Generating controversy

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 February, 2009, 12:00am

As the Philippines faces up to the possibility of an energy shortage by 2012, an aggressive lobby group is pushing for the inconceivable - awakening the 'Morong Monster'.

That's what a senator once called the unused Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP), a legacy of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

The concrete colossus, located on the west coast of Morong town in Bataan province, 77km west of Manila, has two dubious distinctions: it's the first atomic generator built in Southeast Asia and the first never to be used. A year after it was completed in 1985, it was ordered to be mothballed because of defects. The 620-megawatt reactor has been cold and silent for nearly a quarter of a century.

That may be about to change. Two weeks ago, congressman Mark Cojuangco lobbied fellow legislators to appropriate US$1 billion to get the plant up and running. He's worked overtime getting support for his House Bill 4631, 'mandating the immediate recommissioning and commercial operation of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant'.

Mr Cojuangco wants the plant switched on because 'nuclear-generated power can be a tremendous help to the country'.

'We will have a power shortage of 3,000 megawatts in 2012 - that equates to 24-hour rolling brownouts and a big loss of jobs,' he warned.

He's not alone in his advocacy. Last month, the government announced it had signed a memorandum of understanding with the Korea Electric Power Corporation, which operates plants identical to the one at Bataan.

A team from South Korea has already begun conducting 'pre-feasibility' studies on reviving the reactor.

Opponents haven't wasted any time mustering their forces. Demonstrators have picketed Congress, denouncing Mr Cojuangco's bill, while environmentalists, scientists and even priests in Bataan have warned against firing up the reactor.

'We assure Mr Cojuangco, we will be there to stop him every step of the way,' said Von Hernandez, executive director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

The ill-starred plant may not have produced any electricity, but it has never failed to generate controversy.

Originally called the Philippine Nuclear Power Plant 1, it was meant to be the first of two installations that would reduce the country's dependence on oil. It became the Philippines' biggest ever construction job, involving 10,000 workers and engineers. Right from the start, however, there were unsettling things about the project.

US firm Westinghouse won the contract to build the plant - a pressurised water reactor - in 1976 with a 'base price' of US$562 million, starting work the same year. The Marcos regime held no public bidding process and refused to publish details of the contract.

By comparison, General Electric had offered to build two boiling-water reactors for US$700 million. In 1983, the Westinghouse plant's cost had gone up to US$1.1 billion and, by the time the Philippines finished paying off the reactor - just two years ago - the price tag had ballooned to US$2.3 billion and become the country's single-biggest foreign debt.

In building the plant, the Marcos regime did not bother consulting the people of Bataan, a referendum being called off on the grounds that the residents knew nothing about nuclear technology.

In 1984, just before the plant was completed, 15,000 residents rallied to block roads to the plant. Communist guerillas knocked down more than two dozen power transmission pylons leading to the site.

After Marcos was ousted in 1986, the succeeding government compiled a list of what was wrong with the plant - basically, 'everything'.

The design was said to be obsolete and have 'thousands' of defects. And there was no provision for waste disposal, although a document turned up indicating that Marcos had thought of building a nuclear dump in Palawan Island.

Government lawyers alleged that Marcos and a crony, Herminio Disini, had skimmed money from the project and taken bribes from Westinghouse. In one instance, a subcontractor linked to Marcos received US$21 million for doing no substantial work.

Disini alone is alleged to have pocketed US$35 million. He still has cases pending against him, but has not been found - he fled the country in 1986, reportedly for Austria.

The plant even had geology against it. The 357 hectare complex, with its six-storey giant reactor, was built on the slopes of a dormant volcano, Mount Natib, and several fault lines are nearby.

This catalogue of defects prompted then senator Rene Saguisag to call the plant a 'monster' and, in 1988, the Aquino government sued Westinghouse and two other American firms for fraud and bribery.

Westinghouse denied the charges, but admitted paying Disini's companies US$17 million in 'commissions'.

When the suit was rejected by a US court, the government decided to leave the plant shuttered, and succeeding administrations followed suit. But planners never gave up hope. Tucked discreetly in the thick 'Philippine Energy Plan, 1996-2025', prepared by Fidel Ramos' government, is a curious projection - by 2025, the country will be producing 2,400 MW of atomic energy.

Now, nuclear partisans are determined to make that a reality. The advocates, including government officials, engineers and scientists, have their own list of rebuttals to the charges of critics. The cost ballooned because of interest charges. The 'defects' were minor; though the plant looks run down outside, the basic core structure - 16.8cm steel walls, protected by a 3.8cm steel shell, all encased in a concrete cover 1-metre thick - is intact. There is storage space in the plant itself for 20 years' worth of nuclear waste.

As it is, the plant, which was built to provide electricity, has been consuming it instead. Mr Cojuangco said its yearly maintenance and electricity bill amounts to 40 million pesos (HK$6.55 million).

As for geological hazards, Carlo Arcilla, director of the University of the Philippines' National Institute of Geological Sciences, said that Japan, which had earthquakes and volcanoes, had 55 nuclear power plants, some near volcanoes.

And the corruption stories? Mr Cojuangco shrugged. 'I don't think they're relevant to the discussion, because the plant is already owned by the Filipino people.'

Instead he and Dr Arcilla talk of a rosy nuclear future in which the country can reduce its use of dirty coal and oil; where Filipinos can have cheap electricity - the country is second only to Japan in the stiffness of its electricity rates - in amounts that assure growth and prosperity.

Greenpeace's Mr Hernandez will have none of it. 'The BNPP is an expensive distraction from real solutions to our energy needs,' he warned, adding that the proposed rehabilitation fund would be better spent on alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power.

Even if rehabilitated, the plant would not be online by 2012, and hidden additional costs would inflate the US$1 billion cost, he said.

To Mr Hernandez, House Bill 4631 is just the thin edge of a wedge that will see the creation of a full-blown nuclear power industry. And he is right. When asked if the plant would be the first of several nuclear plants, Mr Cojuangco replied: 'I really hope so.'

He also said he would be proposing another bill, a 'nuclear industry development act'.

'This plant could have given birth to five more; we would be more prosperous than we were before,' he said.

To Kelvin Rodolfo, a geologist whom Dr Arcilla described as 'the best in his field', the geological hazards in Bataan can't be taken lightly. 'If congressman Cojuangco is sincere about protecting the security and safety of the people, there has to be a thorough evaluation of the site,' he said.

Dr Rodolfo said Koreans were not in the best position to evaluate the plant's safety, because 'there are no earthquakes and volcanoes in Korea'.

There is the distant feeling of deja vu about the latest chapter of the controversy. First, one Marcos crony, Disini, was closely involved in the plant's construction. The son of another crony is leading the charge to revive it. Mr Cojuangco's first name, Mark, is short for Marcos - the dictator was his godfather. Second, the plant was built without consulting the people and it might be awakened the same way. Mr Cojuangco said a referendum on the plant wasn't necessary.

'I don't think the people should be bothered - that's what they have representatives in Congress for,' he said.

Third, the plant was built by a huge foreign loan - US$ 2.3 billion - and reviving it might cost almost half as much as the original outlay.

Mr Cojuangco said the US$1 billion could be raised by a 10-centavo surcharge on electricity, otherwise 'the government will be authorised to borrow any shortfall'.

Whatever the mechanism, he won't give up the fight. He estimates that, if his bill is passed, it will take two years to refurbish the plant, and another year to warm it up.

'Yesterday; I want this done yesterday. The failure of past administrations has been to take the easy political way out,' Mr Cojuangco said.

Previous administrations may have had good reason to spurn nuclear power.

The way Marcos rammed the BNPP through soured many Filipinos on nuclear energy. And there are alternatives. The Philippines is the world's second-largest user of geothermal energy. A complex near Manila itself produces 600 MW.

In the 1980s, Marcos' energy minister Geronimo Velasco said: 'If we had known in 1974 what we now know about our country's geothermal and coal assets, we would never have gone ahead with the nuclear plant.'

The country's energy state might have to do more with policy than lack of generators.

Mr Cojuangco said that electricity bills were high because the government privatised the power sector in the 1990s.

It must also be remembered that this is a country where high-level corruption is commonplace.

With a US$1 billion fund on the table, Filipinos are right to wonder if the plant will generate more kickbacks than electricity.