japan. On the contrary, Japan of recent times has had serious issues about its safety record. These are easily accessible on the Web. We found a number of serious accidents (systemic and involves multiple parts and processes of the operating system), incidents (localized accidents), including deaths and injuries. Further, Japan has entered an era of increased seismic activity as noted in Ishibashi Katsuhiko’s article.

Steam from the 2004 Mihama nuclear plant accident. Photo from Japan Focus website
Steam from the 2004 Mihama nuclear plant accident. Photo from Japan Focus website

Lastly, a significant number of Japan’s nuclear power plants are up for rehabilitation or decommissioning because of their age. While this presents a significant opportunity for new investments in nuclear technology in Japan, which is poor in natural resources; the investment and depreciation costs for operating a nuclear power plant for 40 years is prohibitive as it is risky. Apparently, there is no consensus in Japan on nuclear power.

One of the nuclear power boosters campaign pledges will be to maintain developed country standards in operating the BNPP. This has cost implications. In the United States, a new nuclear power plant will cost from $14 to $24 billion. The proposed Yucca Mountain radioactive waste storage has a projected cost as of August 2008 of $96.2 billion if ever the project overcomes opposition and pushes through.

Lastly, any elementary economist will state that the $2 billion (mis)spent on the BNPP is considered sunk costs. Sunk costs are unrecoverable. Only variable costs determine whether to continue investing or not in a business activity. As sunk costs, it has no bearing on whether we operate the BNPP even though we are spending PhP40 million annually to maintain it. The variable costs behoove us to decide on dismantling the BNPP and converting it to a safe and alternative energy power plant. It is NOT rational as the economists would say to consider sunk costs in deciding whether to continue a project or not.

These days of economic crisis and climate change present an opportunity for the Philippines to enter an era of sustainability. The investment cost for opening the BNPP can be better put to good use make the Philippines a global leader in alternative energy.

Re-opening the Bataan nuclear power plan is a step back to the stone age…after the mushroom cloud that can happen.

The BNPP is unBearable Nuclear Pain and Plight.