Toxic Talk

In the wake of the troubles of the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant and the efforts of the Japanese, as well as foreign rescue units and experts, to mitigate the effects of what might be the single biggest nuclear disaster in history, Filipinos have in recent days, reopened the debate on the fate on the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant.

While advocates of the reopening of the plant (who are mostly from Metro Manila) have had their say, mostly in the World Wide Web, those who have opposed the use of what has become a white elephant from the Marcos Era have been silent. It is not because they have given up struggle but it is because most of those who oppose the use of the plant come from the surrounding rural community around the BNPP, who have neither the Internet connection, nor the computers with which they can also make their presence felt.

A couple of years ago, I attended a series of discussions on the BNPP at the University of the Philippines National Institute of Geological Sciences where the director of the institute, Dr. Carlo Arcilla and renowned lahars expert Dr. Kelvin Rodolfo spoke from opposing sides.

Speaking for the reopening of the BNPP, Dr. Arcilla said that the country’s lone yet still unutilized nuclear power plant has been unfairly judged by the public for the wrong reasons. Much of the opposition he said is the result of the influence of movies which depicted the dangers of nuclear power like Dr. Strangelove, the China Syndrome, and the Peacemaker.

Arcilla said that the view towards the nuclear power plant also took a political turn when the Marcos regime was ousted by the People Power Revolution of 1986, where after the plant was looked upon as a legacy of the fallen dictator. The negative perceptive further increased when in April of the same year, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine had a meltdown.

Debunking the perception that a similar event such as that of Chernobyl would occur in the Philippines, Arcilla said that the BNPP should not be compared with nuclear power plants in the former Soviet Union such as that in Chernobyl. The BNPP, he said, was made according to Western standards by the Westinghouse Company of the United States.

Considering its expected contribution at least 621 Megawatts to the power mix of the country, Arcilla said that the rehabilitation and operation of the nuclear power plant will be essential to staving off what has been seen a as possible power crisis by 2012. The refurbishment and operation of the BNPP and its power capacity is also expected by Arcilla to lessen the cost of power generation and consumption in the country, making electricity available even to the poorest of the poor. “Kung mas mahal ang kuryente, mas mahirap ang tao,” he said.

Being that the nuclear power plant sits on the foot of Mt. Natib, Arcilla, who is a trained geologist, said that there is nothing much to worry since the plant is on a safe distance from Natib and there are no active fault lines beneath it.

But Dr. Kelvin Rodolfo, disagreed with Arcilla. He said that the BNPP “is not near Natib, it is on Natib.” And despite claims that Natib is a dormant volcano, Rodolfo said that the caldera-type volcano is not extinct, instead it is long overdue and might erupt any time soon. 

Regarding the claim that there are no fault lines under the power plant, Rodolfo said that contrary to preconceived notions that the BNPP sits on none, it is actual on what would be a potential extension of the Pampanga Lineament. The Pampanga Lineament is a surface line from Pampanga province into Mt. Natib which is visible from aerial and satellite photographs of the area near the BNPP.

While many of the advocates of nuclear power generation said that nuclear power by itself should not be associated with nuclear weapons, Rodolfo said that the distinctions mean nothing. “Nuclear fission does not only provide nuclear energy, it also provides nuclear weapons, you can never separate the two,” he said.

Of all the points raised on the geological, seismic, and even topographical conditions around the lone nuclear power plant of the country, Rodolfo’s greatest concern however was on the disposal of the nuclear waste which would result from the operation of the nuclear power plant. Unlike the United States, Japan, and several countries in Europe, the Philippines has yet to create a facility which can safely and securely store the radioactive waste which would come from the BNPP. He pointed out the difficulties that the US government had undergone to store the waste by-product of nuclear power. He said that “if the Americans cannot solve this problem of nuclear waste, how much more we, when we cannot even solve our garbage problem.” 

Rodolfo emphasized that nuclear waste last for tens of thousands of years. It was therefore important to consider future generations in making the decision to operate the BNPP. “It is very arrogant of us to make waste that will last that long,” he said.

In the open forum of those series of discussions on the BNPP, then Pangasinan Representative Mark Cojuangco, who sponsored the bill in the House of Representatives which called for the operation of the BNPP, spoke on several occasions to defend his pet legislation. Cojuangco said that the country should not give in to fears surrounding nuclear power. Instead it should think about the benefits that can arise out of the operation of the nuclear power plant. Aside from Cojuangco, then Pampanga representative Mikey Arroyo was also among the proponents of the rehabilitation and operation of the power plant.

While Cojuangco tried stubbornly to stand his ground against Rodolfo, he was also faced by several representatives from people’s organizations, community-based organizations, and even the religious, who felt that their homes and livelihood would be threatened by the operation of the power plant and the disposal of its waste.

There were four public discussions on the BNPP back then, but Dr. Rodolfo decided to only attend a couple after his health was affected by the heated exchanges between the opposing groups. He would later give up his adjunct professorship at UP to return to the US, where he is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois.

It is ironic that while several countries in Europe have sounded the alarm against the operation of nuclear power plants after the complications in the Fukushima nuclear power plant, several sectors in the Philippines have done the opposite and stepped up the advocacy for operating the BNPP. Also notable is how some sectors suddenly agitate for the use of the relic of the Marcos Era, without pointing out to the public how much the rehabilitation of the power plant will cost. In a later discussion at the UP College of Engineering sponsored by Cojuangco, former Representative Etta Rosales, representing the Freedom from Debt Coalition said that refurbishing the BNPP would necessitate at least P 1.2 billion – an estimated cost the gentleman from Pangasinan did not refute. Rosales asked then: “Where then do we get the money? From the people?”

The discussion on the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant would be among the issues which would confront the country in the coming months, especially since its advocates are trying to defend it against the negative perception brought about by the events in Japan. 

It is troubling that most of those who advocate for the utilization of the plant are not from the communities where it is located. An equally troubling thought is also the often forgotten aspect of nuclear waste in the discussion of the BNPP. What then do we do with the waste which lasts for eons from the nuclear power plant? Are those going to be part of our legacy for the future generations? Or have we as a nation, become so short sighted that we only think of the here and now?

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