Nuclear power proponents make U-Turn

Donaldson Tan

The control room of a nuclear power plant

The control room of a nuclear power plant

It recently came to my attention that Albay Governor Joey Salceda and Former Representative Mark Cojuangco of Pangasinan have turned their back on nuclear power amidst growing public concerns over nuclear safety in the Philippines. Salceda was a staunch proponent of the proposal to build nuclear power plants to address the Philippines’s power supply crisis while Cojuangco previously lobbied for the construction of a nuclear power plant in the province of Pangasinan.

The growing public concern was sparked by the ballooning nuclear crisis in Japan where an earthquake of magnitude 8.9 on the Richter Scale hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant last Friday. To-date, it is established that 7 out of 11 nuclear reactors in the plant are damaged and 3 hydrogen explosions have already occurred at the plant. Both Japan and the Philippines are located around the Pacific Ring of Fire. The Pacific Ring of Fire is an area where large numbers of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur in the basin of the Pacific Ocean. It is home to over 75% of the world’s active and dormant volcanoes. About 90% of the world’s earthquakes and 80% of the world’s largest earthquakes occur along the Ring of Fire. The Philippines is earthquake-prone too.

However, the public is not unfamiliar with nuclear power in the Philippines. Towards the end of his reign as dictator, former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos built a graft-ridden power plant in Bataan. It is said that several Marcos cronies earned millions of dollars in kickback money from Westinghouse, builder of the controversial project. So from a Philippino’s perspective, the u-turn represents not only concerns for nuclear safety but also the avoidance of corruption.

Yet such a u-turn must be ill-conceived because information is hard to come by, amidst the chaos and devastation caused by the earthquake and tsunami. Communications are understandably confused and difficult while it is not uncommon that statements made by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano and Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) tend to diverge. Moreover, the Japanese government has a track record of downplaying or concealing mishaps, making the media and public less likely to accept official reassurances. All of this contribute to the growing noise-to-signal ratio in publicly available information on the ballooning nuclear crisis in Japan.

It isn’t surprising if the public in the Philippines falls for the myopia of solely focusing on fragmentary and incomplete information regarding the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. This myopia causes blindness to the strategic challenges faced by the energy sector. Firstly, the double whammy of the Sendai Tsunami and the 8.9 Richter Scale Earthquake is unprecedented. When the earthquake struck the nuclear power plant, the emergency power system is supposed to take over the coolant pumps in the nuclear reactors but it was knocked out by the Sendai Tsunami. The Wall Street Journal reported that this earthquake as an once-in-three-hundred-years event.

Secondly, Japanese nuclear reactors have the history of surviving earthquakes up to the magnitude of 7.3 on the Richter Scale. During the major Kobe-Osaka earthquake (magnitude 7.2) in 1995, no nuclear power plants in the vicinity were affected. In March 2005, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake in northern Kyushu did not affect the nearby Genkai and Sendai nuclear plants, nor Shimane and Ikata. In some cases, the nuclear reactors “tripped”, i.e. was shut down automatically upon the detection of excess ground acceleration outside its operating parameter but there was neither damage to the reactor nor radiological leakage to the environment. In 2007, the Niigata Chuetsu-Oki earthquake (6.8 magnitude) struck the Kashiwazaki Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant which was only located 16km from the epicentre. As expected, the nuclear reactors “tripped” as this is what they are designed for. Subsequent analysis of primary cooling water confirmed that there was no damage to the fuel in reactor cores. Today, the Kashiwazaki Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant remains operational.

Thirdly, energy supply worldwide is increasingly tight as the world population grows. It is imperative to diversify the fuel mix for electricity generation. According to projection by the US Energy Information Administration, energy use in Asia (led by China and India) shows the most robust growth of all the non-OECD regions, rising by 118 percent from 2007 to 2035. At the same time, strong growth in energy use is also projected for much of the rest of the non-OECD regions. It is unsurprising if some non-OECD exporters of natural gas and coal become net importers as long as their economic growths continue in this trajectory.

As such, brushing off the nuclear option in view of recent developments in Japan is in fact pre-mature. Governments and politicians that have hitherto endorsed proposed programmes of new nuclear plants, with financial as well as rhetorical support, may now find that their electorates are less enthusiastic. Does the electorate realise that the government is considering nuclear power to feed their insatiable appetite for energy?

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.