The Bataan nuclear power plant, the first in Southeast Asia, was built in 1986. It never produced a single kilowatt of electricity, but there is now a growing movement to reopen the plant. One of the reasons is driven by the high cost of energy and the need to reduce carbon emissions.
The Philippines is saddled with the highest electricity tariffs in Asia, partly due to the rising price of imported coal. Carlo A. Arcilla, director of the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute, suggested nuclear energy as a reliable alternative to the country's growing energy needs, which are expected to double in the next 20 years. However, energy finance analyst Sara Jane Ahmed, who advises the Vulnerable Twenty Group, argues that nuclear power plants are not flexible enough to meet fluctuations in energy demand and are expensive to operate safely in the Philippines, as they are located in a seismically active zone.
On the other hand, Arcilla supports renewable energy but argues that it is not sufficient by itself. Despite its benefits, ensuring the safety of nuclear plants in the Philippines, located in a seismic zone called the Ring of Fire, is costly. When nuclear plants go offline, it can cripple the energy grid, causing power outages, as stated by Bert Dalusung, an analyst at the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities. Instead of relying on a few large power plants, Dalusung suggests building a distributed energy infrastructure using solar, wind, and geothermal resources.
The Bataan plant was shut down after the Chernobyl disaster, which coincided with the overthrow of President Ferdinand Marcos Sr, who commissioned the plant. His son, President Ferdinand Bongbong Marcos Jr, now wants to finish the job his father started. Some experts are skeptical that the plant can be restarted. Plus, there is the fact that the reactor was never used, and the technology is now outdated. The plant's only reactor can only produce up to 620 megawatts of power, about half of a modern counterparts.
A Dream that's Back on the Fight
Congressman Mark Cojuangco who is a leading advocate for restarting the plant, insists that it can be refurbished and the quality of construction is world-class. He points out that South Korean nuclear operator KEPCO has offered to refurbish the plant for about $1.5 billion. Critics remain unconvinced, however, citing the plant's outdated control system, which is reminiscent of a museum.
However, this optimism is not without reason. Bataan is not the only first nuclear plant to ever be put into operation. In Tennessee, work on the Watts Bar Two plant began in 1973, prior to the construction of the Bataan plant. Later, it was restarted in 2016 after a 43-year hiatus. Nevertheless, restarting the Bataan plant will be an endeavor that requires a lot of extensive work on control systems and other equipment, as well as updates to the reactor software. It would also require the involvement of international nuclear experts to ensure that the plant meets modern safety standards. Despite these challenges, President Marcos Jr is optimistic about the project. The growing movement to restart the plant, backed by the fact that the plant was built to withstand natural disasters such as earthquakes and typhoons, makes it all the more championed.
The statement was made by Mr. Cojuangco who personally visited Fukushima and studied the disaster there. He emphasized that he previously had no evidence to support the claim that the plant could withstand a 9.0 earthquake, but now he does. The Bataan plant is located 18 meters above sea level, so even if it is hit by a tsunami as large as the one in Fukushima, it will not be affected. According to Mr. Cojuangco, if the Bataan plant was located in Fukushima, there would be no disaster to speak of. His first-hand experience in Fukushima gives him the confidence to state that the Bataan plant is safe from a similar disaster.
If the Bataan plant is reactivated, it can play a vital role in meeting the Philippines' growing energy needs. Electricity in the country is essential but often expensive and dirty. In contrast, nuclear power is a clean and relatively cheap source of energy, which can help drive economic growth and reduce the country's carbon footprint. However, the idea of restarting the Bataan power plant is not without controversy, and there are concerns about the safety and environmental risks associated with nuclear power. Nonetheless, as energy costs rise and climate change continues to threaten the planet, nuclear power will likely remain a topic of debate and discussion for years to come.