Bataan Nuclear Power Plant

[OPINION] Activating BNPP would give cancer to workers and adults living nearby

Kelvin S. Rodolfo

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[OPINION] Activating BNPP would give cancer to workers and adults living nearby

FILE PHOTO: The Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) is seen during a media tour around the BNPP compound in Morong town, Bataan province, Philippines September 16, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco/File Photo

Romeo Ranoco/Reuters

'Ever wonder why dentists shield your body with lead before an X-ray of tiny, tiny dosage?'

The following is the 28th in a series of excerpts from Kelvin Rodolfo’s ongoing book project “Tilting at the Monster of Morong: Forays Against the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant and Global Nuclear Energy.

People worry about how a nuclear accident like those at Three Mile Island in the US, Chernobyl in Ukraine, or Fukushima in Japan would compromise Filipino health, should one occur in the Philippines.  Those are certainly valid concerns, but even while operating normally, nuclear power plants elevate the risk of cancer among workers and people living nearby. 

We will devote our next foray to the even worse threat that BNPP would pose to children and fetuses.  But first, let’s ask:

Just how much radiation is ‘ok?’

It’s hard to write for the general public about radiation exposure; there are so many confusing terms for it.  Most are based on the Gray, named after British physicist Louis Harold Gray, who pioneered in measuring how X-ray and radium radiation affect living tissue.  

One Gray or Gy is one joule of radiation energy absorbed by one kilogram of body mass. Let’s just say the joule is the standard unit of energy in the metric system. The Gray is so big that thousandths of a Gy, milligrays or mGy, are significant. Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors experienced 100 mGy.

Of course, the nuclear industry denies or minimizes the harm from radiation.  In 2015, three pro-nuke advocates petitioned the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to raise the permissible levels of radiation exposure for nuclear-reactor personnel, claiming that smaller doses are harmless, like the orange “Linear with Threshold” line below would claim.  

They also invoked “hormesis,” the weird idea that high-dose radiation is harmful but low doses are actually good, stimulating organisms and cells to develop beneficial defenses. In fact, the petitioners said, “absurdly low” limits for permissible radiation actually deprive nuclear workers of a benefit! Those petitions were denied in 2021. 

Safety standards are based on the “Linear No Threshold” model, the red line in the graph.  LNT simply means that any radiation dose greater than zero, even very small ones, will increase the risk of cancer or heritable disease – the bigger the dose, the worse the risk. 

Ever wonder why dentists shield your body with lead before an X-ray of tiny, tiny dosage? 

The US National Academy of Sciences and the National Council on Radiation Protection rely on LNT because it has been derived from extensive studies of Japanese atomic bomb survivors, patients exposed to radiation therapy, and nuclear power-plant workers.  The latest, 20-year study followed 110,645 Chernobyl cleanup workers, and 308,297 workers in the nuclear industry.

LNT indicates that many Europeans who received very low radiation doses from Chernobyl are yet to die.

Potential impact of radiation on BNPP workers 

BNPP’s foremost proponent, former Congressman Mark Cojuangco, nicely symbolizes how the nuclear industry minimizes the cancer risk.  He is fond of saying that “eating a banana exposes one to more radioactivity than standing in front of a nuclear power plant for an entire year.”  He is known for his fondness for getting his information from Wikipedia. 

The harsh reality is, should BNPP be activated, Filipino workers would confront what a 2015 meticulous follow-up analysis of reliable exposure records of more than 300,000 French, British and American nuclear-industry workers has documented.  Solid cancer risks are linearly proportional to radiation exposure down to levels far below the 100 milligrays (mGy) that the Japanese atom-bomb victims absorbed.  The average exposure of the workers was 20.9 mGy; the median exposure was just 4.1 mGy.  From the abstract:

Follow-up encompassed 8.2 million person-years. Of 66,632 known deaths by the end of follow-up, 17,957 were due to solid cancers [27%!].… Results suggest a linear increase in the rate of cancer with increasing radiation exposure.… The study provides a direct estimate of the association between protracted low dose exposure…and solid cancer mortality.  Although high dose rate exposures are thought to be more dangerous than low dose exposures, the risk per unit of radiation dose for cancer among radiation workers was similar to estimates derived from studies of Japanese atomic bomb survivors….

Just another confirmation of the Linear No Threshold model –

The radiation exposure from bananas that Cojuangco refers to, presumably from their Potassium 40 content, confuses direct reactor radiation with radiation inside human bodies from taking in radioactive reactor emissions like Iodine 131, Cesium 137, and Tritium (H3).  These pollute waters, soils, vegetation, and crops far beyond the direct radiations. When inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin, they travel to the bone, brain, thyroid, liver and other organs.  There, they continuously subject cells to alpha, beta, and/or gamma radiation. Eventually, they can induce cancer, sometimes after many years.  

So eating bananas, if they were grown near an active NPP, might be much less safe than Cojuangco might think.  

Studies Linking NPPs and nearby adult cancers 

A 2012 study found that adults living near French NPPs suffer significantly more bladder cancer compared to other populations.  More importantly for Filipinos, recent Korean research blamed NPPs for higher incidences of thyroid and radiation-related cancers in females and males, and female breast cancers. Significantly, there was no abnormally high incidence of the cancers not associated with radiation. 

That study included Kori 2, a Westinghouse sister to BNPP.

Kori 2 and BNPP’s two other sisters

 Former Congressman Mark Cojujangco’s 2008 House Bill to activate BNPP extolled its design for its safety:   

“…BNPP has three (3) sister plants which were constructed simultaneously during the 70’s. These are the Krsko in Yugoslavia (which is Slovenia now), Kori 2 in South Korea, and Angra 1 in Brazil. These three power plants have been in operation for over twenty (20) years now and, we have not heard any news that any one has incurred any minor or major accident. All have impeccable records.”

A month before Cojuangco filed his legislation, Krsko suffered a blackout from a cooling-system leak, causing widespread concern in the European Union. 

In its early years, the steam supply system of Brazil’s Angra 1 kept malfunctioning and forcing shutdowns. For its first 15 years, its “load factor” (average load divided by peak load) was only 25%.

In February 2012, a year after the Fukushima disaster, a cascade of human errors during refueling triggered a blackout of Kori 2 in Korea that was hidden from the public for more than a month.  That September, it was discovered that unqualified Korean companies had supplied thousands of falsely-certified parts to Kori 2 and four other Korean NPPs. 

One commentator explained, “These behaviors have their roots in the history of authoritarian government and strong State corporatism that involved close links between the state and industry and the dominance of a small number of large companies in each sector. Informal personal networks involved politicians, government officials, and corporate leaders and were reinforced by the movement of retired politicians and officials into business associations and companies. The result was regulatory capture of government agencies with industries being left to regulate themselves.”

Sound familiar? 

Given the histories of BNPP’s sisters, and similar Philippine “private-public” corporatism, an activated BNPP appears susceptible to poor performance and accidents, in addition to health issues during normal operations.

Our next foray explores the alarming fact that young children and unborn babies are especially threatened by radioactive pollutants around nuclear power plants. –

Born in Manila and educated at UP Diliman and the University of Southern California, Dr. Kelvin Rodolfo taught geology and environmental science at the University of Illinois at Chicago since 1966. He specialized in Philippine natural hazards since the 1980s.

Keep posted on Rappler for the next installment of Rodolfo’s series.

Previous pieces from Tilting at the Monster of Morong:

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