- The Philippines built a $2.3-billion nuclear power plant — but never used it, due to fear and corruption.
- For the first time in more than 30 years, the country has switched on a nuclear reactor research facility on June 20, 2022.
- As the country reels from high oil prices, public discourse about revival of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) emerges.
- Debate rages on over $1.2-billion proposed budget to rehabilitate the unused nuclear power plant, for which Filipino taxpayers spend $1 million a year for its upkeep.
Manila: The Philippines has the most expensive electricity rates in Asia — Filipinos pay twice more than South Koreans do for every kilowatt of electricity.
Quick answer: South Koreans use nuclear power, Filipinos don’t. But there's more to it.
The Philippines, as with the rest of the world, currently reels from high oil prices. The bulk of its power supply comes by fossil fuel — primarily coal and oil, whose prices have gone through the roof.
It built a 620-MW nuclear power plant, ready since 1984, but never switched on. It now amounts to a ridiculous riddle. The reasons include a cocktail of fear, politics and charges of corruption.
South Korea, in contrast, has utilised nuclear power more than 40 years with zero incident. Its land area is about one-third that of the Philippines', but the former currently has 25 active reactors, providing about one-third of the peninsula’s electricity. South Koreans have gained enough expertise to build nuclear power plants for other countries, too.
Fog of fear, politics
The Philippines came quite early into the nuclear power generation league. In 1976, it was the first southeast Asian country to build a nuclear power-generation facility.
In response to the 1973 global oil shock — when the price of crude oil quadrupled from $2.90 a barrel to $11.65 a barrel in January 1974 — then-President Ferdinand Marcos Sr issued a decree to build the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP), at the original cost of $500 million.
Three Mile Island disaster halts construction
Construction for BNPP, which took 8 years, was halted in 1979 following the Three Mile Island partial meltdown of Unit 2 (TMI-2) reactor in Pennsylvania, US.
Work was later resumed with redesigns — and at a much higher cost. The final bill: $1.8 billion more than the original $500 million (total: $2.3 billion), amid allegations of huge kickbacks.
1984: Ready for switch on, stalled by Chernobyl fears
By 1984, BNPP was reportedly ready to go. It’s unclear why no decision to switch it on was taken. Two years later, in February 1986, Marcos Sr was ousted in a civilian-backed military coup, known as the "EDSA Revolution".
In April 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear plant’s fourth reactor exploded during a botched safety test, sending radioactive clouds across Europe — making it the worst nuclear disaster both in cost and casualties.
Due to safety concerns, BNPP was mothballed by the Cory Aquino government, and all the presidents who came after her.
The result: constant power outages, expensive coal-fired plants that foul up the air, higher cost of electricity, lack of development due to high cost of power.
Fast forward 36 years
The now-ageing facility, designed to produce about 620 MW for decades to come — hasn’t produced a single watt of electricity. Filipino taxpayers still spend Php52 million ($1 million) per year for BNPP’s upkeep (as part of the state-owned National Power Corp.’s budget). A 77% budget increase, from P52 million for 2020 to P92 million, was sought from Congress for 2021.
Meanwhile, the loan provided by the US Export-Import Bank for BNPP was already paid in full in 2007 — more than 30 years after construction began.
Successive governments paid a total of Php64.7 billion (Php43.5 billion for the principal, Php21.2 billion in interest) for the BNPP loan.
What we know so far:
What’s the latest in the Philippines’ nuclear power scene?
For more than three (3) decades, the Philippines had no operating nuclear facility.
That changed on Monday (June 20, 2022) when the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI), loaded 44 fuel rods into the Philippine Research Reactor-1 "SATER” core.
SATER stands for Subcritical Assembly for Training, Education, and Research facility. This marks a milestone: the country now has a fully operational nuclear reactor after 34 years (the reactor was shut down in 1988).
PNRI is under the Department of Science and Technology (DOST). The facility is the Asian nation's sole nuclear reactor training ground, according to agency. (i
In so doing, Filipino scientists began loading nuclear fuel, called of TRIGA, in the SATER’s core, signalling the start of its nuclear commissioning.
What is the Philippines’ main source of electricity today?
In 2021, 47.6% of the country’s total electricity generation came fossil fuel, according to the US Energy Information Agency (EIA).
Natural gas made up another 10.7%. Altogether, approximately 76% of the Asian country’s electricity was sourced from fossil fuels, Statista data show. Hydro, geothermal and other renewables account for the rest.
Coal is known as a major contributor to greenhouse gas seen behind global warning.
President Rodrigo Duterte created an inter-agency panel to study the adoption of a national nuclear energy policy.
March 3, 2022:
Duterte issued an executive order to include nuclear power in the country's energy mix.
Duterte said the incoming administration could “explore now” the possibility of nuclear power as a source of energy.
“I hope we can transition to nuclear, pag-usapan na (to finally talk about it),” President Rodrigo Duterte said in May. “The next administration might want to just start the ball rolling and just — maski i-discuss na (let the discussion start already) because we have to educate so many people.”
Executive Order No. 116, signed by Duterte on July 24, 2020, created an inter-agency committee tasked to “conduct a study for the adoption of a national position on a Nuclear Energy Program (NEP).”
The panel was authorised, among others, “to evaluate and assess the need for and viability of introducing nuclear power” into the country’s energy mix, including existing facilities but “not limited” to the BNPP.
What did President-elect Marcos Jr (BBM) say about BNPP revival?
It's a campaign promise of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr and his running mate Davao Mayor Sara Duterte. "We go by the science," he has said on a number of occasions about nuclear power.
Their six-year term starts on July 1, 2022.
Asked about the plant during the campaign period, Marcos Jr told the local media in March: “We don’t know exactly what it’s going to take now. Baka ang maaaring mangyari, ay may mga bagong technology, pero dapat siguro gawin natin dahil nagbabayad tayo. So sana, dapat mapakinabangan natin.”
(There may be some new nuclear technology, but we have to do it because we're paying for it. So ideally, we have to make use of it). And we all know by now, that the reason hindi nagbukas yan (it was never operated) is political, not because of science,” he added.
“So tingnan natin kung kaya nating ibalik yan, at dagdagan pa (So we have to see if we we’re able to revive it, and then even add even more) because, Bataan Nuclear Power Plant is 620 megawatts. That was supposed to supply the requirement in 1986. Siyempre marami na din tayo naidagdag, pero kulang na tayo sa overall power supply. So kailangan nating gawin yun. (Of course we have added more generating capacity, but we’re still lacking in overall power supply. So we have to do it).”
What is the South Korean proposal?
On May 24, Marcos, Jr revealed that South Korean to the Philippines Kim Inchul mentioned an offer by the Koreans to check the condition of the BNPP with the intention of reviving it, during a courtesy call.
“Napag usapan din namin yung offer nila para tingnan ang Bataan Nuclear Power Plant para makita kung ano ba ang maaring gawin. Pwede pa bang ituloy o kailangan na magtayo ng bago? (We discussed their offer to check BNPP, to find out what we really need to do. Should we go ahead, or build a new one?) What are the things that we will have to do. So binuhay namin ulit yung discussion na yun (so we revived that discussion),” he said in a press briefing.
“Although they have come before, we will now study their recommendations and their findings and we will see if we can still apply because as we have been talking about all through the campaign, isa sa pinakamalaking problema (one of the biggest problems) is the supply of power.”
440The number of nuclear power reactors operating in 32 countries (plus Taiwan), with a combined capacity of about 390 GWe.
Is BNPP good to go?
In March, the Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (DOST-PNRI) said that BNPP’s design is secure, and its revival and possible utilisation is “safe” despite BNPP's decades of being mothballed.
DOST-PNRI Director Carlo Arcilla told local media that BNPP's design is similar to the nuclear plants being used in South Korea, Slovenia, and Brazil.
Arcilla said the three nuclear plants are still up and running. “This means the plant’s design is safe,” he said in then Filipino languge.
The official added that while the BNPP is not being used, maintenance works are still being implemented.
What about corruption?
This is where the story gets bogged down. In 1992, US media reported that Westinghouse Electric Corp, the main contractor of BNPP, settled the case lodged by the Philippine government — with $10 million in cash and $90 million in credits and discounts.
The settlement also provides that the Manila government borrow $400 million to pay Westinghouse to upgrade the plant to meet safety standards mandated by nuclear safety regulators at that time.
What happened to Westinghouse?
Westinghouse Electric Corp is one of the most storied names in the US power industry. In 2017, Westinghouse filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
This followed billions of dollars of cost overruns on four nuclear power plants it was designing and building for two US utilities. This came as a result of a completely new NPP design, the AP1000 — and its modular construction.
In 2018, Brookfield Business Partners, an affiliate of Canadian asset manager Brookfield, acquired Westinghouse for $4.6 billion, including debt, from Toshiba Corp. Legally, Westinghouse Electric Corp still exists, mainly for the purpose of licensing, as a subsidiary of CBS Corp.
What we know so far about the BNPP corruption angle:
In June 2021, the Philippines’ Supreme Court ordered the estate of the late businessman Herminio Disini, former energy minister of Marcos, to pay the government Php1.1 billion ($20 million) in damages in connection with his role in the awarding of the $2.3-billion BNPP project to Westinghouse.
The apex court’s decision was unanimous, in which it held Disini’s estate liable for exerting “undue influence” in the awarding of the BNPP deal by taking advantage of his close association with former president Ferdinand Marcos.
What about the nearby volcanos?
There are 300 volcanoes in the Philippines, most of then are inactive (24 active). Pinatubo, in Pampanga, dormant for about 400 years, erupted in 1991 — but there was no effect on the Bataan plant, 70 km (45 miles) away, say scientists.
The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology’s (Phivolcs) has stated that the BNPP’s site is safe as it was built on solid rock formation. The nearby volcano Mount Natib in Bataan, is “no longer active”, according to Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI) Director Carlo Arcilla.
What about nuclear waste?
The “geological disposal”, according to most experts, is the most common option, where spent nuclear fuel is placed in canisters placed in tunnels and subsequently sealed with rocks and clay.
Safe methods for the final disposal of high-level radioactive waste are technically proven. Direct disposal is employed for nuclear fuel designated as waste and placed in an underground repository, without any recycling.
However, used nuclear fuel can also be recycled — to make new fuel and byproducts. Experts say that more than 90% of its potential energy still remains in the fuel, even after five years of operation in a reactor.
In general, compared to other toxic industrial waste, nuclear waste is neither particularly hazardous nor hard to manage.
What about Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima?
Chernobyl, USSR accident:
The accident in 1986 was the result of a flawed reactor design that was operated with inadequately trained personnel, according to the World Nuclear Association.
The resulting steam explosion and fires released at least 5% of the radioactive reactor core into the environment, with the deposition of radioactive materials in many parts of Europe.
Two Chernobyl plant workers died due to the explosion on the night of the accident, and a further 28 people died within a few weeks as a result of acute radiation syndrome.
The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation has concluded that, apart from some 5000 thyroid cancers (resulting in 15 fatalities), "there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure 20 years after the accident."
Some 350,000 people were evacuated as a result of the accident, but resettlement of areas from which people were relocated is ongoing.
The Three Mile Island, US accident:
The reactor 2 accident, which took place on March 28, 1979, caused no injuries or deaths. In addition, experts concluded that the amount of radiation released into the atmosphere was too small to result in discernible direct health effects to the population in the vicinity of the plant.
Fukushima, Japan accident:
Nobody died as a direct result of the Fukushima nuclear disaster on March 11, 2011. However, in 2018 one worker in charge of measuring radiation at the plant died of lung cancer caused by radiation exposure. In addition, there have been more than 2,000 disaster-related deaths.
2,000Number of deaths related to the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster since 2011.
What studies have been done on BNPP revival?
There were at least two:
(1) In 2008, the state-owned power generation firm Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power conducted a pre-feasibility, in partnership with the National Power Corp. (Napocor), to rehabilitate BNPP.
(2) The second was another "pre-feasibility" done in 2017 under a cooperation agreement with the Department of Energy (DOE).
Why revive BNPP?
Reviving the BNPP is the fastest because the facility’s already there, then the South Koreans are ready to move in,” Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI) executive director Carlo Arcilla told local media.
South Korea operates a nuclear plant that is an exact twin of the BNPP. The nuclear power plants with the same design had also been producing power for more than 30 years in Slovenia and Brazil.
How much would it cost to revive BNPP?
One proposal, made by the South Koreans, pegs the cost of reviving the BNPP at around $1 billion to $1.2 billion.
What about cost?
The economics are clear, says Dr Arcilla.
The South Korean proposal ($1 billion to $1.2 billion to reopen the BNPP) is roughly the same amount needed to put up a coal-fired power plant with the same capacity, said Arcilla.
“If we reopen the BNPP, the fuel will cost is something from $20 million to $25 million. It is (relatively) small and will fit in a small jeepney and will last for 18 months. In contrast, if that were a coal plant operating for 18 months, it would require 50 Panama ships (costing) from $700 million to $800 million,” Arcilla said.
What about ROI for BNPP revival?
Arcilla said: in terms of savings alone in the running of the plant versus a coal plant, investment can be recovered as soon as two years.
What about smaller reactors?
The entry of small modular reactor (SMR) technology is another option nuclear scientists are considering. “The best option for the Philippines – even DOE shares this – is the small modular reactors for off-grid areas or even for the main Luzon Island. These have 70 to 100- megawatt (MW) capacities,” Arcilla said.
Currently, enriched uranium is the most common reactor fuel. But fuel compositions could potentially shift toward the very promising element — thorium (Th).
Using a combination of thorium and uranium (U), particularly “High Assay Low Enriched Uranium” (HALEU), a new fuel called ANEEL (for Advanced Nuclear Energy for Enriched Life) addresses several issues, say proponents, including the US Department of Energy.
Currently, there are at least 30 countries considering, planning or starting nuclear programs. In addition, 20 countries, most of which are in the developing world, have expressed an interest in launching a nuclear program in the future.
What’s next for a nuclear Philippines?
By voting for Marcos Jr., an overwhelming majority of Filipinos seem to have overcome the negative perceptions surrounding nuclear power, the resentments towards his father’s legacy — and now better understand how shunning this man-made sun blows a hole in their pockets each billing month.