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.