Delay in Bataan plant poses test for US nuclear exports

Silence has settled over the site of a 620 MW nuclear power plant at Morong, on nearby Bataan Peninsula. For more than a year, construction has been halted at the-more-than-$1 billion project.

That silence, some opponents of nuclear power hope, will destroy the exports of the United States nuclear power industry. They figure US companies will be regarded as unreliable suppliers and be unable to sell more nuclear plants abroad. These antinuclear groups further speculate that domestic American sales will be inadequate to support these corporate nuclear power divisions. So the opponents expects to achieve their goal of killing nuclear power indirectly by making it uneconomic.

In other words, the Philippine situation is considered a test case that is crucial to the health of the US nuclear industry.

The delay at Morong is partly a reaction to the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania. In June 1979, Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos ordered a full review of the project by a specially constituted Commission of the Safety of Reactor Plants, then officially shut the project down. The plant had become a political hot potato in the Philippines.

Actually, most work had already stopped because of the inability of the contractor, Westinghouse Electric Corporation, to get necessary license from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to export crucial parts of the plant.

In its report, the Philippine commission gave the expensive project its blessing. But it did suggest some design modifications to take advantage of the lessons learned in the Three Mile incident.

But the plant, 18 percent complete, still faced that export license hurdle. Last year, President Carter issued an executive order that environmental matters ought to be taken into account when the Nuclear Regulatoru Commission considered granting a nuclear power plant export license.

Complained a Westinghouse official in Pittsburgh of the NRC, "They took their good time in approving it." The costs of delay in such an enormous project are huge."

But on May 6 the commission did vote, 3 to 1, in favor of giving the project the necessary export licenses, with the chairman, John Ahearne, abstaining.Thus it decided the reactor is acceptable in terms of the risks it poses to the "global commons" of the atmosphere and the oceans.

The commission had earlier decided that no other possible risks come under its jurisdiction. These might include the fact that the reactor is being built fairly near an inactive volcano in a known earthquake zone and within 40 miles of two major US military bases where some 30,000 Americans live.

Mr. Ahearne felt these factors should come under the jurisdiction of the NRC. The opposing commissioner, Peter A. Bradford, held that the threat to the nearby Americans should have been examined.

But the plant still faces two more obstacles.

First, a coalition of six opposition groups has filed suit in the US Court of Appeals demanding review of the NRC decision. IT claims the agency disregarded much available information.

Joining the complaint were the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Philippine Movement for Environmental Protection, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, and the Center for Development Policy.

Reply briefs have been filed by the NRC, the Department of Justice, and Westinghouse, and a friend-of-the-court brief by the government of the Philippines. Oral hearings are to be held Sept. 26.

The second harard is setting on a new price for the project. Agreement must be reached on the cost of the new safety features, the costs of delay, including inflation, and how this is to be financed.

Energy Minister Geronimo Z. Velasco, Finance Minister Cesar Virata, and Solicitor General Estelito Mendoza met with Westinghouse executives in New York in July. Apparently the talks were difficult. No quick agreement was reached.

In any case, Westinghouse has indicated it will not be able to ship vital components until the end of September. The expectation is that the price will rise from its original $1.109 billion to something over $1.7 billion.

Speedy action is important to both the Philippines and Westinghouse.

The National Power Corporation, which is buying the plant, needs it to supply the burgeoning power needs of Luzon Island and especially Manila. Already, because of aging and inadequate oil-fired thermal plants, Manila suffers from frequent brownouts. Each day the newspapers publish a schedule of the time when various sections of the city will lose their power.

Moreover, the demand for electricity on this important island has been growing at about 6 percent per year in recent years. Projections show electricity consumption rising 7 percent a year for the rest of the decade.

"The plant," said Higino H. Ibarra Jr., manager of the National Power Corporation's nuclear services division, "will help solve what would otherwise be a growing shortage."

In addition, the plant could save the nation several hundred million dollars of imported oil each year.

Started in April 1976, the project was scheduled under the contract to be completed by July 1983. Until last year's delay, Westinghouse was moving along so well with construction that it had been expecting completion by December 1982 . Now Mr. Ibarra talks of completion by late 1984.

Westinghouse is concerned that the new NRC review procedure, the court tangle , and the general delay will make it hard for US companies to compete for future nuclear power plant projects abroad. Potential customers won't want to face such a hassle.

A Westinghouse spokesman in Pittsburgh noted that Taiwan has been taking informal bids for two more nuclear power plants and that South Korea also plans to buy two more plants.

"We have got to have the support of our government," he said.

The Philippine National Power Corporation has had to defend the safety of its new plant domestically. It publishes pamphlets rebutting the arguments of nuclear power critics. Mr. Ibarra, taking account of the criticism of employees at the Three Mile Island plant, says that special emphasis is being placed on training operators for the Morong plant. All the operators will have to have university degrees and pass psychological tests. Moreover, he notes that careful studies have been made of the geological history of the plant side to determine its safety.

Earlier, in 1977 and 1978, the project was involved in a controversy as to whether a friend and cousin of President Marcos, Herminio T. Disini, had benefited excessively from the deal as an agent of Westinghouse and lucrative subcontracts on the project.

Westinghouse stated that its fees were "reasonable and proper" and conformed with American and foreign laws. Mr. Marcos ordered the government to take over the three companies controlled by Mr. Disini.

Somehow or other, it appears that most nuclear power projects today must pass through a gantlet of criticism and delay.

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