The government of President Corazon Aquino is moving to extricate itself from a controversial $2.1 billion nuclear power plant project whose fate has been effectively sealed by the Soviet Union's Chernobyl nuclear accident, government officials said.
Operations to start up the 620-megawatt Westinghouse Electric Corp. plant, the first such project in Southeast Asia, already had been delayed before the Chernobyl accident because of safety concerns raised by antinuclear groups. The project also has come under heavy criticism because of cost increases that have added nearly $1 billion to the price of the plant since a 1976 agreement and charges that former president Ferdinand Marcos and a close associate received millions of dollars in commissions in connection with the deal.
A cabinet meeting yesterday reaffirmed an earlier decision not to start up the plant on the Bataan peninsula about 105 miles from Manila, government officials said.
Finance Minister Jaime Ongpin said the decision was influenced by "what happened in Chernobyl."
"If there were still any cobwebs of doubt," said Budget Minister Alberto Romulo, borrowing a phrase from Vice President Salvador Laurel, "Chernobyl certainly sealed the fate of the Bataan nuclear power plant." He and other ministers said there was no support in the Aquino cabinet for operating the plant, despite the prospect that this will mean a huge waste of resources. "More than the money, it is the safety of the Filipino people that is our primary concern," Aquino told reporters Tuesday.
"After what happened in Mother Russia, we'd be lynched by the people of Bataan if we went ahead with it," added presidential spokesman Rene Saguisag.
Saguisag left for the United States yesterday on a three-week mission aimed at finding a way out of foreign loans entered into by the Marcos government to finance the project. The loans, the biggest of which was for $644 million and was extended by the U.S. Export-Import Bank, are costing the Philippines about $350,000 a day in interest payments alone, according to government officials. The Aquino government regards the power plant loans as a particularly onerous component of the $26 billion foreign debt run up by the corrupt Marcos administration.
Saguisag said he intends to discuss the nuclear project with the Philippine government's U.S. lawyers and seek access to documents that might provide evidence of kickbacks and other irregularities involved in the deal. He said that, on April 30, the U.S. Justice Department denied a request filed by the American lawyers under the Freedom of Information Act for release of the results of an investigation several years ago by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Saguisag said the main goal of his trip is "to get the maximum relief we could get. It's really to cut our losses."
Ongpin said the essential purpose of the mission is to find out "how best to recover our expenditures and extricate ourselves if possible."
The Bataan nuclear project has become a principal target of a faction within the government that advocates "selective repudiation" of foreign loans. Aquino has rejected the idea, insisting that the Philippines' debt obligations will be met. "We are going to honor those loans," she said in a press conference Tuesday. "What I am after is . . . more liberal terms."
Advocates of repudiating the nuclear power plant loans argue that the contract with Westinghouse involved fraud and bad faith and that an unsafe and unusable product has been delivered. Antinuclear activists long have charged that, in the first place, the location of the plant poses a problem; the site is in an earthquake zone 11 miles from a fault line and is surrounded by five volcanoes within 100 miles.
In an effort to take advantage of opposition sentiment, guerrillas of the communist New People's Army last year blew up nearly one-third of the project's 100-odd power transmission pylons. Communist front groups also reportedly were involved in public demonstrations against the plant.
Besides complaining about the location, opponents testifying in safety hearings last year cited construction "defects," including hairline cracks in the plant's containment vessel, unshielded high-voltage cables and inadequate fire-protection measures.
But perhaps the most controversial aspect of the project has been a series of persistent allegations that it involved huge payments to Marcos through Herminio Disini, one of the ex-president's leading "cronies" and former golfing partners. Disini's Asia Industries company received a multimillion-dollar commission as the Philippine agent of Westinghouse; another Disini company won a contract as chief subcontractor for civil works although the firm had been incorporated only the year before; and a third Disini company was awarded a major contract to write a $668 million insurance policy on the project, a Philippine lawyers' group reported.
The amount of the commissions originally was estimated between $4 million and $34 million, the Mabini lawyers' group reported last year. Since then, however, documents found by U.S. customs agents in baggage that Marcos brought with him into exile in Hawaii have listed commissions totaling $19.5 million received by a Disini concern.
Westinghouse repeatedly has denied any wrongdoing in connection with the Bataan nuclear power plant contract.