One of the many things I learned from my unconventional Economics professor last semester is the importance of a sustainable and cheap source of electricity in the economic growth of a country. During one of our meetings last year, he mentioned in passing the infamous Bataan Nuclear Power Plant. Now I have heard of this project ever since grade school but I thought it was one of those off-limit places commoners like me aren’t allowed to see so imagine my excitement when I found out that it’s open for public tours as long as you have the diligence to send e-mails and patience to wait for a reply. The plant is open from Mondays to Fridays by appointment only so if you’re interested, you can send a letter of request to Mam Cora Baluyot at firstname.lastname@example.org. And please send my regards to her, not that I think she still remembers me. I just am very grateful to her and the whole team’s hospitality.
Now back to the power plant. I bet two things that first come to mind when most people hear about nuclear energy are Nuclear bombs and the danger of radiation. I myself have seen (at least in pictures) the horror of the atomic bomb and unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are aware of the effects of radiation emitted by the Fukushima power plant in Japan. No wonder we dismiss the idea of Nuclear Power as something the Philippines is not ready for.
You’re in for a treat when you visit Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) also known as the very-expensive-project-which-didn’t-even-run-before-it-was-shut-down. Before the actual tour of the facility, everyone is required to attend a seminar about the history of BNPP and an overview of how Nuclear power plants work. If, like me, you’re curious about usually useless things, you will surely enjoy the talk given by Mam Cora (more so if you’re an engineering or science student). I’m not gonna write about her lecture in detail because I want you to go visit the plant yourself. All I want to share is the feeling of panghihinayang (‘regret’ isn’t quite it so let’s stick with Filipino) I had after the tour. Okay, I’ll share the stuff I remember but if my memory doesn’t serve me right, I apologize and stand corrected.
For starters, why is Nuclear power such a big deal? (1) It’s cheap. If BNPP is up and running, it can power the whole Bataan Peninsula and neighboring provinces and the price of electricity will be 1/6 of what it costs us today. (2) It’s more environmentally friendly. Unlike other power plants which run on coal and gas, Nuclear plants use Uranium ores as fuels and they emit the least amount of carbon dioxide. In addition, unlike fossil fuels which are depleting in an alarming rate, uranium ores are still a fairly stable source of energy for the next 50 (or was it a hundred?) years. Pictured below is a uranium ore. It’s so tiny but it can power the plant for a long time (can’t remember how long tho). Yes, we were *this* close to having a functioning nuclear power plant we already had truckloads of uranium ores delivered to us ready for action only to be sold again after the plant was deemed dangerous.
According to Mam Cora, many foreigners visit BNPP because once a Nuclear power plant starts operating, one cannot simply enter its premises. Unfortunately, BNPP is in a sorry state. It was raining when we visited and water was dripping in some areas of the plant.
The section where the plant pumps water in and out of the plant. That’s why plants need to be near bodies of water. When hundred thousand liters of water is pumped into the nuclear reactor, heat turns it into steam which rotates the turbines thereby converting mechanical energy into electrical energy (YEAH SCIENCE!).
What if there’s a tsunami and we suffer the same fate as Fukushima? BNPP is very vulnerable because it’s near the sea! According to Mam Cora, the tallest tsunami recorded in the Philippines is 6 meters above sea level (masl) somewhere in Mindanao. Meanwhile, Fukushima is located 10 masl. BNPP? Well, it’s only 18 masl, more than twice the tallest tsunami recorded in the country.
Next stop is the nuclear reactor chamber, the most sensitive (and important) part of the whole plant. What if the Chernobyl incident is repeated? Again, according to Mam Cora, Chernobyl didn’t follow international standards in the first place because it was originally a military facility so when radiation leaked, it went directly into the atmosphere. Unlike Chernobyl, BNPP has what is called a containment structure (it’s the cylindrical-shaped portion of the building when viewed outside) composed of 1.5 inch thick stainless steel (the same one used in Golden Gate bridge, Hoover Dam and the Empire State), 1 meter annulus space and 1 meter thick concrete wall. In addition to that, the containment structure is surrounded by rubber to protect it from earthquakes. Lastly, I’m gonna have to take Mam Cora’s word that if a Boeing 747 aircraft clashes with the structure, the plane will be destroyed and the structure will get by with minimal damage.
Part of the nuclear reactor. Even though this beauty was never used, Mam Cora assured that it can still function. In fact, if ever the government decides to make the plant operational, the building, the tubes and the reactor will remain as is. Most of the repairs will go to the wirings and the system (approximately 25% would have to be changed).
The power generator section where the heat energy is converted into electrical energy and then stored in cables for distribution. Going here is not for the faint-hearted because you have to climb several flights of stairs. Our guide explained that the place is big because the machines here are also big and the space is needed during repairs.
There are many controversies surrounding BNPP. One side says opening it again will cause more trouble than good. The other claims certain businessmen are against the facility because it will hurt their lucrative electricity business. Whether or not I support the plant is still something for me to decide. Nevertheless it saddens me that a sister plant of BNPP named Kori 1 is still up and running in South Korea after more than 2 decades and it was so profitable it managed to fund the next few power plants the country put up.
All I can think about is that we lacked the guts to gamble on BNPP. And now we’re falling behind. I was shown a list of Nuclear Power Stations per country and our neighboring nations are tapping into the possibility of nuclear energy. China currently has 17 operating plants and is constructing 32 more. THIRTY TWO FOR CRYING OUT LOUD. Visiting the plant is a bittersweet experience.
Next stop was Dambana ng Kagitingan (Shrine of Valor) on top of Mt. Samat. It’s 8 or so kilometers from the highway and on another time I would have loved to walk the way but we had to be in Manila before dark so I begrudgingly hired a tricycle for 400 pesos round trip. I really don’t have much to say except that it’s a really nice place to appreciate the view and learn about what transpired during the last days of World War II. My Economics professor once said that the downside of our generation is that we are born into affluence. We only know famine and war from textbooks and movies and we live in a relatively peaceful society. As a result, we are complacent, narcissistic and apathetic. To some extent, I agree. That’s what memorials are for. Just like what it says, our generation’s mission is to remember because if we don’t, we might fall into the vicious cycle again. The things we enjoy today came with a price. #NeverForget
History is one of my waterloos back in grade school and high school because I sucked at memorizing. But the older I get, the more I realize I should have paid attention more to my teachers and my books. Not so much on the dates but on the why’s and how’s.