The Imperative of Nuke Power by Mark Cojuangco

The imperative of nuke power

By Mark O. Cojuangco
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:16:00 03/08/2009

Filed Under: Nuclear power, Government

MY enthusiasm for all things mechanical and technical has motivated me to become familiar with nuclear energy and the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP).

This developed into a desire to translate into layman’s terms the background of nuclear energy, sometimes a tad too technical and foreign for the public. I would like to help put an end to the mindless regurgitation of anti-nuke propaganda in favor of logic and rational thinking.

Allow me to answer a few of the many points raised against nuclear energy in general and the BNPP in particular as a layman who sees the promise of this technology for the country’s development.

Environment, safety

There are two choices left to consider when it comes to efficient power generation—one is to continue with our traditional way of burning fossil fuels (accounting for approximately 65 percent of our current source) and, two, to go nuclear.

How safe is nuclear energy? To put it in perspective is to compare nuclear energy with other resources particularly with what we are currently using. So, the question should be, Is nuclear energy safer than burning fossil fuels? The answer is a resounding “Yes!”

With its capacity to provide the cheapest electricity, nothing is safer than nuclear energy. A nuclear plant does not burn anything, so it does not emit carbon dioxide and other gases that harm the atmosphere, and cause global warming.

Heavy metals

Fossil fuels leave ash laden with heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium, which are dumped in piles and exposed to the elements.

Fossil fuels also leave ash that contain uranium, thorium, radium and radon—radioactive elements that spread in the environment with impunity.

Mankind has come to accept these as normal and safe. Why then pick on nuclear plants which do none of these things?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not for the closure of coal-fired or fossil-fired plants in the country at this time, as we do not have the resources to replace them immediately.

However, I am for their eventual phaseout. We can build nuclear plants for new capacity to take the place of the fossil-fuel plants to be retired. Together with this, we should adopt renewable, geothermal, hydro and other sources of energy that do not contribute to the destruction of our environment, so long as they can economically compete with nuclear energy.

In the 50-year history of the nuclear power industry in the West, including the Three Mile Island incident, not a single person has been killed or injured. The Chernobyl accident in Ukraine, in the former Soviet Union, where 60 people were reportedly killed, was indeed a tragedy.

Sensationalized

This story has been repeated over and over again, sensationalized by anti-nuke lobbyists as having caused the deaths of tens of thousands. But the Chernobyl plant had such an inferior safety design—no containment structure, reactors made of graphite (a flammable material), and absence of peer review and inspection by internationally recognized organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Further, its operators ran an experiment using an untested and uncertified equipment past midnight, during an early morning shift change. It was a practice that would never have been or would ever be allowed in the rigidly structured protocols of the western nuclear power industry.

As a matter of fact, the casualty rate of the commercial nuclear power generation industry, including Chernobyl, is less than or equal to the average casualty rate of the fossil-fuel power generation industry every two weeks.

No other industry can boast of such safety record and the BNPP is part of the western nuclear power industry.

By way of comparison, the Bhopal chemical accident in India in December 1984, which leaked methyl isocyanate, exposed 500,000 people. A total of 2,059 died immediately. An estimated 8,000 died within two weeks of the accident and another 8,000 died since then due to chemical-related afflictions.

The Bhopal accident is considered the world’s worst industrial disaster. Why then is there no strong howl of protest every time we build a new chemical plant? You can search the Internet and the list of industrial disasters goes on and on, many of them single accidents that dwarf the entire 50-year record of nuclear energy.

Aggressive

In this light, I wonder why opposition to nuclear energy is so aggressive? Is it because it is ignorant of the industry, or does it simply refuse to accept how nuclear energy has evolved to become the safest and cheapest source of energy, especially compared with fossil fuel?

I suppose, the answer is that society has decided that the benefits from these processes and industries outweigh the risks. And society has therefore accepted these risks as part of everyday life.

I point this out to show that we must put everything in its proper context. Only then will we be able to make intelligent technical choices that affect our future.

The BNPP design, a pressurized water reactor, is the technology of choice of about 90 percent of all installed nuclear plants in the world.

Its sister plants (same model, same make and built at about the same time) in Brazil, Slovenia and South Korea continue to safely operate and generate cheap and reliable electricity after over 25 years of continuous operation.

Reliability

The BNPP is extra special because additional safety equipment were mandated to be installed at the plant as a result of the Puno Commission Report.

Its sister plants, which continue to operate safely and effectively, were initially ran without adding the safety upgrades that were fitted to the BNPP.

Additionally, the Kori II, the BNPP’s sister plant in South Korea, has one of the best performance and reliability records among nuclear plants in operation.

Can the BNPP explode like an atomic bomb? Absolutely not!

Natural uranium contains 0.7 percent U235. Nuclear fuel contains uranium enriched to between 2 percent and 4 percent U235. A bomb requires uranium enriched to 80 percent U235.

It is for this reason that a nuclear plant, unlike an atom bomb, can never explode. Nuclear fuel is just simply “kulang sa anghang” [lacks punch]. For example, alcohol is flammable and one can ignite brandy but not beer although they both contain alcohol.

Economic cost

One kilogram of uranium is worth $132. Its energy equivalent is 5,000 tons of coal worth $169,000. Of course, raw uranium cannot be used as fuel as this has to be converted into fuel assemblies, which are approximately six times the value of uranium.

Therefore, $132 multiplied by 6 is equal to $792 of uranium fuel assembly. Herein lies the cost and material advantage of nuclear power over fossil fuel.

Nuclear power plants may have higher capital costs but they have extremely low running costs that result in cheap power. One billion dollars for a 620 MW nuclear power plant is a bargain considering that this is about the cost of a new coal thermal plant, which will have a disadvantage of P2 to P3 per kWh in generating cost.

Since the BNPP will generate 4.5 billion kWh per year, this will work out to be P9 billion to P13.5 billion of disadvantage per year for the new coal plant, not to mention the four- to five-year construction time.

We have all heard about Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” Unfortunately, there is a “Second Inconvenient Truth,” and this is the fact that for the world to address the first inconvenient truth, it will have to vigorously control carbon emissions.

The only way to achieve this, according to Nobel laureate Mark Jaccard, is for the world to impose taxes on carbon emissions. Should this happen, countries without nuclear power will find themselves at an extreme economic disadvantage. Are we going to wait for this to happen? Can we not see the handwriting on the wall?

Anti-nuke rhetoric

We would have wanted to cover many more issues that are relevant to nuclear power, but due to the limited available space, we are constrained to be contented with what has been said here. It would not do justice to try and shorten the issues into sound bytes and catch phrases.

What is required of our society is no less than a shift in paradigm.

This is no easy task. Sometimes it takes more lengthy and detailed explanation. It is my hope to cover other issues of the nuclear power debate, such as waste and spent fuel, health, and renewable energy in some other forums.

In closing, let me say that we have answered many of the untruths and outright lies about nuclear power, its safety, reliability and cost.

We have heard many assertions from the anti-nuke lobby and the most ridiculous thus far is that the dormant Mt. Natib will wake up if the BNPP is activated.

We challenge any self-respecting scientist to agree with this assertion. It is outrageous. This just shows how low the anti-nuke lobby will stoop in the furtherance of its misguided agenda and how certain groups have abused their power of hegemonic pluralism.

Electricity generated by nuclear plants

 Country Number of reactors Electricity from nuclear power (percent)

France 59 77
 South Korea 20 35
 Japan 55 28
 United States 104 19
 Russia 31 16
 United Kingdom 19 15
 India 17 3
 China 11 2

Source: National Geographic, February 2009

2 Comments

  1. Ryan James
    Posted February 28, 2010 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    Best of luck to you Mr. Cojuangco. I don’t know why the leftist/marxist elements of the propaganda complex are so opposed to clean, productive nuclear power. You list over 300 plants at the end of your article in 8 different countries. These plants produced no 4 armed children or Godzilla lizards. The technology that we have has only been increased by the accidents at 3 mile island and Chernobyl. You addressed that question well in your TV appearance last night.
    Clean, cheap energy is and enemy of totalitarianism. The statists will fight you every step along the way. Continue to produce the facts and never quit.

  2. Roberto Verzola
    Posted February 28, 2010 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    This mode of argument is called “argumentum ad hominem”, where you try to stick a label on the other side (and a false one at that!) rather than argue about issues themselves.

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