Blueprint for Disaster: Westinghouse Brings Nukes to the Philippines

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Blueprint for Disaster: Westinghouse Brings Nukes to the Philippines

by E. San Juan Jr.

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 12, No. 1, January/February 1980, p. 23–26

Sensational chic? Or plain and simple truth? 

Consider the following facts: Westinghouse Electric Corporation has sold a nuclear reactor costing $1.1 billion to the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. This 620 megawatt reactor is being constructed in Morong, Bataan, on the slope of an active volcano, Mt. Natib. There are three other live volcanoes within a twenty-mile radius. In addition, the plant sits astride a major earthquake fault and is on the Bataan peninsula which is subject to frequent tidal waves from the South China sea. Morong, Bataan is 45 miles west of the commercial and cultural center of the Philippines, metropolitan Manila, with a population of at least seven million people. 

The Union of Concerned Scientists in the United States has reviewed the plant design and found over 200 major engineering defects.1 In a secret study, recently leaked out, the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that the volcano on which the reactor is sited could explode anytime. 

Although President Carter has issued a decree making reactor exports subject to the requirements of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) which is the chief environmental agency concerned in this case has still not established definite and tested standards for evaluating overseas reactor orders. Like most Third World nations, the Philippines has no nuclear regulation, multiplying the chances of accidents, including a meltdown disaster. What is more revealing is that the NRC itself has admitted that the Philippine plant design has not been rigorously tested for safety, especially for earthquake and volcanic dangers. It admitted that no adequate Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), required for licensing domestic reactors, has been made for the Philippine project. Certainly after the Harrisburg incident, this plant could never be built in the US. But it is being built in a country where the US has  investments of over $7 billion (with a $1 investment yielding from $6 to $10)2 and has about 20 military installations, chief of which are Clark Air Force Base and Subic Naval Base. 

Since 1972, the Philippine government has ruled by martial law and has abolished civil rights and democratic freedoms, such as free speech, the right to strike and the right of assembly.3 Over 70,000 political dissenters, by Marcos’s own admission, have suffered imprisonment. Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists, the US National Council of Churches, and even the US State Department, have identified the Marcos government as repressive, as a consistent and systematic violator of its citizens’ human rights. 

Since 1972, with the US debacle in Indochina, worldwide and domestic public opinion have become sensitized to overt forms of US intervention in the Third World. Ironically, the Carter administration has increased its military aid to Marcos by 138 percent, from $31.8 to $75.5 million.4 These public monies will be used to pay for the tanks, planes, bombs, howitzers and ammunition that Marcos badly needs to maintain himself in power and enrich his family and friends. At the same time these weapons will be used to brutalize 45 million Filipinos (of which 5 million are Filipino Muslims or Moros waging fierce armed struggle in the southern Philippines) — all in the name of a presumably anti-communist “New Society” blessed by the International Monetary Fund and the transnational corporations. It is in this context that we should appraise the issues and problems presented by the Westinghouse adventure. 

Construction of the plant began in 1977. To negotiate and win the contract over its competitor General Electric, Westinghouse is reported to have paid as much as $40 million to Herminio Disini, an in-law and business associate of Marcos.5 This kickback, or more euphemistically, “commission fee,” is now being investigated by the Department of Justice. It is generally understood that no licence can be granted for reactor export while this investigation into corporate bribery is being conducted. 

Immediately after the construction began, about 100 families were driven from their homes. Over 11,000 residents in the vicinity of the plant, mostly poor farmers and fishermen, mounted a protest when they realized that the project would jeopardize their lives. Already their lives have been severely disrupted with the destruction of their farmlands, grazing fields, orchards, fishponds, and other means of livelihood. One of the townspeople wrote recently: 

This nuclear plant alarms us because we are already experiencing the effect of the project on our livelihood and on our health. Many of us have no more land to till. The lands where we used to get our food and livelihood from are either bought at low price or confiscated because they are needed by the plant. Before, the fishermen used to fish near the shore. Now, the National Power Corporation has driven the fish away because earth fillings are washed directly into the sea. Parts of the mountains abundant in fruit trees and other crops are already levelled off. 

With their homes wrecked and their livelihoods at stake, peasants and workers alike have continued to resist the project despite harassment and arrests. Fifty thousand Filipinos have already risked imprisonment by signing a petition opposing the construction of the plant. Marcos in turn has responded by severely suppressing any organized dissent. One construction worker engaged in organizing workers, Ernest Nazareno, was arrested and brutally tortured by Marcos security forces. In June 1978 he disappeared and is now presumed to have been secretly executed, the first murder victim of the reactor. 

Earlier, one Methodist pastor was threatened with arrest merely for asking questions about the possibility of nuclear accidents, airborne pollution, and so forth. Since the people militantly reject the reactor, Marcos has permanently stationed two companies of the Philippine Constabulary to guard the area, thus offering Westinghouse a “favorable investment climate.” 

In addition to these transnational corporations, the other prime beneficiaries will be two huge US military bases, Clark Field (home of the 13th Air Force) and Subic Naval Base (main repair facility and ordinance depot for the Pacific Seventh Fleet). These two outposts constitute the key strategic springboards for continued US intervention in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Over 16,000 US troops, excluding civilian personnel and families, are now stationed in the Philippines: they will be serviced, and at the same time endangered, by the nuclear plant. 

Various studies have shown that the electricity generated by the reactor will benefit primarily transnational corporations which have factories operating in the adjacent Bataan Export Processing Zone. Inside this Zone, US and other foreign corporations run their tax-free factories employing a Filipino labor force (mostly women) which is prohibited from strikes and union organizing and is paid roughly $1.00 per day.6 ($6 is considered by the government the average cost of living per day.) In the final analysis, it is the super-exploited Filipino workers and farmers who will pay for the reactor and subsidize the forces that continue to extract the value of their labor power: the US-based conglomerates like Ford, Exxon, Mobil, and smaller corporations. 

Given the historic collusion between the state and business in a “free enterprise system,” it should come as no surprise that US taxpayers are financing the sale of this reactor, which is now on record as the most expensive reactor ever sold. “It’s one reactor for the price of two,” commented one Filipino high official in the Marcos cabinet.  

Nukes and Native Peoples 

Besides the starkly real presence of unacceptable health and safety hazards due to siting, design and the lack of any viable plan for disposal of lethal waste (the vast Pacific has been proposed as the most accessible dumping ground), the Westinghouse reactor is also a genocidal threat to indigenous peoples. In August 1978, the Philippine Energy Ministry and Australia signed an agreement binding Australia to provide a regular supply of unprocessed uranium to the Philippine plant. (Canada is the other prospective supplier.) What this implies is the further eviction of indigenous peoples of Australia from their ancestral lands where uranium is being mined, with the rest of the land contaminated by radioactive debris. This disaster is occurring right now in Native American communities, whose lands account for 25% of U.S. uranium production. 

The Uranium Moratorium Movement in Australia has condemned this blatant sacrifice of human lives for profit, exposing how the U.S., with its highly sophisticated enrichment know-how, depends on raw uranium furnished by Australia and other nations to maintain uninterrupted profitable sales of enriched uranium — a necessary ingredient for nuclear plants

The most questionable aspect of this deal is the role played by the Export-Import Bank. Supported by people’s taxes, the Ex-Im Bank is subsidizing the Westinghouse reactor with $644 million in loans and guarantees, the largest loan package ever to a developing nation.7 This financial support, which is half the cost of the reactor, appears to be in violation of the Human Rights Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1977, which forbids aid to oppressive governments. 

With the accelerating impetus of the anti-nuclear movement in the US and Europe, the nuclear industry has now turned to developing or underdeveloped countries to make profits. Of the many reactors operating throughout the world, most have been built or licensed by US transnational corporations.8 

Domestically, the industry had a shocking zero net sales from 1975 to 1978. But in that same period it sold five reactors worth over $2 billion to Third World clients, most of them under repressive, authoritarian regimes. With public consciousness sensitized and mobilized by the Three Mile Island near-catastrophe and the controversy surrounding it, there are bound to be more cancellations, freezes and shutdowns. 

But of course Westinghouse, like other transnational corporations, recognizes neither territorial boundaries nor human rights. How could it be embarrassed by its “standard operating procedure” when the US government itself, which supposedly should set the example, persists in doling out millions of tax dollars to subsidize reactionary despots in South Korea, Taiwan, Chile, Brazil and other countries where 23 of the Third World’s 32 reactors are planned.9 

Within the wider perspective of political economy, the Westinghouse deal represents a desperate corporate drive to recoup losses incurred in a declining domestic market where sales are paralyzed due to public disapproval. The trick is to dump nuclear technology in the Third World where a ferocious trade war between US, French and German corporations rages.10 

There is at least one profoundly instructive lesson to be gained from analyzing the Westinghouse-Marcos connection. It exposes in quite undisguised fashion the conjuncture of various socio-economic factors illustrating how nuclear energy as presently controlled by profit-making corporations dovetails with the global planning imposed by such bodies as the US Agency for International Development (AID), World Bank, IMF, etc. on the Third World. 

It is a matter of public record that AID and other monetary agencies endorse, sometimes insist on, capital-intensive projects designed to service only foreign corporations with the technical know-how. The “trickle-down effect” will benefit only the local junior partners of these multinationals, a handful of urban-based merchants and bureaucrats. For their part, the technocratic, right-wing elites of the developing societies recognize that the centralized form of nuclear technology affords them powerful mechanisms for controlling the lives of their subjects. What is at stake are national sovereignity and genuine popular democracy. For if Westinghouse will control the installation and repair of the reactor, and the US government licenses its export and use, then the Philippines will be dependent technically, economically and politically on the US. Philippine society will continue to be dominated by a privileged minority of technocrats, businessmen and generals. Other energy sources (like geothermal and water) are available in the Philippines, but they will not yield profit bonanzas for Marcos and his patrons.

In the Philippines 70 percent of the labor force functions largely as landless tenants and subsistence farmers, who will consume only 2.3 percent of the electricity produced. Widespread poverty plagues 99 percent of the people, the inflation rate is 14.5 percent, and unemployment/underemployment totals 40 percent. Eighty percent of Filipino children under the age of six are malnourished. Diseases due to poor water supply and inadequate sanitation cause the highest number of deaths. Confronted with these fundamental problems and immedate needs of the majority, the Marcos regime betrays its real essence as an inhumane, bankrupt, irrational system. With a staggering debt of $8 billion, it has committed $1.1 billion for the Westinghouse reactor — a massive drain on national resources — chiefly in order to benefit foreign corporations and the subservient elite, about 1 percent of the population.11

Practically all the substantial issues concerning energy being debated today converge in this campaign to halt nuclear export to the Philippines. 

What is being targeted here is not just the biological and ecological impact of nuclear technology, but also the function of government and institutions (for example, the role of the Ex-Im Bank in underwriting virtually all reactor exports), corporate bribery, Washington’s material and political support for dictatorships, and last but not least the wanton violation of human rights and subversion of the democratic and libertarian aspirations of peoples. In sum, what is at issue is the comparative merit of different social and political systems, contradictory ideologies, and contradictory world-outlooks. These manifold linkages are being explored and publicized by the Campaign for a Nuclear-Free Philippines, a loose coalition, founded in April 1978, of environmental, anti-nuclear, and anti-martial law groups, including Friends of the Earth, Nautilus Alliance. Mobilization for Survival, Friends of the Filipino People, and others. 

In July 1979, when Marcos, in deference to heavy international criticism, was forced to postpone the project, an international review board was formed to assess the health and safety impact of the plant. This is the first time in history that nuclear export has been challenged either politically or legally. This campaign to urge NRC denial of an export license to Westinghouse, together with a demand to halt all funds allocated by Ex-Im Bank, is bound to establish a precedent-setting case. If successful, it will mean a defeat for corporate interests and a victory for the people. 

As Westinghouse presses the NRC to expedite the granting of a license, the Campaign for a Nuclear-Free Philippines and two environmental groups based in Washington (the Center for Development Policy and the Natural Resources Council) have filed a petition for the federal courts to intervene in the reactor export. On September 28, 1979, the State Department recommended the granting of an export licence to Westinghouse for this project. Immediately, various organizations spearheaded by the Friends of the Filipino People demanded that the NRC hold hearings before making the final decision. So powerful has been the popular response against this project that Marcos himself ordered a halt to the construction, allowing Westinghouse to make “fundamental changes in the design.”12 Marcos and Westinghouse itself are sensitive to public pressure, hence their concession for modifications in design. However, the location still remains the same. And even if honest and conscientious changes are made, would this solve the real and potentially disastrous impact of this reactor on the lives of millions of Filipinos, as well as 27,300 US citizens living in the vicinity of the plant (at Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base)?

E. San Juan Jr. works with the Philippine Research Center and Friends of the Filipino People in Storrs, Ct. He also teaches literature at U.-Conn. 

>> Back to Vol. 12, No. 1<<


  1. Letter of Daniel Ford of the Union of Concerned Scientists to President Marcos, dated Feb. 13, 1978. Quoted in Walden Bello, Peter Hayes and Lyuba Zarsky, “500 Mile Island: The Philippine Nuclear Reactor Deal,” in Pacific Research. First Quarter 1979, p.2. See also Philippine Liberation Courier (March 10, 1978), p.2.
  2. In pre-martial law days, the business editor of the Manila Times (March 4, 1971) stated that in 1969, “some $7.08 were remitted for every dollar that was brought into the country. In 1970 it was $7.079.” Quoted in Alejandro Lichauco, The Lichauco Paper: US Imperialism in the Philippines (New York: Monthly Review, 1973) p.26. See also Corporate Information Center, National Council of Churches of U.S., “The Philippines: American Corporations, Martial Law, and Underdevelopment,” IDOC 57 (Nov. 1973), pp.11-13; “U.S. Imperialism in the Philippines,” Philippine Liberation Courier (Dec. 15, 1978), p.5; Guy Whitehead, “Philippine-American Economic Relations,” Pacific Research (Jan.-Feb. 1973), p.6.
  3. See Dept. of State, Report on Human Rights Practices in Countries Receiving U.S. Aid, Feb. 8, 1979, entry on the Philippines; Amnesty International, Report of AI Mission to the Philippines (London, 1976), pp.5-6; International Commission of Jurists, The Decline of Democracy in the Philippines (Geneva, 1977). pp.46-49; Association of Major Religious Superiors, Philippines, Political Detainees of the Philippines Book 3 (1978), pp.1-8.
  4. See Charita Planas et al., On the Withdrawal of U.S. Bases from the Philippines (Washington, DC, 1979), p.5.
  5. See New York Times, Jan. 14 and 18, 1978; Asia Finance, June 15, 1977, p.80.
  6. The best detailed studies of present-day wages and living conditions of the majority of Filipinos are Enrico Paglaban, “Philippines: Workers in the Export Industry,” Pacific Research (March-June 1978) and Ohara Ken, “Bataan Export Processing Zone: Its Development and Social Implications,” AMPO X (1978), pp.93-119. For an update on socio-economic data, consult Friends of the Filipino People, Conditions of the Filipino People Under Martial Law (1979), and Bernard Wideman, “The Philippines: Five Years of Martial Law,” AMPO IX (1977), pp.62-70.
  7. On the nature of the Export-Import Bank and its subsidy to the nuclear industry, see Bello, op. cit., pp.7-13 and Jim Morrell, “Aid to the Philippines: Who Benefits?” International Policy Report (October 1979), pp.10-11. On the Ex-Im Bank’s support to the Marcos dictatorship, see Walden Bello and Severina Rivera, The Logistics of Repression (Washington, DC, 1977), pp.57-58.
  8. See Business Week, Dec. 26, 1978, p.54; Nucleonic Week, Nov. 24, 1977; Norman Gall, “Nuclear Setbacks,” Forbes (Nov. 27, 1978), p.104.
  9. See Nuclear News, August 21, 1978, pp.67-85.
  10. For the fierce challenge posed by France’s Framatome and West Germany’s KWU (both nuclear conglomerates) to U.S. counterparts in Third World countries like Brazil and Iran, see Norman Gall, “Atoms for Brazil, Dangers for All,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (June 1976), pp.5-6; and Business Week, Nov. 27, 1978, p.44.
  11. On the distortion of Philippine socioeconomic development by this reactor, see James Drew, Brief of Intervenor/Petitioner (Friends of the Filipino People) Submitted to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Nov. 2, 1979, pp.15-17; and especially the affidavit (included in the brief, pp.21-38) of William L. Cummings, an American who worked for several years on the proposed plant. On the question of why nuclear power is generally inimical to Third World socioeconomic progress, see Bello, Hayes, Zrasky, op.cit., pp.14-29; Nuclear Export Monitor, Vol. 1, #1 and #2.
  12. Philippine Times, Nov. 26, 1979.