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Fear should not deter progress

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In the aftermath of the damage caused by the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami on six nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan, there have been knee-jerk reactions from several sectors demanding that the Philippine government reject the building of nuclear plants for electricity.

This is not surprising at all considering that every time there is a threat of destruction, death or disease anywhere in the world, Filipinos react as if the event that triggered the fear happened in their neighborhood. When news broke out that anthrax was found in several mails in the United States, every other Filipino wore gas masks for weeks and those who could afford, bought nearly all available supply of the expensive cipro antibiotics. When news of the bird flu outbreak broke out, Filipinos wore masks again.

It is no wonder then that when somebody started circulating text messages that radiation from the damaged Japan nuclear plant would reach Philippine shores last March 14, Betadine, a brand of potassium iodine known as an antidote to radiation, was sold out in nearly all drug stores in Metro Manila within minutes, and the Polytechnic University of the Philippines even sent home its students that day.

With the radiation risk posed by the possible meltdown of at least one of six reactors of the Fukushima plant nuclear plant, the opponents of the use of nuclear energy as a source of electricity for the Philippines saw an opportunity to step up their opposition to nuclear plants while some of the proponents, including former Rep, Mark Cojuangco, reconsidered their support for the plan.

The knee-jerk reaction of many people to the nuclear crisis in Japan proves that fear remains the biggest obstacle to science and progress. And yet, history tells us that many advances in science and technology that eventually led mankind to enjoy comfort and luxury in daily life would not have been made possible if those who invented them had not overcome fear.

For example, if the Wright brothers had not overcome the fear of falling from the sky and breaking their bones or killing themselves in the process, we would probably still be rowing or sailing our way from the Philippines to the United States for months. If Magellan had not overcome the fear of falling from the edge of what was known then as a flat earth, we would not have known that the world is round.

When the Titanic sank in its first voyage, shipbuilders did not stop building huge ships and, in fact, built even bigger ones, enabling millions of men and women to enjoy cruises. When the first commercial airplane crashed, McDonnell Douglas or Boeing did not stop making airplanes and the airlines did not stop ordering them, making travel faster, more comfortable and less expensive. When a space shuttle exploded on takeoff, the NASA did not stop the shuttle program, and space science is the better for it.

Accidents, like mistakes, are part of the risks people have to take to achieve progress, and inventors, scientists and engineers make sure they learn from them so that the next plane, ship or space vehicle that they build would be safer. The Chernobyl meltdown happened and killed hundreds of people, but that did not deter nuclear engineers from building more, safer and better nuclear plants all over the world.

The Fukushima reactors were built 40 years ago, long before the Chernobyl disaster and were not built to survive tsunamis, although they were secured from strong earthquakes. The newer ones have been built to withstand the strongest earthquakes and tsunamis.

Despite the advent of modern technology, there remains that fear of the unknown in the Philippines that continues to hamper the country’s progress. The country has the most expensive electricity rates in Asia, even higher than Japan’s. This and the frequent brownouts have turned away foreign investors and have drastically reduced productivity levels. Consequently, the unfavorable power situation has resulted in the failure to generate job employment.

Almost every year, particularly during El Nino years, the Philippines is hit by crippling power shortages. Such shortages have affected nearly all sectors of Philippine life, not only business and industry, but health, education and commerce as well.

While several countries have been using nuclear plants to provide their power needs for decades, the Philippines has hesitated to embrace nuclear energy, which, without any doubt, will be the only reliable source of energy in the near future.

There are 434 operable nuclear plants in the world, 53 more under construction, and 432 either planned or proposed.

The United States is the biggest producer of nuclear energy with 104 operable nuclear plants, another one under construction, and 30 more planned or proposed. France is next with 59 existing plants, followed by Japan, 53 operable, 2 under construction, and 13 planned; Russia, 31 existing, nine under construction; South Korea, 20 existing, six under construction; United Kingdom, 19 existing; Canada, 18; India, 17 existing, 6 under construction and 23 more planned; Germany, 17 existing; Ukraine, 15 existing; South Korea, 20 existing, 6 under construction and 6 more planned; China, 11 existing, 18 under construction and 125 planned or proposed; and Taiwan, 6 existing and 2 more under construction.

It is no coincidence that these countries are among the richest and most industrialized in the world. The emerging economies have also joined the bandwagon – Thailand, which is planning to build two plants, with four more proposed; Indonesia, planning to build two and also four more proposed; Vietnam, planning to build two plants with eight more proposed; and United Arab Emirates, planning to build three with 11 more proposed.

This list alone should tell us that nuclear energy is the way to go in the future, and that the Philippines should no longer hesitate to come to grips with this reality. Failure to face this reality would leave the country farther behind our neighbors.

While there are laudable efforts to find alternative sources of energy, such as putting up windmills to harness the power of the wind, putting up solar panels to harness the energy from the sun, and putting up ethanol plants to produce fuel from sugar, corn and other agricultural products, we all know that these alternative sources of energy cannot even come close to the amount of power produced by turbines using oil or coal. Even at maximum production in the foreseeable future, these alternative sources can only provide 20% of the world’s energy needs, according to scientists.

We all know that in time, the world has to turn to other sources of energy because oil and coal are so expensive, their supply is seriously depleting, and they have caused so much harm to the earth’s atmosphere, resulting in alarming weather phenomena such as global warming, El Nino and El Nina, drought and many other global problems.

Nuclear energy is the only viable alternative to oil-fueled and coal-fueled power. Nuclear plants can produce significant quantities of electricity, and are generally comparable in output to coal plants. There is no need to worry about interruptions to the power supply: as long as there is uranium, there will be power. More importantly, the cost of electricity will be greatly reduced and the supply uninterrupted.

As to the supply, while like all sources, the supply of uranium is not going to last forever, at least it is more easily accessible than oil, and lasts much longer. Also, about 24% of uranium resources are in Australia, and 9% are in Canada, which are not politically unstable regions like the major sources of oil, such as the Middle East, Azerbaijan, and Venezuela.

While we must all pause to contemplate on the tragic events that are happening in Japan, including the danger of radioactive contamination, they should not stop us from looking to nuclear power as a solution to our energy needs.

By Val G. Abelgas




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