Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Amid fears of a meltdown, tolerance for nuke power melting among Japanese


From Tokyo, this blog’s “informal correspondent,” my son-in-law, Keiichi Miki, an investment banker based in the Japanese capital and married to my daughter Christine, emailed today on the situation there. Part of his email is as follows:

“The real impact of the tsunami is now being revealed. Historically, the coastal areas in Tohoku have often been hit by tsunamis and they had always been well prepared in the past. But the size of last Friday’s killer quake was just so big---magnitude 9.0 is the biggest in modern history and such a quake only happens once in 1,000 years (the last one as big as this was in A.D. 860). The quake spread over 400 km of the sea bed area and it hit the coast so fast, just 30 mins after the quake. The size of the tsunami was as much as 30 feet, which was beyond any imagination. A coastal town called Minami Sanriku is worst hit. The whole town was completely swept away and of the 18,000 population, some 10,000 are still missing.

“ I felt so sorry to see people on TV who lost family, friends, home, their town and jobs. I’m hopeful to see rescue operation taking place now, with 35 countries sending rescue teams to Japan, including the Philippines through ASEAN. Some of our friends overseas are offering support through donation and my company, Lazard, and I will also do our part. The search of people under the rubbles has started and many are now being rescued. This will take days and weeks, and, they need many more helicopters. Current death/missing toll is 2,500 and it will likely continue to increase.

“The situation of the nuke plant seems to have improved, and  I think the worst case scenario has been avoided (which is a total meltdown---BOC). Given that the degree of calamity is beyond expectation, I think  the nuclear plant officials have done a good job minimizing the damage. Media, however, is so hysterical and they attack the government, which is not constructive, for what people need is collective support.

" To me, one offshoot of the problems caused by the Magnitude-9 earthquake in the nuke plants is that the Japanese will become much less tolerant about building nuke power plants, when this is, in fact, much needed to keep the energy costs low in the face of the rise in oil price.”

Japan operates 55 nuke plants

 Keiichi and I have had conversations about nuclear energy in the past, and he has always supported popularizing its use even for the Philippines as it industrializes, arguing about the rising cost of imported fossil fuels as supply declines.  For a highly industrial like Japan which does not have oil, there may seem little choice indeed but to promote nuke energy; right now, including the six that have problems due to the killer quake, Japan operates 55 nuclear plants all around the country. With the problems in those six crippled plants, however, Japanese economic recovery from the ravages of the killer quake and tsunami, conservatively estimated at the moment at around $100 billion, may be severely hampered.

                                      Collateral Damage

Keiichi is right, though: with the terror spawned by the “partial” meltdown which could still deteriorate to a total meltdown (meaning, scattering radio-active material into the atmosphere over God knows how large a territory, depending on the wind factor), one collateral damage of the killer quake is the decrease in the tolerance of the Japanese people for nuclear power (to put it understatedly).

. In fact I suspect that it’s not only the Japanese, but also the Americans, the world's leading users of nuclear energy (despite the notorious San Andreas Fault), the French who rank next to the Japanese as the third-biggest users with their 42 plants, and the Chinese who operate about 30 nuclear plants, who would be assiduously studying how the Japanese cope with the potential for meltdown. The whole world, in fact, will be studiously   re-appraising nuclear power and its frightening risks from hereon. 

This grandma hopes and prays, especially for the sake of her little family there, which includes her son-in-law Keiichi and her two-year old grand-daughter, Tamako, and the greatly suffering Japanese people that it doesn’t have to come to such a catastrophe as a nuclear meltdown.

Involvement in anti-nuke group here

 This blogger, then a political reporter for the Mr. & Ms. magazine of the "mosquito press," was very much involved in the efforts of the second-generation of oppositors to stop the opening of the Marcos-constructed Bataan Nuclear Power Plant in the mid-‘80s. Our group included the late Raffy Recto, Sr.Aida Velasquez, Tito Guingona, Jimmy Guerrero, Nene Pimentel, Bert Romulo and one or two others. We were all against the BNPP for many reasons (e.g., it was built astride a fault line and was shot through with so many defects, perhaps because the American builders had already paid the fat commissions ahead to the Marcos administration and were no longer as careful about ensuring safety standards). 

           Not anti nuke per se, but Pinoys not ready for it

But even then, my involvement didn't mean that I was against nuclear energy per se. In various columns in the Inquirer over the years, I recognized the finiteness of fossil fuels and I often felt uncomfortable about the way the Arab countries wielded power in the world geo-political scene because of their dominance in oil.  But I also stressed---and continue to stress---that perhaps we Filipinos are not ready for nuke plant operation, given our laxity in operational procedures and enforcement of regulatory functions, which in turn stems from our “bahala na” and "pwede na" attitude toward life and our obvious lack of discipline as a people. 

 This realization struck me with some impact after the big typhoons that hit Pangasinan a year and a half ago, when it was shown in congressional hearings that our officials couldn’t even make sure  that the huge San Roque dam there could release its excess water at the critical time. There was also a  much-publicized airport incident outside Manila, where traffic controllers failed to report to work on time because of the long holidays and nearly caused traffic accidents.  If we can't handle dams and airport control towers, how can we handle nuke plants? 

  Moreover, nuclear energy is so expensive and disposal of wastes remains a problem for nation-users.

Japan's quake may have rendered BNPP irrelevant

In the 14th Congress, Pangasinan Rep. Mark Cojuangco tried to push the operation of the BNPP which was ordered shut down by the Supreme Court, then headed by Chief Justice Claudio Teehankee, in the mid-80s, due to manifestastions by our group about numerous defects in the plant's construction. In the Cory administration, the BNPP had absolutely no chance to operate since she was surrounded by first-generation anti-nuke advocates like Joker Arroyo and Rene Saguisag, and Sen. Lorenzo Tanada, their guru, was then still alive. Mark . Cojuangco won a number of adherents in the House, but his campaign to open the BNPP failed to take off because of too much resistance to the “Monster of Morong.”

In this new 15th Congress, his wife, Carmen "Kimi" Cojuangco, who had gotten elected to Mark’s old seat last May, has sought to carry on his crusade. Just before the Japanese killer quake struck, in fact, Rep. Kimi was pressing the Energy Committee, chaired by Batanes Rep. Henedina Abad, to already calendar the BNPP issue in the House agenda. Unfortunately that killer quake may have rendered the nuke plant that squats on a fault line in Bataan irrelevant forever.


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