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Power to the people: high-wire act of a plug-in society

By Clayton Jonesa staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 10, 1983

Manila, Philippines

Not far from Manila, the giant dome of an unfinished atomic power plant rises above the rice paddies and mango trees. To poor villagers who will someday run their televisions on power from the nuclear reactor, the plant may be as unwelcome as the rumbling, steaming colcanoes on this island nation.

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The reason: The plant's electricity will likely cost almost four times the world average for nuclear power.

The 620-megawatt Bataan nuclear plant, whose cost is expected to exceed $2.4 billion, ''will be the most expensive in the world'' when completed by 1985, says Robert Bakley of the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

How could such a poor nation get itself into such an expensive pickle over power?

It's easy, for a poor nation which equates modernization with electrification.

In more than half of Asian nations, less than 10 percent of the people have access to electricity. But of all areas of the world, Asia's electricity growth is the fastest. During the 1970s, a 9.9 percent rise in electricity generation outstripped the economic growth in developing Asian nations. It is projected to rise even higher in this decade - 11.3 percent, according to the ADB.

The Philippines, whose Bataan reactor has run into a host of safety, financing, and management woes, is hardly alone in its power problems, India's industry almost came to a halt in 1980 after a virtual collapse of its coal-fired electric utilities. In 1981, Thailand cut out 1.5 hours of prime-time television broadcasting when its power industry could not meet peak demand. Two years earlier, the government fell after it raised electricity prices.

The dawn of electrified societies has awakened the hope of progress in the region, but it has also brought greater problems.

''Many nations have taken on the American philosophy of focusing on big electricity production at the least cost,'' says Yoon Hyung Kim, head of a group assessing the future of electricity in Asia, sponsored by the East-West Center in Honolulu; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. ''Now they are confused about the future of electricity. The costs are just unknown - the environmental and financing costs.''

The more developed East Asian nations of Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea face a vulnerable future in electricity production. Large nuclear programs launched in the 1970s are jeopardized by a slowdown in the rate of growth for electricity demand. In South Korea, the rate of growth in demand fell from 18 percent in the last decade to a projected 10 percent in the 1980s. In Taiwan, growth in consumption of electricity is projected at 6.9 percent for the 1980s, compared with 13 percent during the '70s. For Japan, the 10 percent rate of growth in consumption during the 70s is expected to fall to 4 or 5 percent in this decade.

As a result, these three nations have 40 to 60 percent excess capacity of electricity, Dr. Kim says. This is expected to continue through the 1980s, posing a heavy financial burden and raising consumers' electric bills by as much as 50 percent.

If another recession hits, the electricity industries of these nations are in big trouble, Dr. Kim says. ''They are certainly learning from past mistakes. One lesson is that they are planning fewer and smaller plants, focusing on conservation and flexibility.''

Japan expects atomic reactors to contribute some 30 percent of its total electricity consumption by 1990, a jump from 13 percent today. The goal is to reduce oil dependency to below 50 percent of total energy use, according to Hiroshi Murata, vice-chairman of Japan Atomic Industrial Forum Inc. But to beat the cost of a coal-fired or natural-gas-fired plant, the reactors have to be operating more than 62 percent of the time. It was not until 1981 that Japan's nuclear plants achieved such efficiency. If technical or safety mishaps strike in the future, the country is vulnerable.