Filipinos shouldn’t blame the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan if the plan to revive the mothballed Bataan Nuclear Power Plant fizzles out. Indeed, although events in Japan may have indefinitely postponed the nuclear ambitions of several South-east Asian nations, the debate in the Philippines had been settled long ago.
The Philippines’ failure to generate electricity from the nuclear plant it constructed more than 30 years ago is the real reason why any new public discussion heralding the advantages of nuclear energy would be doomed from the start.
What happened to the Philippines’ nuclear programme? During the first oil price shock in the early 1970s, the Philippine government decided to build a nuclear plant. The opposition claimed it was a knee-jerk reaction to the oil crisis, since there were cheaper sources of energy at that time, such as hydropower and geothermal energy. But others insisted the project proved the sincerity and vision of then-President Ferdinand Marcos, who had earlier vowed to make the country an industrial hub of the region.
The nuclear plant was the costliest venture in the Philippines, with more than $2 billion worth of foreign loans being spent on building the plant. But it didn’t generate a single watt of electricity and now stands as the biggest white elephant in the country’s history, a symbol of corruption and crony capitalism in the Philippines.
The undertaking was politicized from the beginning. Marcos awarded the project to a losing bidder; his cronies bagged several subcontracts for the project; and the plant easily exceeded the projected costs because of several ‘commissions’ (some might say bribes) given to high-ranking Filipino politicians.
It usually takes six years to study the safety of a nuclear plant. But back in 1978, the plant in question was visited by one expert, who stayed for only two weeks. In 1992, the government sent a three-man panel to inspect the site for one week. In both instances, the experts concluded that the nuclear plant was safe to operate.
But an independent inspection conducted by several experts disagreed with the findings of the government-commissioned reports. For example, scientists discovered that the reactor had 200 defects. Safety issues were also later raised by the Philippine Atomic Energy Commission about the damaged containment structure, unshielded electrical cables and a faulty steam generator. In 1990, another independent study pointed out the structural weaknesses of the plant, such as the deficiencies in the component cooling system, the quality assurance programme, and the emergency power system.
The design of the nuclear plant also wasn’t applicable for the Philippines. The plant builder adopted Yugoslavia’s Krsko plant as the model for its project in the Philippines. But the two countries have different weather and geographical conditions—the same design for ventilation and cooling can’t be suitable for both sites.
In addition, the site of the Philippine nuclear plant wasn’t chosen wisely, being less than 10 miles from an active volcano. It was also within 25 miles of three geological faults—like Japan, the Philippines sits in the Pacific Ring of Fire, which means volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are common in the country.
When Marcos was ousted from power in 1986, the nuclear plant still wasn’t finished and the succeeding government mothballed the plant because of strong local opposition. If it had been designed and constructed properly, the plant could have been used to avert a power blackout in the 1980s. The power crisis not only plunged the whole country into darkness, it crippled the economy, especially the manufacturing sector.
It will take a while—perhaps a significant amount of time—before debates on the use of nuclear power can proceed without mentioning the Philippines’ painful experience of building a nuclear plant three decades ago. That episode is worth remembering every time we hear and read reports that the Fukushima nuclear disaster is the reason why the planned revival of nuclear power in the country is no longer feasible. It should be clarified that corruption, not the feared nuclear meltdown in Japan, destroyed the nuclear industry in the Philippines.