Time to go nuclear?

Buencamino is a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms. This was published in the June 02, 2010 edition of the Business Mirror, page A6

If stupidity got us into this mess, why can’t it get us out of it?

The top story in this paper’s Monday edition was “Experts pitch BNPP to Aquino.”  They didn’t actually pitch the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant to Aquino. They pitched it to media at an orientation seminar and tour of the mothballed nuclear power plant in Morong, Bataan.

What did the experts tell media?

They said economic development is dependent on power. Bangladesh and our Asean neighbors are planning to go nuclear and we will be left behind if we do not address our power needs by going nuclear now. Fe Medina, special technical assistant at the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute, called on Aquino to keep “an open mind” and “look scientifically” at BNPP and not do what his mother did.

Mauro Marcelo, manager of the nuclear energy core group of the National Power Corp., assured media that nuclear power is safe. He said, and I’m quoting from this newspaper’s report, that “the industry currently uses high-quality design and construction; uses equipment which prevents operational disturbances; uses redundant and diverse systems to detect problems, control damage to the fuel and prevent radioactive releases.” Fe Medina echoed Marcelo’s assurance. “The nuclear energy industry, which is strictly regulated, would not allow any defect in a nuclear power plant because that would diminish the credibility of the industry,” she said.

Marcelo added that “being a ‘green’ energy source because it has the least carbon footprint, a stable supply of energy and cost-competitive, there is currently a “nuclear power renaissance” with the growing number of nuclear-power plants being built worldwide.”

Experts opposed to nuclear power were not included in the media briefing so if one wanted a balanced presentation he would have to undertake his own research.

My Google search revealed that opposition to nuclear power is grounded on threats to health, environment, economics, nuclear proliferation, and the unsolved problem of nuclear waste disposal.

“These threats include health risks and environmental damage from uranium mining, processing and transport, the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation or sabotage, and the unsolved problem of radioactive nuclear waste. They also contend that reactors themselves are enormously complex machines where many things can and do go wrong, and there have been many serious nuclear accidents. Critics do not believe that these risks can be reduced through new technology. They also argue that when all the energy-intensive stages of the nuclear fuel chain are considered, from uranium mining to nuclear decommissioning, nuclear power is not a low-carbon electricity source.” Nor is it cheap.

The US, the world’s most scientifically advanced country, has not found a solution to the problem of nuclear waste. It recently ended its three-decade quest to turn Yucca Mountain in the state of Nevada as the main permanent storage site for radioactive waste because it realized that the site was vulnerable to climate change. That means 75,000 metric tons of spent fuel will continue to be stored in 122 temporary storage facilities spread over 39 states and the US nuclear power industry will keep spending billions safeguarding them until a permanent site or solution is found. Meanwhile, US nuclear waste from 104 commercial reactors grows at 2000 metric tons every year.

There is, as of today, no viable technology that can solve the problem of radioactive waste. Reprocessing is not a solution because that technology is prohibitively expensive–a reprocessing plant costs at least $40 billion – and although plutonium separated from reprocessing can be repackaged as mixed oxide and used in place of low-enriched uranium, plutonium can also be used to make a nuclear bomb. So there is a constant threat of theft and proliferation associated with reprocessing.

Fe Medina told this paper that the Interagency Core Group on Nuclear Energy came up with an information and education campaign to inform the public about the benefits of nuclear power. “Let them decide if they want nuclear power,” she said.

Well, then her advocacy group should present both the benefits and the disadvantages of nuclear power in their briefings.

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