Monthly Archives: February 2009

Less wants mean more abundance

Working Paper

Less wants mean more abundance

by Roberto Verzola, rverzola@gn.apc.org

If we make the realistic assumption that people can be satiated, saturated or satisficed when meeting their needs and wants, we can show that wants have a finite bound and are not “infinite”, as many economists tend to assume.1

If wants are finite and their satisficing levels can be determined, then it becomes possible to compute the ratio between consumer demand for a good and its satisficing level for a person. We can call this ratio the state of relative abundance of a good for a particular person. By aggregating demand and satisficing levels for groups of people and entire societies, assuming that all consumers have a satisficing level for some goods, we can determine the state of relative abundance for these goods in a particular society. Since consumer demand is price-dependent, the state of abundance is also price-dependent and would show the same downward-sloping trend as the demand curve.

In fact, due to a number of factors, some societies show much lower aggregate levels of wants compared to other societies. This decreases the denominator of the demand-to-satisficing-level ratio, and suggesting a higher relative abundance level for these societies. Less wants mean more abundance. These “want-reducing” demand-side factors include:

A culture of cooperation

Cooperation among consumers raises the possibility of further improving the aggregate level abundance, given the same supply and individual demands. With common pooling of resources and cooperative consumption, a group of consumers can enjoy through sharing more goods or services and get nearer their satisficing levels, thereby improving their aggregate level of abundance. A car, for instance, may meet the daily commuting needs of one or up to five persons. Compared to books in someone’s shelf, books in a community library – or videos and CDs for that matter, can be enjoyed by many more people. A huge body of literature can be found around common pool resources and the best ways to manage them.2 Perfect cooperation, which leads to more abundance, is as important an economic concept as perfect competition. A properly-managed free commons, like a freely accessible public library of books, CDs and DVDs, can help create more abundance as much as an unregulated free market often leads to artificial scarcities.

Simple living

Beyond the pooling of resources, cultural mechanisms can also bring satisfaction levels and demand down. In some societies, this can be a major factor in improving the level of abundance. Extolling simple living, highlighting voluntary simplicity, focusing on the spiritual aspects of life, or idealizing asceticism are various ways by which some societies have deemphasized material accumulation and enhanced their level of abundance from the demand side. As Gandhi put it when describing his own experiments in voluntary simplicity, “the real seat of taste was not the tongue but the mind.”3

Focusing on needs

Among the entire range of human needs and wants, it can be argued that not all of these should be treated on equal footing. Obviously, grey areas can exist. However, most will surely agree that those necessities which enable each person to simply survive and live his/her natural life span and each society to reproduce itself should be on top of any hierarchy of needs and wants. These include clean air, potable water, healthy food, protection from the elements and disease, and similar goods and services. If a society focuses on such goods and services its efforts to build abundance, the range of needs and wants that need to be satisficed is narrowed down even further.4

The economics of altruism

There have been societies where one’s worth is measured not in terms of how much one has accumulated, but in terms of how much one has given away. Many still admire this ideal and try to practise it occasionally or even regularly.5 Practised widely, altruism can help cut down the highs and fill in the lows in the income distribution. Filling in the lows, in particular, can reduce society’s failure rate, with direct impact on those who most need it. The continuing and even increasing role of charitable foundations, non-profit organizations and similar institutions reflects the persistence of altruism as a factor in poverty reduction efforts.

Economics of fairness

It is not only a sense of altruism or charity that should impel a society to ensure its members’ minimum basic needs, as these needs are called today in development circles. It is also a matter of fairness, justice and equity. We know that something is terribly wrong in the dominant economics of a society like the U.S. when, despite appropriating for itself much of the world’s resources and leading in the development of new technologies, 11% of the country’s adults and 17% of its children still suffer from occasional involuntary hunger.6 It is also from the U.S. where we get an example of a promising approach. The State of Alaska’s Permanent Fund is one example of an effort to guarantee a minimum income for every citizen.7 Many parallel efforts have been launched to develop the concept of a basic income guarantee (BIG).8

We have shown that abundance is a matter not only of supply but also of demand. Where societies are more cooperative rather than competitive, where a simple life of material sufficiency and intellectual/spiritual richness is instead sought after, where those who enjoy abundance are passionate about sharing it, and where the means for meeting the most basic human needs receive the most attention as a matter of right, then the members of these societies can enjoy much greater abundance.

1Verzola, Roberto. 2009. “Finite Wants Make Relative Abundance Possible”. https://rverzola.wordpress.com/2009/01/21/finite-demand-makes-relative-abundance-possible/

2See, for instance, Elinor Ostrom, Thomas Dietz, Nives Dolšak, Paul Stern, Susan Stonich and Elke Weber (eds.). 2002. The Drama of the Commons. National Academy Press, Washington, DC. See also Elinor Ostrom. 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University, Cambridge.

3Gandhi, M. K. 1927. An Autobiography (The Story of My Experiments with Truth). Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad. p. 52.

4 See Frank Rotering. 2008. Needs and Limits: A New Economics for Sustainable Well-Being (2nd ed.). http://members.shaw.ca/needsandlimits/pdf_files/needs_and_limits-2nd_edition.pdf

5The term “gift economy” may not be appropriate to describe this, since gifts are often seen as signalling mechanisms with various other motivations aside from altruism.

6Food Research and Action Center, “Hunger in the U.S.”, http://www.frac.org/html/hunger_in_the_us/hunger_index.html

7Alaska Department of Revenue Permanent Fund Dividend Division. “FAQs”. https://www.pfd.state.ak.us/faqs/index.aspx. See also Alanna Hartzok. 2002. “The Alaska Permanent Fund: A Model of Resource Rents for Public Investment and Citizen Dividends”. Earth Rights Institute. http://www.earthrights.net/docs/alaska.html

8The U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network. “What is the basic income guarantee?” http://www.usbig.net/whatisbig.html

Earthquakes can trigger nuclear plant accidents

Rep. Mark Cojuangco of Pangasinan and Dr. Carlos Arcilla of the National Institute for Geological Sciences of the University of the Philippines (NIGS-UP), in their Feb. 2 presentations at the Congress hearing on the Bataan nuclear power plant (BNPP), both claimed that the BNPP site had already been hit by an earthquake greater than magnitude 6 without any damage. On this basis, they assure the public that the BNPP can withstand powerful earthquakes.

Their logic has one major flaw: the BNPP was not operational when the earthquake hit.

An operational nuclear plant would have a huge pool of cooling water around the reactor core, and would also have in storage hundreds, perhaps thousands, of drums of radioactive waste water which are susceptible to accidental spillage, especially during an earthquake.

Such an accident is not only a possibility. It has already happened.

The biggest commercial nuclear power facility in Japan, the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa facility, was hit by a magnitude 6.8 earthquake in July 2007. Officials originally claimed that 100 drums in one of the several NPPs in the facility tipped over, but later admitted that 400 drums had actually tipped over and spilled their entire contents on the plant floor. The plant has been shut down since then. One of the plant’s video cameras also recorded one-meter waves in the pool of water around the reactor core, spilling some of the water on the floor.

For details, just search “earthquake hits nuclear plant“.

The earthquake that hit the BNPP site was of a similar magnitude, which gives us a good idea what could have happened had the BNPP been operational when the earthquake hit.

If the quake causes cracks in the pool or breaks pipes and leads to a loss-of-coolant accident, it could even be worse.

No nuclear plant deaths outside Chernobyl?

At the Feb. 2 hearing in Congress, when Rep. Mark Cojuangco of Pangasinan defended his proposal to recommission the Bataan nuclear power plant (BNPP), he claimed that no deaths have occurred in a nuclear power plant accident outside Chernobyl.

As a resource person in the same hearing, I had called his attention to this wrong information. Addressing him directly, I told Cojuangco that several deaths have occurred in Japan due to nuclear plant accidents. Prof. Kelvin Rodolfo had also complained about Cojuangco’s “distortion” of one of his papers, co-authored with Joan Cabato et. al. If a casual checking of his claims right away reveals such misinformation, how can we trust the rest of the claims in the Cojuangco bill and explanatory note, which were not accompanied by feasibility studies done by experts, I asked.

On Feb. 20, Cojuangco spoke as a resource person at the Kamayan sa EDSA forum on the BNPP. In the forum, he repeated the falsehood that no one has died in a nuclear accident outside Chernobyl.

Now, if someone makes a mistake once, even if that mistake is made in an official testimony at a Congressional hearing, he can perhaps be forgiven for getting his facts wrong. But if his attention is called about it, the least he’d be expected to do is to double-check his facts and correct the mistake.

To repeat the same falsehood in another public forum, after having been told that it is not true, suggests a deliberate intent to mislead the public.

The first death in a U.S. commercial nuclear facility occurred in July 1964, as described in this New York Times story.

In their 1982 book Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America’s Experience With Atomic Radiation (the entire book is available online here), authors Harvey Wasserman and Norman Solomon review the trail of deaths in the U.S. caused by atomic radiation. Chapter 14, entitled “People Died at Three Mile Island”, describes the elevated death rates among infants along the path of the radioactive plume that came from the TMI accident.

Here’s another New York Times report of a nuclear plant accident in a Virginia nuclear plant in the U.S., which scalded four people to death. It occurred in December 1986. The burst steam pipe accident is similar to another deadly nuclear accident that would subsequently occur in Japan, described below.

A serious accident occurred at the Tokai-mura nuclear plant in Japan (this one is a fuel processing plant rather than a power plant) in September 1999, and two of the exposed workers subsequently died from exposure to radiation, as described in this journal article.

Here’s a report from the New Scientist about the Mihama nuclear plant accident in August 2004, which “killed four people and injured seven.” This is also a burst steam pipe accident. An extremely detailed description of the Mihama accident can be found in this accident database, which contains detailed descriptions of 12 other serious nuclear accidents.

I got these reports simply by searching the Internet for “death from nuclear plant accident”.

Searching for “injuries in nuclear plant accident”, I came across this report of two deaths in a Pakistan nuclear plant accident in 2008, although this accident seems to involve a plutonium enrichment plant rather than a power generating plant.

There have been, of course, more injuries than deaths, but I didn’t bother counting anymore.

By the way, I have been counting actual deaths reported in scientific journals or media. But some scientists have a much higher estimate of the number of deaths from the accumulating radiation in our environment. Very much higher. The highest I’ve seen is this report (search the Web: nuclear deaths).

UPDATE: in a public forum on the BNPP last April 16, 2009, held at the Negros Occidental provincial capitol in Bacolod City and sponsored by the Freedom from Debt Coalition, with the provincial governor Isidro Zayco, Congressman Jose Carlos Lacson, and several other local officials among the audience, Rep. Cojuangco and I were the main speakers. I raised this issue once more. In fact, to avoid embarrassing Cojuangco, I said he was “getting very poor information from his staff”.

Incredibly, Cojuangco stuck to his false claim.

How do you deal with such audacity? I simply asked the audience to check for themselves, with the search term “nuclear plant accident death”. Some government officials, it seems, do not yet realize that it is not so easy to fool the public anymore, thanks to the Web.

At one point in the Bacolod debate, he claimed that Sweden was already getting 95% of its electricity from nuclear plants. Although I didn’t know the actual Sweden figure, I questioned this claim because I knew that France, at around 80%, was often cited as the country most dependent on nuclear electricity. I asked the audience to double-check it. I checked later myself: Sweden’s figure was around 45%.

At some other point in the debate, Cojuangco also corrected me, referring to the $9.5 million I cited as cost of the 1990 NES technical audit which found the BNPP not safe to operate. This amount was reported in the media, quoting government technical consultant Nicanor Perlas. Cojuangco said nonchalantly, “actually it was $8.5 million”, suggesting that I had my facts wrong. Well, it so happened that my next BNPP forum after Bacolod was on April 18 in Iloilo, where Nicanor Perlas himself was also a speaker. Nicky confirmed that it was $9.5 million.

Apparently, this cavalier attitude towards truth (and lies) is simply a Cojuangco debating trick, to score instant points against an opponent.

Is electricity from nuclear power really cheaper?

Rep. Mark Cojuangco of Pangasinan, sponsor of the bill that will rehabilitate for recommissioning the Bataan nuclear power plant (BNPP), claims that electricity from a rehabilitated BNPP will be cheaper, although he hasn’t done any real feasibility study on the economic and financial aspects of BNPP rehabilitation.

What he cites are figures from countries like France, where the main source of electricity is nuclear power and electricity costs are lower than other countries of Europe, the U.S., one of earliest pioneers in nuclear electricity, or India and China, who seem intent on expanding their nuclear generation capabilities.

What Cojuangco misses is that nuclear electricity appears cheap because of the huge government subsidies that nuclear R&D receives. For many countries, the civilian applications of nuclear power are secondary to their military applications. Governments set up nuclear plants because they want to have the Bomb, regardless of the cost. It is this strategic objective to become a nuclear power that justifies their huge subsidies to the nuclear industry.

Even if some local politicians secretly harbored an ambition to become the first ASEAN country with the Bomb, our Constitution prohibits such a thing. Thus, in our case, civilian nuclear applications must stand on their own, without any subsidy at all from the government. If it has to carry the full burden of costs for exclusively civilian applications, it is highly doubtful that nuclear electricity would be cheap. No one can say at this point, of course, how expensive or cheap BNPP electricity will be. That is precisely why economic and financial feasibility studies are necessary.

In fact, Japanese anti-nuclear activists have long been demanding the privatization of the electricity industry in Japan. Like us, Japan is also prohibited by its constitution from exploring military applications of nuclear power. Japanese activists know that if nuclear power plants in Japan were privatized and had to operate with no government subsidy, they will not be competitive in the electricity market and will soon be replaced by conventional plants.

Yet, without any economic or financial feasibility study to support his claims, Cojuangco continues to insist that a rehabilitated BNPP will bring the cost of electricity down.

Electric bikes for sustainable transport

When I saw a neighbor’s electric bicycle today, I was impressed. Here was a good example of the new possibilities for sustainable transport.

The electric bike, which he bought from a bicycle shop in Caloocan, cost P17,000. It is made by LBH Co. of China. The e-bike comes with a maintenance-free 36-volt lead-acid battery. The battery powers an electric motor built into the rear axle. However, the rider can still use the foot pedal if he wants to, which takes the load off the battery. If he pedals fast enough, or when going downhill, the battery is automatically recharged. The battery is also easily detached for recharging from any 220-volt outlet. He spent a few hundred pesos more to replace the single-speed plate with a three-speed one, for higher speed pedalling.

My neighbor says he finds the battery power most useful on uphill climbs, or when he is too tired to pedal. Normally, to keep fit, he pedals to work and back.

The battery can last for five hours of riding, up to eight hours if he uses the foot pedal intermittently. He has used it to travel from Manila to Bulacan and back.

Because it is considered a bicycle, it needs no registration, license or other bureaucratic requirements. As a bicycle rider, he can go on sidewalks, counter-flow, and do other things normally allowed bicycles. The bike does look like a bicycle more than a motorcycle. The only giveaway is the elongated battery under the seat and the wider-than-usual rear axle, which contains the electric motor.

Here is the ideal personal transport for city-riding. Replace the lead-acid battery with a fuel cell of the future, and the design will even be more environmentally friendly. This is true 21st century transport. If the e-bike is used widely here — and the government should strongly encourage its use by allowing, for instance, tax-free importation — we can significantly reduce the pollution coming from the increasing number of motor bikes in metropolitan areas.

A most strongly recommended replacement for motorbikes. Cheaper, good for one’s health, and good for the environment.

BNPP feasibility study: Cojuangco has none, doesn’t want any

I finally got a chance to engage in a discussion Rep. Mark Cojuangco of Pangasinan, sponsor of the bill to recommission the Bataan nuclear power plant (BNPP). The occasion was the Kamayan Forum last Feb 20, Friday. Aside from Cojuangco and myself, Beau Baconguis of Greenpeace was also on the panel of resource persons.

Cojuangco presented his usual arguments: that most oppositors were against nuclear power per se, that nuclear power was becoming a major power source in other countries, that no one outside Chernobyl had died in a nuclear accident (not true! Cojuangco should fire his staff who gave him this falsehood!), that Patrick Moore, a Greenpeace renegade was now pro-nuke, and that the Pope was also pro-nuke.

I left it to Beau of Greenpeace argue the details of the anti-BNPP side of the debate, which she did very well.

Addressing myself directly to Cojuangco. I said I was looking not for a debate about nuclear power per se, which will not be resolved for a long time, but was after possible areas of agreement regarding the BNPP in particular, where discussions can be more specific.

It was clear, I told Cojuangco and the audience, that Cojuangco didn’t have any recent feasibility study on the technical, economic and financial aspects of the BNPP, or he would have already presented them in Congress. I said Cojuangco was basing his claims of safety and affordable electricity on studies during the Marcos period, and on Internet accounts of experiences of nuclear plants in other countries.

I mentioned that three technical studies had been done during the Aquino administration: a technical review sponsored by the U.N. Center for Transnational Corporations in 1986, a technical audit by a U.S. nuclear consultancy firm in 1988, the NUS Corporation, and another audit by a 50-person team of international nuclear experts in 1990, and all three concluded that the plant was not safe to operate. I said I am aware of Cojuangco’s argument that these studies were politically-motivated. Whether this is true or not, these are the latest available and the burden of proof was on Cojuangco to prove otherwise. I would repeat several times that Cojuangco had not commissioned any expert studies, which he never contradicted.

I further mentioned that the BNPP had been designed and constructed based on the nuclear safety standards of the 1970s, that standards evolve, and that they are updated when major or minor accidents occur. So nuclear safety standards are much stricter today than they were in the 1970s.

I said it was therefore very important, before Congress decided whether or not to commit $1 billion to rehabilitate a 22-year old plant, for the necessary studies to be conducted first. I also added that such studies would be more useful if they also compared the BNPP option with other options, such as energy efficiency, geothermal, solar, wind, biomass and so on, so that our policy-makers could prioritize their appropriations accordingly, especially since some options (like fossil fuel-based plants) where getting more and more expensive while other options (like solar and wind) were getting cheaper and cheaper. So even if some options may not be viable today, they might be viable five years from now, when the BNPP goes online if Cojuangco has his way.

Cojuangco said explicitly, that he did not want any feasibility study. What he had in mind, he said, was a “validation process, which would at the end make a definite decision whether to operate or to dismantle the nuclear plant”.

I had no problem with the term “validation process,” I said, as long as it would be conducted by an independent body, that their conclusions were not predetermined, and that civil society would have some representation within that body to assure ourselves that the process was conducted fairly.

I asked Cojuangco if he would be willing to sponsor himself a bill to fund the creation of a body that will conduct such a validation process and, in the meantime, to hold in abeyance his bill mandating the immediate rehabilitation and recommissioning of the BNPP.

He said he planned instead to amend his bill. I asked what time frame he had in mind for the independent body to conduct the “validation process”, but he didn’t answer the question.

By the way, this was not a back-and-forth exchange, which may be the impresssion created by the above account. Cojuangco kept on referring to his own Internet research about nuclear plants in other countries, told stories about his childhood days in factories owned by his grandfather and father, responded to other questions from the audience, and would also refer to my challenge and respond to it. I actually had a very limited chance to pursue my point, and couldn’t press him when he chose to avoid the issue.

My personal assessment after this discussion with Rep. Mark Cojuangco: he has no real feasibility study on the BNPP itself; all he has are the results of his highly selective browsing over the Internet (choosing the positive, ignoring the negative); he doesn’t want a real feasibility study by an independent body; but he couldn’t find a valid reason to oppose one; he has become so personally and emotionally involved in his nuclear power advocacy that he has lost his bearings and will push through his pet bill to rehabilitate the BNPP, come what may. When someone from the audience read to him the adverse findings of a 1990 technical review, he just went on citing his Internet findings, as if he heard nothing. He refers to people as anti-nuke per se. But Cojuangco himself appears very much like a pro-nuke per se.

Unfortunately, Cojuangco seems to enjoy a deep wellspring of friendship and support from his colleagues in Congress. Even those who privately acknowledge they are against the BNPP could not back out of their co-sponsorship of the bill out of friendship.

Cojuangco’s real friends should talk to him and convince him to ease up, and to let an independent validation process take its course. And should that process go against his pet bill, he should even be thankful because it would save the Cojuangco name from being associated with the most expensive while elephant in our history.

Passing arguments to Python functions

[I wrote this in 2006, while developing the Halalang Marangal (HALAL) software for processing election reports sent in as text messages. It may still be useful for Python programmers. I made minor changes for clarity. For the non-technical reader: Python is a programming language like BASIC, Fortran, Pascal, C, Java, etc. It was my language of choice when I was looking for a language to implement the software I’m referring to above.]

I initially found it hard to understand the use of * and ** in python functions. Now I think I do. I’d like to share my understanding with other beginners who might be struggling with these concepts.

What is the difference between the following definitions?

def nostar(a): print a

def onestar(*a): print a

def twostar(**a): print a

I was curious myself so I loaded the python interpreter and tried the following:

>>> nostar(1)

1

As expected. Formal parameter a received the value 1.

>>> nostar(1,2,3)

Traceback (most recent call last):

File “”, line 1, in ?

TypeError: nostar() takes exactly 1 argument (3 given)

Of course. Nostar() only expects one argument (a). Sending it more causes an error.

>>> onestar(1,2,3)

(1, 2, 3)

Hmmm. Onestar(*a) apparently means: all (i.e., *) arguments go to the argument a. So, the form “def f(*a)” allows one to define functions with a variable number of arguments. Ok. Let’s now look at twostar(**a).

>>> twostar(1,2,3)

Traceback (most recent call last):

File “”, line 1, in ?

TypeError: twostar() takes exactly 0 arguments (3 given)

What is this? The formal argument **a, apparently means the function expects no arguments at all. What does it expect then?

>>> twostar(a=1,b=2,c=3)

{‘a’: 1, ‘c’: 3, ‘b’: 2}

So, functions defined using the form “def f(**a)” expect key/value pairs (i.e., **), which are then passed on to the receiving function as a dictionary.

To summarize: “def f(a)” is the standard format for defining a function, which is then called by passing it one argument. “def f(*a)” is useful for defining functions with a variable number of arguments, which are then passed as a single tuple to the receiving function. “def f(**a)” is useful for passing key/value pairs, not single arguments, which are then passed on as a dictionary to the receiving function. I think I get it.

By the way, the three forms can be combined as follows:

def f(a,*b,**c):

All single arguments beyond the first will end up with the tuple b, and all key/value arguments will end up in dictionary c. For example, f(1,2,3,4,5,d=6,e=7,f=8) should put 1 in a, (2,3,4,5) in b, and {‘d’:6,’e’:7,’f’:8} in c. Let’s see if it does. Let’s define f first:

>>> def f(a,*b,**c):

… print a,b,c

Now, let’s call the function:

>>> f(1,2,3,4,5,d=6,e=7,f=8)

1 (2, 3, 4, 5) {‘e’: 7, ‘d’: 6, ‘f’: 8}

Right. Note that the dictionary printed its contents in an order different from the order the arguments were passed. Dictionaries do that. Unless you sort them, you can’t predict the order of the contents. (So, they shouldn’t have been called dictionaries, right?)

We’re not done yet. What is the difference between the following calls?

test(x)

test(*x)

test(**x)

This is what I learned:

test(x) # the function test must be defined with one argument. For example, def test(a):

test(*x) # x must be a sequence (list, tuple, etc.) with as many items as the arguments in the function definition

test(**x) # x must be a dictionary of key/value pairs, with as many pairs as the arguments in the function definition

Ok. Let’s try it out. Let’s define test:

>>> def test(a,b,c): print a,b,c

>>> test(1,2,3)

1 2 3

As expected, I called test with 3 arguments and it printed the three. What if x is a sequence (a list or a tuple)? Let’s see:

>>> x=(1,2,3)

>>> test(x)

Traceback (most recent call last):

File “”, line 1, in ?

TypeError: test() takes exactly 3 arguments (1 given)

Again, as expected. We fed a function that expects 3 arguments with only one argument (a tuple with 3 items), and we got an error. If we want to use the items in the sequence, we use the following form:

>>> test(*x)

1 2 3

There, x was split up, and its members used as the arguments to test. What about the third form?

>>> test(**x)

Traceback (most recent call last):

File “”, line 1, in ?

TypeError: test() argument after ** must be a dictionary

It returned an error, because ** always refers to key/value pairs, i.e., dictionaries. Let’s define a dictionary then:

>>> x={‘a’:1,’b’:2,’c’:3}

>>> test(**x)

1 2 3

>>> test(*x)

a c b

Ok. The first call passed on the values in the dictionary. The second call passed on the keys (but in wrong order!). Remember, ** is for dictionaries, * is for lists or tuples.

Enough.

BNPP cannot be proven safe, says technical consultant

There is another compelling reason why the Bataan nuclear power plant (BNPP) should not be recommissioned.

It needs a little backgrounder, though.The details below can be found in the book Debts of Dishonor Vol. 1 (1991). The book contains a study entitled “The Philippine Nuclear Power Plant: Plunder on a Large Scale”, which I had co-authored with journalist Ed Santoalla and researcher Mae Buenaventura.

On April 30, 1986, three months after they assumed power thanks to a peaceful people’s uprising, Cory Aquino and her cabinet arrived at a unanimous decision not to operate the BNPP for safety reasons. The decision must have also been hastened by the Chernobyl nuclear accident, which had occurred on April 26, just four days earlier.

Saddled with a multi-billion dollar while elephant, the Aquino government also decided to look at various legal avenues for redress, given that people in government knew how commissions had been paid by Westinghouse to some top government officials to ensure that it got the contract, not its competitor, General Electric.

For this purpose — I am quoting from our study now — “the Aquino administration created the Presidential Committee on the Philippine Nuclear Power Plant (PC-PNPP) to study the legal options available to it in connection with the decision to mothball the nuclear plant.”

One of the things the Committee did was to commission a U.S. nuclear consultancy firm, NUS Corporation, “to organize and manage a technical audit of the plant.”

“The audit was actually conducted by an NUS-assembled international and multidisciplinary team of over 15 nuclear experts from the US, Germany, Brazil, South Korea and Japan. … The team looked into the field implementation of the plant design, quality assurance and control, and construction practices, among others. It also visited the plant site, interviewed the personnel of the PNPP, PAEC [Philippine Atomic Energy Commission] and AIEA [the international agency for atomic energy], and inspected and reviewed all documents pertaining to the facility.”

Six major audit findings were highlighted by the audit team:

  1. deficient fire protection systems,
  2. unusually large number of field change notices or FCNs,
  3. test programs that do not meet local and foreign standards of acceptability,
  4. safety-related electrical components do not meet physical separation requirements,
  5. anchor bolts and baseplate installations do not meet regulatory standards, and
  6. potential seismic interaction problems endanger the safety of the plant.

I will focus on the second and third audit findings. The second “suggested that controls over design changes and installation of components in accordance with appropriate criteria were inadequate.” According to the third finding, “some systems were not tested thoroughly. The scope and design of some tests were inadequate. Some systems were tested in isolation from other systems with which they normally interact.”

One of the technical consultants to the Committee, as well as to a Senate ad hoc committee on the BNPP, Nicanor Perlas, has come out in the media last February 9 with a very powerful argument why the BNPP should not be recommissioned. Perlas says, referring also to the study above, that “the plant’s most serious defect concerned its Quality Assurance Programme, which the experts found to be sloppy and below regulatory standards. This meant that there was no way to determine if the strict, precise procedures in the construction of a nuclear plant were followed which would have ensured that the plant was safe and the design specifications of Westinghouse Electric Corp., which sold the plant to the Philippine government, were met.” You can find the full story about Nicky Perlas here.

This is the most important part of Nicky’s argument: he says that according to the NUS report (we should try to get a copy of this report), the BNPP subcontractors made very poor documentation of the BNPP construction process — not enough to prove that the construction process followed the strict international standards required of nuclear plants. So, it cannot be established from the records kept by the subcontractors if the BNPP was safely built or not.

I’ll give one example of what this means: suppose the specifications said that the reinforced concrete must use steel rebars at least 2 inches in diameter. The use of the 2″ rebars during construction work must be well-documented so that any subsequent review can establish that the design specifications were actually met. Once the construction is done, these steel rebars will be buried or encased in feet of concrete, and there is no way anymore to check if indeed 2″ rebars were used. What Nicky is saying is that there very poor documentation about these things.

So this means that after we spend $1 billion to rehabilitate the plant, upgrade all equipment, replace ageing parts, etc. etc., when we then apply to the IAEA and other international bodies for the permission to operate, they will in turn ask us to establish that the specifications were met. Of course, as explained above, this is not possible anymore because of poor documentation.

So, we will have spent another $1 billion, on top of the $5 billion plus already spent, including interest, for a plant that will most probably not get a permit to operate. Of course, a political decision can be made to allow it, despite lack of documentation.

However, the IAEA can be expected to be very strict about these things. All it takes is another major accident to trigger another round of stricter standards nuclear plants worldwide, which will make entire global nuclear industry to grind to a halt and to spend billions of dollars more just to meet such new standards.

I can’t imagine the Philippine Congress approving such an astoundingly ill-considered proposal to recommission the BNPP. Unless, perhaps, some members of Congress, browsing quickly at the bill’s title, vote to approve because they misunderstood the word “recommissioning”, if you know what I mean.

BNPP safety: whose burden of proof?

Pangasinan Representative Mark Cojuangco wants the Philippine government to spend up to $1 billion to recommission the Bataan nuclear power plant (BNPP). Yet, he has presented no recent technical, economic or financial feasibility study to back up his claim that, once operational, the BNPP will be safe and will produce cheap electricity. And it is clear that he has not done or commissioned any such study. He could only cite the feasibility studies done during the Marcos presidency, more than thirty years ago.

With regards to the safety of the BNPP, three relatively more recent studies had been made, when the Aquino administration decided to mothball the plant. In 1986, they asked U.N. Center for Transnational Corporations to do a technical review. This was followed by a detailed technical audit by the NUS Corporation, a U.S. nuclear consultancy firm, which assembled a 15-person team of experts from the U.S., Germany, Brazil, South Korea and Japan. Its report was submitted in 1988. A third study was commissioned by the government in 1990 by 50 nuclear experts from the U.S. and Europe. These studies all concluded that the plant would be unsafe to operate.

From 1986 when it was mothballed to the present, the BNPP lay idle. In the meantime, given the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986, international and national regulatory authorities have further raised their safety standards.

We must remember that the BNPP was designed and built according to old, pre-1986 standards.

To claim that the BNPP will be safe to operate today, and will furthermore produce cheap electricity, the burden of proof is on Cojuangco to show that this is so.

And so far, the public has seen no such proof.

OpenOffice: how to put diacritical marks ov̅er̂ letters

I’ve been looking for a solution to this problem for sometime, and I finally found it.

Letters with all kinds of marks above them, called diacritical marks, are used very often in courses based on maths. The marks have interesting names like bar, hat, curl, cup, etc. Added on the letter x, for instance, they would look like this: x̄ x̃ x̂ x̅ x̆ ẋ ẍ x̊ x̋ x̌ x̍ x̎ x̐ x̑.

Here’s how I do it on my computer, which runs Kubuntu, a system based on the Debian distribution of Linux/GNU:

Type the letter you want (x, for example).

Press alt-I P to insert special characters.

You’ll find OK on the upper right corner of the window, as usual.

To the left of OK, you’ll find a choice of character sets: Basic Latin, Basic Greek, Arabic, Cyrillic, etc. What you want is the set that says Combining Diacritical Marks.

If you choose any of these diacritical marks, they will appear not after the preceding letter, but above it. Like magic.

Make sure you stay within the Combining Diacritical Marks set. I got confused because another set of similar marks comes before this set, but this set is called Spacing Modifier Letter, which doesn’t work.

The method I describe above works on Kubuntu/Debian v8.04. Please leave a comment if it works on your Linux/GNU distribution too.

̑

Studies show more cancers around nuclear plants

Rep. Mark Cojuangco of Pangasinan wants the government to raise up to $1 billion to recommission the Bataan nuclear power plant (BNPP), which has been idle for 22 years.

Conjuangco insists, with no recent technical feasibility studies to back him up, that the BNPP is safe and economical, despite previous government studies that say otherwise.

One of the major safety issues against nuclear plants is that their daily regular operation releases minute amounts of radioactive materials that causes human diseases. A number of studies have indicated, for instance, that the incidence of leukemia and other cancers is higher within a 5-10 kilometer radius around nuclear plants.

I have tracked down some of these studies and are making them available here.

1. A 2007 German study by Kaatsch, Spix, et.al. of 593 childhood leukemia cases between 1980 and 2003 found that incident went up as distance to the plant went down. The nearer to a nuclear plant a child was, the higher the risk of leukemia. Download the report here.

2. A 2003 review by Chang, Dave, et.al. found “a consistent pattern of childhood cancer incidence in all study areas <30 mi (48 km) from nuclear plants in the eastern United States”. The study also cites similar studies in Canada, France, Germany and the former Soviet Union which found “elevated childhood carcer incidence rates proximate to nuclear facilities”. Download the report here.

3. A 1996 U.S. review of data by Wing, Richardson, et.al. covering cancer cases ub areas exoised to the Three-Mile Island ITMI) accident. They conclude that “[TMI] accident doses were positively associated with cancer incidence. Associations were largest for leukemia, intermediate for lung cancer, and smallest for all cancers combined”. Download the report here.

While the third study is associated with a major nuclear accident, the first and second studies involve nuclear plants which have not had major accidents of the TMI type. Even without accidents as serious as the TMI accident, nuclear power plants can still causes cancers.

Five years from now, can nuclear plants compete with solar power?

A bill sponsored by Rep. Mark Cojuangco of Pangasinan is being rushed for approval in Congress. If the bill passes, the Philippine government will raise up to $1 billion to finance the recommissioning of the Bataan nuclear power plant (BNPP).

Cojuangco has done no technical, economic or financial feasibility study to support his claims that a recommissioned BNPP can operate safely and economically. The bill’s explanatory notes contains no comparison between the projected cost of BNPP electricity and renewable sources like wind, solar, microhydro, geothermal, etc.

The photovoltaic panels themselves typically comprise about 60% of the total installed cost of a complete photovoltaic system. With solar panel costs approaching $1/watt peak (or $1.7/Wp for complete systems), we are looking at $1.05 billion for 620 MWp). While this is still as expensive as Cojuangco’s unsubstantiated (“supposed”, according to him) $1 billion for the 620 MWe BNPP, the solar power systems can be installed a few hundred peak watts at a time, as needed, and they will start producing electricity immediately, with none of the associated problems of financial risks, nuclear fuel costs, decommissioning costs, nuclear waste disposal problems, various other hidden costs, higher cancer risks around the plant, accident risks, risks from earthquakes or volcanic eruptions

Furthermore, while nuclear costs keep going up, solar and wind generation costs are going down. So any comparison made today will even be more favorable to these renewables five to ten years from now.

Remember that the most expensive parts of a photovoltaic system are the solar panels and the controllers, which are both electronic and made from silicon (which is made from sand). They will therefore show the same economics of scale as computers, LCD projectors, DVD players, and other electronic products, whose prices are steadily going down. With China coming into the picture in as a major producer of photovoltaic panels and controllers, their prices are bound to go down rather fast.

Here’s one industry report about the costs of photovoltaic cells.

Photovoltaic costs to plummet in 2009

11 December 2008 — The cost of photovoltaic electricity is due to plummet in 2009, according to analysts at New Energy Finance. Its quarterly Silicon and Wafer Price Index shows average silicon contract prices falling by over 30 percent in 2009, compared with 2008.

With thin-film PV module manufacturing costs approaching the $1 per watt mark, crystalline silicon-based PV will come under severe competition for larger projects, resulting in margins shrinking throughout the silicon value chain, the company states.

Although the decrease in silicon prices will be good news for silicon-based cell and module-makers, another threat is now looming larger. According to the new report, “Through Thick and Thin,” New Energy Finance forecasts that production of thin-film photovoltaic modules will more than quadruple to 1.9 GW in 2009.

Thin-film PV is less efficient at converting solar energy to electricity, with efficiencies of as much as 11 percent rather than the up to 18 percent displayed by commercial crystalline silicon technology. However, with manufacturing costs approaching $1/watt, it is an attractive option for larger space-constrained applications.

For a ground-mounted plant in a region with good insolation, this could translate into an unsubsidised generation cost of $0.17/kWh for crystalline silicon – competitive with daytime peak electricity prices in many parts of the world. Meanwhile, thin-film manufacturers can achieve unsubsidised costs of $0.13/kWh for the same large project by 2010.

For the full story, see:

http://pepei.pennnet.com/display_article/347606/6/ARTCL/none/HWACS/1/Photovoltaic-costs-to-plummet-in-2009/

Cojuangco’s cavalier method of costing the BNPP recommissioning

Setting aside the more important consideration of safety for the moment, the overall cost of recommissioning the Bataan nuclear power plant (BNPP) as proposed by Rep. Mark Cojuangco of Pangasinan should be a major factor in the decision of the Committee of Appropriations and the Congress as a whole whether or not to approve Cojuangco’s bill.

The Cojuangco bill wants the government to raise up to $I billion to finance the recommissioning of the BNPP. Remember that this is not for building a new plant from scratch, but to rehabilitate for operation a plant that was nearly complete but hss been idle for 22 years.

Where did Cojuangco get the figure of $1 billion? Certainly not from any technical, economic or financial feasibility study, because it was obvious at the Feb. 2 hearing of the Congress Committee on Appropriations he has not done or commissioned any. Here is what his explanatory note to his BNPP recommissioning bill says, word for word.

Cost to rehabilitate

The alternative to the rehabilitation of the BNPP is an equivalently sized coal fired power plant or gas fired power plant.

Such a plant would supposedly cost between U.S. $900 million to $1 billion.

It stands to reason therefore, that BNPP should come in under these costs or at the very worst, at an equal to this cost.

But it is not quite as simple as that because we do have to consider the hidden costs and risks involved in building a coal or gas fired power plant, as I have maybe already overstated.

I personally believe that the cost should be at about half of a new coal fired power plant. My reasoning for such a conclusion will be argued at committee. I do recognize that there may be matters which I have not considered in my estimation of these costs but I am sure that they will be brought out in committee.

That’s it. Cojuangco was looking at what coal plants of equivalent output “supposedly” cost. Then he reasons out that the recommissioning of the BNPP cannot exceed this supposed cost, although he “personally” believes it should be half as much. Not even a single Wikipedia article cited, although he does quote, in the preceding section, Greenpeace renegade Patrick Moore who is presumably more credible. So the bill itself provides for the “supposed” $1 billion instead of the $500 million that Cojuangco “personally believes” should be the true cost.

On the basis of such cavalier costing method, Cojuangco wants the government to collect from all electricity consumers or borrow from abroad up to $1 billion. This admittedly overstated amount is supposed to recommission a 22-year old unused nuclear plant whose safety remains unresolved and whose true recommissioning costs are unknown, if indeed it is still even possible to recommission it.

At least, President Ferdinand Marcos went through the process of commissioning a pre-investment study by the IAEA in 1966. Another IAEA-assisted feasibility study by U.S. consultants financed by the UNDP was commissioned by the Marcos martial law regime, which took power in September 1972. The feasibility study was finished in July 1973, leading directly to a Marcos announcement the same month that the Philippines will build its first nuclear power plant. At this point, the cost estimates for a new nuclear plant were still in the US$600 million range.

Cojuangco does not even have a feasibility study yet.

This is worse than déjà vu.

Cojuangco’s BNPP bill will tax renewables to fund nuclear plant

While the rest of the world want to subsidize renewable energy to hasten our shift to renewables, Rep. Mark Cojuangco of Pangasinan instead wants renewables to subsidize the rehabilitation of a nuclear plant of questionable safely, justifying his proposal not with expert feasibility studies but with Wikipedia articles and sound-bytes from Greenpeace renegade Patrick Moore.

This is what Sec. 22 of Cojuangco’s bill to recommission the BNPP says:

“The State may raise equity through a surcharge of PhP 0.10/kWH of the total electric power generated in the country: Provided, That such collection of surcharge shall not exceed five (5) years from the date of its initial imposition.”

Cojuangco wants to impose a surcharge on all electric power generated, including coal, natural gas, geothermal, solar, wind, microhydro, biogas and other renewables, and use the amount to recommission the Bataan nuclear power plant (BNPP). Because the surcharge is also a fixed amount, this also means that the cheaper the source of electricity, the greater the percentage surcharge that source will have to pay. So as renewables improve their efficiency and performance in the next five years, as they are expected to, they will be paying more, percentage-wise. And as oil-based plants produce more expensive electricity in the next five years as oil prices escalate, they will be paying less, percentage-wise.

So not only does Cojuangco want renewables to subsidize the BNPP recommissioning, he also wants the renewables to carry a greater burden of the subsidy as renewables get cheaper, and non-nuclear non-renewables.to carry a lighter burden as they get more expensive.

If the amount collected is not enough, Cojuangco then wants the government to borrow money, from local or foreign sources, to complete the $1 billion he says is “supposedly” needed to recommission the BNPP. This is what Sec. 22 further says:

“The State is also authorized to enter into international or domestic loan agreements to fund the implementation of this Act: Provided, That the total funds raised from the surchange and the loan combined shall not exceed US$1 billion.”

The government will collect from electricity consumers or borrow from abroad up to $1 billion to recommission a 22-year old unused nuclear plant whose safety remains unresolved?

Déjà vu.

BNPP recommissioning proponent Cojuangco has no feasibility study, only Wikipedia articles

I attended a Congressional hearing today (Feb. 2) held by the Committee on Appropriations on the bill “mandating the rehabilitation, commissioning and commercial operation of the Bataan nuclear power plant (BNPP)”. Safety concerns had led the Aquino government to mothball the BNPP in 1986, before it could start operations. Some congressmen now want the BNPP rehabilitated, after 22 years of non-operation.

The main proponent of the bill is Representative Mark Cojuangco of Pangasinan, who spoke first, followed by a presentation by Ramon Orosa of Atoms for Peace and Dr. Carlo Arcilla of the National Institute of Geological Sciences of the University of the Philippines (NIGS-UP), who said his pro-nuclear position was a personal one and not the official position of the Institute. Rep. Ma. Milagros Magsaysay of Zambales also expressed her support.

For the oppositors, Rep. Edcel Lagman spoke first. Then, oppositor Rep. Erin Tanada of Quezon presented five resource persons to explain why they were against the bill: Dr. Kelvin Rodolfo also of NIGS-UP, Von Hernandez of Greenpeace International, former Rep. Etta Rosales of Akbayan/Freedom from Debt Coalition, Dr. Giovanni Tapang of the Institute of Physics of the University of the Philippines, and myself, representing the Philippine Greens. Rep. Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel also spoke in opposition. I consider Dr. Rodolfo’s presentation to be the most substantial in so far as the risk of operating the BNPP is concerned. His basic message: the BNPP site “has an unacceptably high risk of serious damage from earthquakes, volcanism, or both.”

It was clear from Cojuangco’s presentation that he had not done or commissioned any recent technical, economic or financial feasibility study to justify his proposal to rehabilitate the BNPP. Rep. Lagman had specifically asked if there were any such studies. I had also asked for them in my presentation, so that we could scrutinize their assumptions, arguments and conclusions. Cojuangco subsequently replied that studies have been done since U.S. president Eisenhower’s time as well as under Philippine president Marcos’ administration. Aside from these, all he could cite were some Wikipedia articles, quotes from Greenpeace renegade Patrick Moore and claims that identical NPPs in South Korea, Slovenia and Brazil were still running today with “impeccable safety records,” which was not quite true.

Despite the absence of any recent technical, economic or financial feasibility study to justify his bill, Cojuangco kept asserting that the BNPP would be safe and economical once recommissioned and wanted Congress to authorize that $1 billion be raised through a special surcharge on all electric power generated in the country and through domestic or foreign borrowings to finance the rehabilitation. It sounded like a very reckless approach to me, allotting the equivalent of P47 billion to a project without the benefit of prior study whether it was technically, economically or financially feasible.

Not only could Cojuangco present no recent feasibility study, his proposed bill and explanatory note also contained misrepresentations and false claims. I pointed out a few in my presentation entitled “BNPP Rehabilitation: More Questions Than Answers”. (In subsequent posts, I will dissect Cojuangco’s bill and explanatory notes more thoroughly.)

  1. The assertion that the Krsko, Angra 1 and Kori 2 nuclear plants have “impeccable safety records” is not true at all, as a simple search on the Internet will show. Krsko, for instance, just had a serious loss-of-coolant accident last June 4, 2008.
  2. The assertions citing Cabato et.al. about the last eruption of Mt. Natib, on which the BNPP stands, have been disowned by Dr. Kelvin Rodolfo, one of the authors of the Cabato study, who accused Cojuangco of “abuse” and “distortion” of scientific data.
  3. The assertion of a 3,000 megawatt shortfall by 2012 is now highly questionable, given the deepening global recession affecting every country in the world.
  4. The assertion that no one else has died from an accident in any nuclear plant apart from Chernobyl is simply untrue, given at least six deaths that have occurred in NPP-related accidents in Japan alone.

In the hearing, I raised the question: how can we trust the rest of the assertions in the bill and its explanatory notes, when a casual browsing as we did immediately finds such questionable assertions? I got no satisfactory answer from Cojuangco.

I will post here Cojuangco’s verbatim replies once I get the hearing transcripts.

I found the conduct of the hearing by Rep. Junie Cua, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, quite even-handed. Given the number of congressmen who co-sponsored Cojuangco’s bill, however, there is a good chance it can pass through Congress, despite its cavalier approach of justifying a huge project costing $1 billion or more with empty assertions of safety and low cost unsubstantiated by expert studies. (Apparently Cojuangco did not even realize that Wikipedia articles and sound-bites from Greenpeace renegade Patrick Moore were not good enough.)

If Cojuangco’s incredible bill makes it, then only the Senate can save the nation from another monumental folly.