THIRTY-FIVE years after being mothballed, the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) continues to hound a discredited regime for its “single largest fraudulent” transaction.
Yet post-Edsa administrators—from President Fidel Ramos to Rodrigo Duterte, actually tried, but failed, to revive a “white elephant” or reintroduce nuclear power program in the country, despite the plant’s being deemed “unsafe” and dangerous.
Either they have forgotten—or just simply took for granted—how “people power” battled the threat that could trigger a possible nuclear disaster in the country.
No less than the Department of Energy and the Department of Science and Technology still think that the BNPP failed only because there was “communications problem” or that it lacked a “public relations campaign,” according to social scientist Dr. Roland Simbulan, who chairs the Nuclear Free Philippines Coalition (NFPC).
Perhaps, if only to set the record straight, the NFPC is coming out in October with a documentation of the anti-BNPP campaign in the book Nuclear-Free Nation: the Power of the People Vs. Nuclear Power in the Philippines.
“Fortunately, at every attempt at its revival, the environmentalist and anti-nuclear power advocates have consistently fought tooth and nail against the BNPP revival and nuclear power. Yet we cannot just ignore the fact that nuclear power in the country also entails too much risk,” Simbulan wrote in the book, which he also edited based on the accounts of the people who were at the forefront of the “successful struggle and resistance” to the BNPP.
As Simbulan puts it, “one of the critical issues that we have posed to ourselves or what some people have asked us is, was the anti-BNPP struggle merely a political opposition to the Marcos dictatorship and all its projects? Or is it a deepened and enlightened opposition against nuclear power?”
According to Simbulan, they consider their struggle as part of a “social movement superpower” which led to the 1986 People Power Revolution and later inspired other similar people’s upheavals in many parts of the world, especially those in Eastern Europe.
The 246-page resource book also traced the history of the NFPC, the broad coalition that led such a comprehensive grassroots people’s campaign. The best lesson that can be derived from the NFPC experience, Simbulan pointed out, was the importance of continuing education of the public, the country’s decision-makers and members, as well as in espousing issues and concerns of its organization.
The fundamental lesson of the Filipino people’s struggle against the BNPP, he said, was that despite formidable odds, they needed to trust the “people’s resolve and their capacity, in due time, to redress wrongs and injustices influenced upon them by those in power.”
How it all started
In one chapter, Dr. Jorge Emmanuel, then a US-based chemist and research engineer with the General Electric’s Corporate Research Center, wrote that in 1971, the US State Department instructed its Embassy in Manila to pressure the Philippine government to pursue plans for two nuclear reactors. GE was itself a major nuclear exporter and had competed with Westinghouse for the BNPP contract.
But as early as 1957 when the Philippine Atomic Energy Agency was formed, the Philippines had already trusted the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with reviewing the prospect of nuclear power in the country, he said. The IAEA then recommended three nuclear power plants for Luzon, only to be shelved due to the high cost.
Emmanuel, who eventually joined the international solidarity campaign against the BNPP, said he believed that President Marcos’s decision to install the first nuclear power plant in the country was greatly influenced by the US government, along with the US consulting firm Burns & Roe, and various IAEA reports that “consistently overestimated the growth of nuclear power, underestimated its cost, and disregarded the development of alternative energy sources.”
Preparations for the construction of the nuclear power plant in the Philippines to be constructed by Westinghouse through its “special sales representative” and known Marcos crony Herminio Disini reportedly began in July 1973, nearly a year after the strongman declared martial law in the country.
With the nationalization of electric utilities under martial law, the National Power Corporation (NPC) selected Burns & Roe in April 1974 to prepare bid specifications for the first nuclear power plant project in the country. The contract on the BNPP project was then signed on February 19, 1976.
It was noted that Mr. Marcos ordered the building of the BNPP despite global concerns over nuclear energy following the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania in July 1979. Full construction of the power plant, in fact, resumed after several hearings by the Puno Commission on the BNPP safety two years later.
On June 26, 1981, more than 40 representatives of various organizations and individuals convened the NFPC’s founding assembly.
According to Violeta Mendoza, the longest-serving member of the NFPC secretariat, they originally started as a “desk” program of the St. Scholastica’s College-based Citizens Alliance for Consumer Protection (CACP).
Although the anti-BNPP struggle was fought mainly in the Philippines, Emmanuel said the US campaign, in which he actively participated, eventually contributed by uncovering the extent of technical recklessness in the building of the nuclear plant while helping expand global awareness on the “notorious” BNPP and demonstrating values of international solidarity.
The book classified the first phase of the struggle during the Marcos regime that lasted up to the Corazon Aquino presidency, which finally ordered the mothballing of the BNPP after the strongman’s downfall in 1986.
During that time, a campaign in the local area was also developed, specifically in Bataan province and in Central Luzon, then the site of the two largest US bases in the country, Clark and Subic.
Together with the coalition, the local people in these areas comprised the strongest opposition to the nuclear power plant and the US bases, where nuclear weapons were believed to have been stored.
On December 7, 1981, the first NFPC picket was held in front of the Philippine Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), which had issued a provisional permit for authorized limited work as early as December 1976, although the construction permit from PAEC was only issued in April 1979.
The second phase of the campaign began in 1985 when the Marcos government tried to open and operate the nuclear power plant, which triggered an NFPC-led welgang bayan or people’s strike, that effectively paralyzed transportation and operations in the entire province of Bataan.
Lawyer Dante Ilaya, who co-chaired the Nuclear Free Bataan Movement, considered it “a concrete manifestation of people power, which happened even before the 1986 Edsa uprising. “The people realized that they have to take action against the nuclear plant because they became aware of the consequences that could happen to them,” he wrote.
It sparked a wave of protest actions, along with NFPC petitions before the Supreme Court, questioning the PAEC’s alleged incompetence and objectivity in conducting public hearings. PAEC issued the license to the NPC to operate the BNPPP at an inflated cost of $2.3 billion, nearly four times the initial bid of $600 million.
Their protest actions, Simbulan said, managed to stop the BNPP “in the nick of time. The 1985 Bataan strike and the 1986 People Power revolution also made it possible for an official public policy decision to mothball it afterwards, although the nuclear option remains embedded in the country’s long-term plans.
Local organizer Dioscoro “Kaka” Calimbas noted that right timing and “man-to-man” tactics actually led to the intense struggle. As a result, the anti-BNPP campaign became instrumental in the formation and strengthening of two major community-based pillars of the protest movement—the AMBA-BALA (Alyansa ng Manggagawa sa Bataan-Bataan Labor Alliance) and the Alyansa ng mga Magbubukid sa Bataan (ALMABA).
According to Calimbas, he didn’t think that the government will be able to build another nuclear power plant in the country, “because we have been fortunate and lucky.”
He explained: “Every time they initiate the nuclear project, something happens like the nuclear disasters in other countries.” He cited the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, which stirred more people to fight the BNPP.
When the 621-megawatt BNPP project was mothballed on April 30, 1986, President Aquino cited the report of a presidential committee, which identified 4,000 “technical defects” in the project. It also led to the apparent declaration of a “nuclear-free Philippines” in the 1987 Constitution, which finally incorporated explicit peace and anti-nuclear weapons provisions.
The ban on nuclear weapons eventually became the basis of the Philippine Senate vote on September 16, 1991, rejecting an extension of the bases treaty—and effectively ordering the closure of all US military bases in the country which were believed to have stored and transited tactical nuclear weapons.
On December 15, 1995, the Philippines, along with all the member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), then signed the Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapons Free Zone Treaty (SEA-NWFZT).
Finally, on February 21, 2021, the Philippines signed and ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which declared nuclear weapons as illegal under international laws.
What needs to be done?
Still, there were alarming trends worldwide favoring a possible resurgence of nuclear energy.
Simbulan, for one, cited the rise of “populist, militaristic authoritarian regimes, where states can take advantage and use their unchecked, coercive power to build nuclear power plants while stifling any opposition.”
The nuclear power industry in Asia has not also given up its plans even in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.
“This is even after it had been proven by the most authoritative source that solar power is the cheapest form of energy today and in the future,” Simbulan said.
With the signing of the Renewable Energy Act in 2008, the NFPC declared that it has begun advocating a reform of the country’s energy policy in favor of the environment. “It is important to integrate the principles of sustainable development into a country’s energy policies and programs to reverse the destruction of the environment,” Simbulan said.
As anti-nuke activists continue with their militant struggle, Simbulan proposed complementary actions that will be reinforced by national organizations in the No Nukes Asia Forum Network.
First, the need to continue actively engaging policy makers so that national energy programs no longer include nuclear energy or pollutive coal and fossil oil technologies.
Second, the need to mobilize new resources to finance alternative energy sources and technologies for energy conservation.
Third, encouragement for stronger political commitment to nuclear-free policies in respective member-countries of the network, especially at the local level.
The globalization of resistance to nuclear power, Simbulan said, “is our answer to the assault of international nuclear corporate Mafia.”
Engineer Roberto Verzola, meanwhile, cited how information technology can be a useful guide in anticipating developments in energy technologies. The energy sector, he said, may be undergoing “some very fundamental changes that are more or less parallel to the earlier and still ongoing revolutions in the information sector.”
For Fr. Antonio Dumaual, who chairs the Nuclear Free Bataan Movement, while their experience had helped guide the global struggle, there is a need to strengthen the anti-nuclear consciousness with “more vigilance.”
“Many politicians based their decision on economic warfare. If they are sincere in helping and uplifting our global status, we should do away with selfishness,” said Dumaual, was parish priest in the town of Morong—site of the BNPP—at the height of the protest movement.
‘“With selfishness they only think of themselves; they profit a lot from nuclear and coal, but to the detriment of the weak, poor and majority of the people. I hope they forget their greed.”
Apparently, the struggle is now entering a new phase considering that so-called “nuclear madness”—as one scientist described it—remains a threat in the corridors of power, with dangerous options still being planned to meet a rising demand for energy in the guise of development. This time around, however, the lessons learned from the Philippine experience over three decades ago can now be shared in battling these nuclear giants.
Images courtesy of Google Earth, phiso.org, Robodread | Dreamstime.com and ICQGIRL/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0