Bataan – Is There Hope?

by Will Davis

Last week, I brought you the sordid tale of the Shoreham nuclear plant – a plant which was completed and started up, but which for a host of reasons was destined to never put power on the grid.  The plant sits today as a shell – disabled in a nuclear sense (as the key components were removed) but visible as a reminder of the terrible political, managerial, historic, activist and regulatory confluence that killed it.

Of course the passing notion occurs as follows:  “What if the plant were intact, and we could start it up now since we’re really focused on clean power these days?”  Indeed, an opportunity lost.

SURVIVOR IN THE PACIFIC

We now turn our attention to the slightly improbable but nevertheless extant Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) in the Philippines.  Using the Krsko NPP in Slovenia as a reference, this nuclear plant was ordered in 1976.  Westinghouse provided a two loop pressurized water reactor plant for the project.  The Philippine government needed to satisfy heavy and increasing demand as well as hold off the effects of oil price and supply; the plant seemed a natural if not obvious or widely-approved idea.

Depending on who you ask, the BNPP was negatively impacted by regulatory drift, or by the TMI accident, or by corruption, or simply by the same sorts of problems that have accompanied many plants built in those days which led to schedule and cost overruns.  The political upheavals and removal of a dictator at the time, Ferdinand Marcos (who had backed the plant) cannot have helped it and it may be true that the Chernobyl accident finally killed it, at least for that time.  Without getting into these details it suffices to say that the plant was completed well after the date originally planned and then not started up.  The amazing part of the story comes after then, as for all these intervening years the plant has been actively preserved as a government asset with the view to, someday, operating.

Graphic from National Power Corporation of the Philippines shows preserved assets related to BNPP.

Graphic from National Power Corporation of the Philippines shows preserved assets related to BNPP.

The Philippines’ National Power Corporation has, from the time the plant was completed in 1985, maintained the nuclear plant itself as well as other facilities related to it in a state of readiness; although the cost to the economy has been widely questioned (now reportedly over $600,000 per year), the potential clean energy value of the plant has been significant enough in the intervening decades to lead to the continued preservation of the plant.

The perennial question has thus been “When will this plant be started up?”  The answer has seemingly approached many times, as study after study either shows the restart possible and safe, or else shows that the island nation could use the electricity.  None of those studies or political pushes has however resulted in a restart.

ROSATOM SAYS “CAN DO”

In May of this year, Rosatom (the Russian state nuclear enterprise) revealed that its analysis of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant showed that it was in fact not only possible but safe to refurbish and restart the plant.  Rosatom VP for Southeast Asia told GMA News that his company’s expert analysis of the plant showed that “it is possible to rehabilitate” the BNPP, GMA News reported on May 13.

The plant still, naturally, retains all of the 1970’s-1980’s technology it was built with in terms of instrumentation and control, and while there have been cases of plants being restarted after years of storage with such technology (TREAT at INL comes to mind) it may well be that new equipment would be required.  It’s the cost of fixing or replacing all the equipment that leads some to believe that it might be better to build a new nuclear plant on the site (perhaps an SMR?) or even run the electric infrastructure to shore and make accommodation for a floating nuclear plant like the Akademik Lomonosov being completed right now in Russia.

Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power has also filed a plan with the Philippines to refurbish and restart the plant; according to ABC-CBN News at least one Chinese and one Argentinian firm are also interested in taking the project.  Clearly, for the first time in a while there’s a line of companies eager to help the island nation restart the plant.

And restarting the plant is beginning to make more and more sense.  Not only does the Philippines burn a lot of coal to produce electricity, leading to pollution, it also has very high electric power costs.  Worse, the nation’s power demand is expected to triple by 2040.  Much more than Bataan might be needed, but it would be the shortest start.

For now, though, BNPP remains what is has been for the last few years – a tourist destination.  The plant, which even has a tourist-oriented Facebook page, allows scheduled paid tours which help defray some of the storage and upkeep costs.  We can only hope the tours are making converts of some who formerly opposed it.  As the plant is effectively frozen in time, its state remains the same as the world changes around it; perhaps it would be the most fitting story to have 21st century energy and environment problems solved by an almost-real time traveler from the past.

Will DavisWill Davis is a member of the Board of Directors for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. He is a consultant to the Global America Business Institute, a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and he writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is also a consultant and writer for the American Nuclear Society, and serves on the ANS Communications Committee and the Book Publishing Committee. He is a former U.S. Navy reactor operator and served on SSBN-641, USS Simon Bolivar.  His popular Twitter account, @atomicnews is mostly devoted to nuclear energy.

 

2 thoughts on “Bataan – Is There Hope?

  1. James Joosten

    Will’s articles are always interesting. Kudos. This plant is more commonly (and legally) known as PNPP (Philippine Nuclear Power Plant) rather than BNPP. Contrary to the article tho, this plant was not abandoned due to TMI, Chernobyl, regulatory drift, cost overruns, corruption, or any of the things mentioned. The reactor was safely constructed, operationally tested — all at a reasonable cost and schedule. It was abandoned in 1986 for social and political reasons when Cory Aquino (wife of assassinated Benigno Aquino) ran for President and replaced Ferdinand Marcos. Closing the PNPP reactor was a central plank in her Presidential bid. In fact, over 1 million Philippine people urged her to run for President and to clean up the Marcos government. The PNPP reactor was viewed as Marcos’s personal project. Shutting it down as seen as shutting the Marcos regime down.

    The reactor has been in a mothballed state since that time. Although my IAEA safety team had inspected and approved the reactor for startup and operation back then, the political situation nevertheless overtook the science, sound construction, and verified safety. The reactor is no longer safe to operate. After 30 years of just sitting there, a multi-billion dollar refurbishment is now needed to bring it up to current safety standards and operable condition. Two key questions remain: (1) How can the Philippine government win back public support for the reactor? (2) Even if the ultimate cost per kWe for the refurbished reactor makes sense, would the national electric utility really want to invest billions to startup a reactor whose technology will be over 30 years old before the first electron is produced? Most reactors retire due to technical obsolescence by age 40. I guess a third, (often overlooked) point of concern might be the fact that it is built on the side of a volcano.

  2. ROBERT S. WEST, M.D.

    excellent article. Need to have real time and $$ estimates of costs to restart BNPP as well as the cost of upgrades and the KWH/ cost of BNPP vs conventional fossile fuel produced power.
    Thank you!

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