Bataan Nuclear Power Plant

[OPINION] Where, oh where, would BNPP’s fuel come from?

Kelvin S. Rodolfo
[OPINION]  Where, oh where, would BNPP’s fuel come from?
'Would it not be more prudent for the Philippines to develop its own renewable sources?'

The following is the 12th 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.

In the Explanatory Note to his House Bill 4631 to activate BNPP, Mark Cojuangco expressed his concern that the alternative to nuclear power would be to import increasingly expensive oil and coal. But if the Philippines decides to make much of its energy with uranium, it would still place itself entirely at the mercy of foreign sources.  

Where is uranium?

Interestingly, Australia has overwhelmingly more uranium reserves than any other country – a full third. But it is only the world’s third exporter. And it produces no nuclear power! Australia’s lone reactor produces only medical isotopes, not electricity. Do the Australians know something that Mark Cojuangco doesn’t? Many of their politicians are Cojuangco-like nuclear advocates, but Australia also has many strong anti-nuke organizations. May their tribe increase.

According to the World Nuclear Association, the world mined 53,498 tons of uranium in 2018. None of it came from the Philippines. It is found in minable quantities only on the continents.  

As this figure shows, most of the world’s uranium come from politically unstable countries. Their names and production values are labeled in red. Starting in 2004, Kazakhstan started using a new “in situ leaching” extraction method, which pumps sulfuric acid or other chemical fluids into the underground ore deposit through a field of drill holes, and pumps it out with the dissolved uranium through other holes:

This increased its output explosively, to more than 40% of the global supply in 2018. If we add the production from Niger, Namibia, Uzbekistan, and the Ukraine, these unreliable sources together provide 60% of the world supply. 

Being so dominant in the uranium market, whatever happens to Kazakhstan will greatly affect both the availability and the price of uranium. It was governed by dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 until 2020 when, at age 80, he stepped down, replaced by duly elected Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a reformer. How well Tokayev does, we will just have to see. 

But the country is corrupt, according to the 2020 International Corruption Perception Index, which ranges from New Zealand and Norway tied at #1 = least corrupt to Somalia at #179 = most corrupt. Kazakhstan is pretty corrupt at # 94 — pretty bad, but, I’m ashamed to admit, a little better than the Philippines at #115. Susmaryosep.

Kazakhstan has an atrocious human rights record, largely owing to four decades of dictatorship, during which bad habits got deeply ingrained. This will continue to be a source of instability. The country also worries with good reason about neighboring Russia, and has supported the Ukraine in its struggle against Vladimir Putin because it could be next.

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Is spent fuel a good source of fuel?

Nuclear enthusiasts are fond of saying that radioactive waste can be reprocessed, not only to reduce its volume and longevity, but also to recover uranium and plutonium to use as new fuel. House Bill 4631 provides for this.

But the Philippines would have to send its spent fuel to a reprocessing plant in Japan, or to France, where the AREVA plant dissolves nuclear waste to separate the uranium and plutonium for reuse.  

Filipinos need to heed what a genuine nuclear expert has to say about reprocessing. Physicist Frank von Hippel is a MacArthur Fellow and a founder of Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security, the journal Science & Global Security, and the non-governmental International Panel on Fissile Materials. 

Von Hippel says that the fuel recycled in France and Japan is several times more expensive than fresh uranium reactor fuel. Indeed, it is so costly that other nations have stopped sending their waste to AREVA. Reprocessing and plutonium recycling create so much new radioactive waste that the overall volume is not reduced.  

The isotopic makeup of the recycled plutonium makes it useless for reactors, and so in France it is simply stored at the AREVA plant in La Hague, shown here.  

“All in all, reprocessing…amounts to an expensive way to shift France’s radioactive waste problem from its reactor sites to the reprocessing plant,” Von Hipple says. Japan’s reprocessing managers would prefer to store the waste in dry casks, but are not allowed to do so by local governments, and so are trapped into either expensive reprocessing or shutting down all 53 Japanese reactors.  

Furthermore, “…[r]eprocessing is enormously dangerous. The amount of radioactivity in the liquid waste stored at France’s plant is more than 100 times that released by the Chernobyl accident. That is why France’s government set up anti-aircraft missile batteries around its reprocessing plant after the 9/11 attacks…. Even more dangerous, however, is the fact that reprocessing provides access to plutonium, a nuclear weapon material.”

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Thorium?

The heavy, metallic, silvery element thorium was discovered in 1828 by Jöns Jacob Berzelius, a Norwegian who named it after the Norse god Thor. For fifty years, nuclear propagandists have been touting it as an abundant alternate to uranium. Mark Cojuangco’s House Bill to activate BNPP parroted that claim in 2008: 

“There is also another as yet under-exploited source for nuclear fuel. It is the element thorium. It is four times more abundant than uranium in the Earth, and it increases the total source of fissile material by more than 400%.”

Propaganda, propaganda… 

After half a century of propaganda, no reactor uses thorium, and a reactor designed to use it has not yet been built. The technology is simply unworkable. Those facts in themselves should give the lie to the claim, no? But let’s look at how this is supposed to work anyway.

Almost all natural thorium is its isotope Th 232. It is indeed quite abundant – the 41st most abundant in Earth’s crust. Th 232 is weakly radioactive, but unlike uranium 235, it’s not “fissile” – it can’t decay enough to start a chain reaction and keep it going. Scientists call it “fertile” but not “fissile.” Like a fertile woman who could bear children but isn’t pregnant, it needs outside help.  

To become fissile, thorium needs to be bombarded in a reactor by neutrons from enriched uranium or another radioactive source. These initial neutrons would do two things: At first, they would start and sustain the chain reaction, generating all the reactor’s energy.  

Meanwhile, neutrons from the U235 would also start radioactive events that ultimately convert thorium 232 atoms into highly radioactive and very fissile uranium 233, which would then take over the nuclear-producing role of the uranium 235. We will look more deeply into neutrons and radioactive processes in another Foray.

Would it not be more prudent for the Philippines to develop its own renewable sources? In 2018 we were already the world’s third largest producer of geothermal energy: 1.868 terawatts, equal to three times the 621 megawatts of the BNPP. Our volcanoes and geothermal heat are plentiful throughout the archipelago. We also have wind, solar, and oceanic energy in abundance.  

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This series of Forays will end on an optimistic note, by looking in detail at the many renewable sources of energy that Filipinos can tap to become fully energy-independent.

But for now, what’s next? Our next two Forays will examine how intricately intertwined nuclear power and nuclear weaponry are. – Rappler.com

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

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.

Previous pieces from Tilting at the Monster of Morong: