AFTER initially flip-flopping on his stand on what to do about the mothballed Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP), President Duterte has announced that he might agree to revive the power plant if only to address the problems of dwindling power supply and high electricity rates in the country.

But some experts are cautioning him to think a thousand times over before proceeding with the plan citing various reasons among them safety and practicality.

For one, those that have trained so hard to run it (engineers and technical people) have left and are now occupying lucrative positions elsewhere in the globe or are retired by now, so rehiring them or training new ones would only up the cost for BNPP.

Second, it would entail lots of expenses that could run into hundreds of millions of pesos to improve, upgrade and rehabilitate what is left in BNPP considering that it has been mothballed over two decades ago and some knots and bolts and vital parts that need replacement might no longer be out there in the market.

Third, for most parts of the world, nuclear plants are being phased out and replaced by renewable energy. Germany, France, Japan and even the United States have been decommissioning some of their nuclear plants, which are found to be increasingly hard and costly to operate what with the rising prices and tightening supplies of uranium to fuel these.

Finally, countries with the most experience and expertise in running nuclear plants like Japan (whose three reactors in Fukushima got hit by tsunami that forced it to shut down and caused a meltdown which is still being felt by the world up to now) have done their best to ensure structural integrity of the plant. 

But what they did not foresee is the encroachment of tsunami that knocked down the plants cooling systems on March 11, 2011 causing a meltdown. An earlier nuclear plant disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine on April 26, 1986 prompted Cory Aquino to shut down BNPP even before it could operate.


Understanding nuclear

Nuclear power plants do not burn any fuel but use uranium fuel—consisting of solid ceramic pellets—to produce electricity through fission. Uranium, a very heavy metal, can be used as an abundant source of concentrated energy

Uranium occurs in most rocks—discovered in 1789 by Martin Klaprot, a German chemist, in the mineral called pitchblende. 

Apparently formed in supernovas about 6.6 billion years ago, uranium is not common in the solar system but its slow radioactive decay provides the main source of heat inside the Earth causing convection and continental shifts. 

It has a melting point of 1132º C. Uranium oxide, processed from ore, is imported by countries like the Philippines as a finished product and is fed into the reactor.


Uranium users

About 12 percent of the world's electricity is generated from uranium in nuclear reactors. This amounts to over 2500 billion kWh each year, as much as from all sources of electricity worldwide in 1960.

It comes from some 430 nuclear reactors with a total output capacity of about 375 000 megawatts (MWe) operating in 31 countries. Over 70 more reactors are under construction and another 170 are planned.

Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Hungary, Japan, South Korea, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland and Ukraine all get 30 percent or more of their electricity from nuclear reactors. 

The USA has 100 reactors operating, supplying 20 percent of its electricity. France gets three quarters of its electricity from uranium.

The isotope U-235 is important because under certain conditions it can readily be split, producing a lot of energy. It is therefore said to be 'fissile' thus the term ‘'nuclear fission'.


Global warming

Meanwhile, like all radioactive isotopes, they decay. U-238 (the most common isotope of uranium found in nature that can capture a slow neutron and after two beta decays become fissile plutonium-239) decays very slowly, its half-life being about the same as the age of the Earth (4500 million years). 

This means that it is barely radioactive, less so than many other isotopes in rocks and sand. Still, it generates 0.1 watts/tonne as decay heat and this is enough to warm the Earth's core. U-235 decays slightly faster.

Because of the kind of fuel used (the concentration of U-235), if there is a major uncorrected malfunction in a reactor the fuel may overheat and melt, but it cannot explode like a bomb.


Locating in Palawan

If the country is bent on using at least one nuclear power plant to ensure its current and future energy needs, then it would be prudent to locate it in Palawan where there is no active fault, population centers are not too dense and its distance to the main power grid would render it feasible and economical, the experts told Opinyon.

But at its current site in Zambales, which is within the Pacific ring of fire then it would not be safe—despite the full-proof structures of the plant as claimed and given the expected sea surges from each storm that forms above and passes through the Pacific Ocean. 

Given the recent experience in Fukushima—despite the structural stability of the entire reactor and cooling systems—the water from the ocean surged and stormed through its fortified shock-proofed walls causing a meltdown.

The radioactivity from Fukushima’s meltdown is said to be one the worst disasters in the world as its effects are now being felt even in the United States.

Also, the BNPP facility is already using an old technology therefore it would be nearly impossible to find the parts to replace old ones that need to be replaced.  

China is now building a nuclear power plant to address the pollution and smog from their numerous coal power plants. China, a major producer of coal for power plants, has been steadily reducing its coal production because the greenhouse gas emissions have reached dangerous levels and could lead to catastrophic proportions in the near term.


Best to go RE

Instead of going nuclear or enhancing energy production from coal for power plants, it would be best for the Duterte administration to tap the unlimited available renewable energy from the wind, water, sun and natural gas which are there for the taking.

It used to be very prohibitive to put up solar plants, even solar roofs in homes, they said. But now with many products available from many producing countries, it is up to the buyer where to source the panels and batteries.

Windmill farms being put up in Ilocos and other parts of the country must be expanded and so with the absorptive capacity of the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines to use them and put them on stream to ensure that the benefits from these safe renewable energy (RE) sources go to the distribution system and benefit the consumers in terms of stable energy supply, they said.


Get rid of fossil fuel mindset

The National Power Corp. still uses predominantly fossil fuel and coal for the energy mix—relying less and less on hydroelectric power—because these are readily available in the market.

But this convenience mindset must be reduced in favor of RE, if the country would want to reap the full benefits of renewable resources and give its share to reducing carbon footprints and greenhouse gas emissions.

When do we start using RE so that we can fully comprehend their benefits to our daily lives? Our usual tendency is to use what has been tried and tested, leaving virtually no space for other resources in the energy mix, they said.

With the peso continuing its dip—making importations even of fuel oil too costly—it would be prudent for us to start exploring the full potential and benefits of our RE resources now, not later, they added. 


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