Thursday, January 29, 2009

on Nuclear Plant at Bataan

Strategic Perspective - By Rene B. Azurin
Misrepresenting science
Know the difference between a scientist and a politician? Ask a scientist "what is 2 plus 2?" and the scientist unhesitatingly answers "4." Ask a politician "what is 2 plus 2?" and the politician furtively looks around, leans closer conspiratorially, then whispers out of the side of his mouth, "what do you want it to be?" OK, OK, that’s an old joke, but maybe we should keep it in mind when we hear a politician assuring one and all that the operation of the controversial Bataan Nuclear Power Plant is perfectly safe.

The proponent of House Bill 4631 ("Mandating the immediate re-commissioning and commercial operation of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant") in the House of Representatives, Rep. Mark Cojuangco, has been assuring all and sundry that the operation of the mothballed nuclear plant is completely safe, saying that he "would even take up residence in Morong (the town near where the plant is located) to prove that there was no danger in operating the facility." He did not say how this could constitute such proof.

Anyway, last week, Mr. Cojuangco was reported to have taken a group of his House colleagues on an inspection tour of the Westinghouse-built 619 MW plant "to show that it was still in good condition." Apparently, Mr. Cojuangco also served his colleagues some "scientific data" on the geology of the location plus a lecture on radiation levels and nuclear technology. Reportedly, 190 of his colleagues have already agreed to support his bill.

Let us set aside — for now — the fact that Mr. Cojuangco is the son of the chairman of San Miguel Corporation, a conglomerate that has expressed interest in taking over the BNPP as part of its strategic diversification into the power business. San Miguel, it will be recalled, has also recently acquired major shares in electric power distribution giant Meralco and oil refiner Petron. A big power generation firm fits nicely in the apparent strategic scheme.

For now, let’s focus on the science. Dr. Kelvin Rodolfo, professor emeritus of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences of the University of Illinois at Chicago and a balik-scientist who now teaches at the National Institute of Geological Sciences of the University of the Philippines in Diliman, says that those who are trying to justify the activation of the BNPP have been guilty of "abusing scientific data." In particular, he says that Mr. Cojuangco is "dangerously misrepresenting" the scientific data contained in a paper authored by Dr. Joan Cabato, Dr. Fernando Siringan, and himself and in another written by Dr. Ernesto Sonido and Mr. Jesse Umbal, both on the geology of the BNPP site.

Dr. Rodolfo says that they were "dismayed to find that the explanatory note to the bill cites our work as certifying the safety of the Bataan nuclear plant site." He quotes from said note: "Top geologists have evaluated Bataan and, with the exception of Mt. Natib which is a dormant volcano whose last eruption was estimated to have been between 11.3 [and] 18 thousand years ago (Cabato et al. 2005) and which is ten kilometers (10 km) from the BNPP, could find no anomalies in locating the plant there."

Dr. Rodolfo takes vigorous issue with Mr. Cojuangco’s statements and says, first, that "the BNPP is not 10 kilometers away from Natib, it is on Natib, which constitutes the entire northern half of the Bataan peninsula." Next, he says that they did not estimate the age of Mt. Natib’s last eruption in their paper. What he says they actually wrote was:

"A breach in the caldera of Mt. Natib is the most likely source of a presumed pyroclastic deposit in the eastern bay that is associated with sediments about 11,300 to 18,000 years ago, indicating that a Natib eruption occurred much more recently than previously documented for this volcano." Finally, further quoting from their paper, he says that ".the youngest [faults] show that movements occurred about every 2,000 years, most recently about 3,000 years ago." Thus, concludes Dr. Rodolfo, "judging from the geologic evidence, Subic Bay is well overdue for an episode of faulting and earthquakes."

As pointed out by Dr. Rodolfo, an exhaustive analysis of the geology and geohazards of the Subic Bay area was made by Dr. Ernesto Sonido, formerly geophysics professor of the National Institute of Geological Sciences at UP, and Mr. Jesse Umbal, who obtained his masters’ degree at the University of Illinois and worked with Dr. Rodolfo during the Mt. Pinatubo eruption. In their paper, Dr. Sonido and Mr. Umbal adjudged Natib as "potentially active." They found Mt. Natib, like Mt. Pinatubo, to be a "caldera-forming" volcano, a type which (Dr. Rodolfo says), "characteristically, have very powerful eruptions separated by long repose periods." The Sonido-Umbal study "documented two Natib eruptions that formed large calderas and estimated the recurrence period for earthquakes of Magnitude 6.4 to 7.0 at 22 years; of Magnitude 7.0 to 7.3 at 59 years; and of Magnitude 7.3 to 8.2 at 157 years."

Dr. Rodolfo further stresses that none of the "top geologists" with an intimate knowledge of Bataan has called Napot Point "safe." As an example, he cites Dr. Ronnie Torres, formerly with the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology and now at the University of Hawaii, who warned of volcanism and faulting at the site in 1992: "Natib volcano does not erupt very often but could still erupt." Says Dr. Rodolfo, "as a rough rule of thumb, the longer a volcano is in repose, the more time it has to store eruptive energy".

"In short," charges Dr. Rodolfo, "our science is being abused by a person in governmental authority, either deliberately or out of sheer geological ignorance." That’s heavy.

Beyond geological considerations, there are other issues related to nuclear power in general and the BNPP in particular. These include the risks of operational accidents, the high toxicity of materials handled, the stringent measures required to avoid radiation contamination of surrounding communities, the danger of radioactive material being stolen and used by terrorist elements, and the lack of a satisfactory solution for the final disposal of the tons of radioactive waste created. All these are compounded by the absence of a safety culture and the presence of a corruption culture in the country.

Obviously, serious questions on this matter need to be considered. But for us the public, the question we must first answer is, whose answers should we listen to? Those who represent science, or those who misrepresent it? Scientists or politicians? Well, what do we want the answer to 2 plus 2 to be?

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