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Sparks fly over Philippine nuclear plant

The Philippines' first nuclear power plant has turned into the government's biggest ''white elephant.'' The plant, scheduled to begin operating early next year, is meeting with stiff opposition from various citizens groups which claim the plant does not meet safety standards. But the government says it has spent $100 million in safety devices in the last few months.

The local government agency in charge of granting the plant a license to operate, the Philippine Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), seems to be waiting until the raging controversy over the plant's safety simmers down before finally giving the green light.

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Manuel Eugenio, PAEC chairman, said in an interview that they are still ''threshing out problems . . . closing the gap,'' while critics are waiting impatiently for the agency's verdict and demanding a public hearing.

PAEC is expected to come up with a formal safety evaluation report after which it will conduct public hearings and then issue the permit. Dr. Eugenio refused to give a timetable, saying, ''I do not wish to tie the hands of PAEC.''

But lawyer Joker Arroyo, who works closely with opposition leader Lorenzo Tanada in his antinuclear crusade, says the reason PAEC is taking so long to finalize its safety report is its lack of experience and qualified manpower. The plant is the Philippines' first nuclear unit.

Construction of the plant at Morong, in Bataan Province, started in 1977. It was suspended by President Ferdinand Marcos in 1979 after the near meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power station in Harrisburg, Pa., but construction was later resumed and the Bataan plant is now ready for test runs.

The plant initially cost $900 million but ballooned to $2.2 billion - much of which came from foreign loans.

Early October, the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is responsible for checking the safety of nuclear power reactors around the world, gave the Philippine plant a qualified bill of health.

The IAEA report identified ''work that still needed attention'' before loading uranium into the reactor, including: programs to train people in the nuclear power department and to raise the quality level in construction and startup; a comprehensive radiation protection program; and full equipment of emergency response facilities.

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As early as 1979, when Marcos established a commission to review the project after Three Mile Island, basic defects were noted.

The commission reported, after its investigation, that the plant is an old design and is plagued by ''unresolved safety issues.'' It called it a ''potential hazard to the health and safety of the public.''

The commission recommended additional safeguards such as adequate emergency core cooling systems for nuclear reactors and a nuclear waste disposal site.

It urged the National Power Corp., the plant operator, to renegotiate its contract with Westinghouse, which supplied the equipment. The provisions in the new contract fell short of the commission's recommendations.

Robert Pollard of the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists concluded after visiting the Bataan plant that it could not be licensed in the United States. He said that of the new safety requirements imposed on Westinghouse's US plants after Three Mile Island, less than half were included in the new Bataan contract. Dr. Pollard wrote Marcos in September that ''design defects and omissions render the plant too dangerous to begin operation.''

Energy Minister Geronimo Velasco told parliament a month ago that $100 million has already been spent to install additional safety devices.

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