by LENIE LECTURA | MARCH 5, 2022 | Published by Business Mirror | READ THE STORY HERE

The urgent quest for new power sources amid a grim outlook for imported fuels gives Executive ground to push—at the last minute—nuclear energy, sparking even more debates.

AFTER years of extended debates in and out of government, the Duterte administration has embraced nuclear energy, a move that could change the landscape of the power sector and possibly revive a 37-year-old plant.

On Thursday, Malacañang Palace dropped a bombshell of sorts, binding the next administrations to include nuclear power in the country’s energy mix, which is still dominated by coal.

Executive Order (EO) 164, entitled “Adopting a National Position for a Nuclear Energy Program, and for other Purposes,” was released more than a year after an interagency body submitted its recommendations. There had been attempts to pursue nuclear energy in the country, but these failed due to safety concerns.

This administration even conducted a public perception survey in 2019. The results indicated that almost 79 percent of citizens approved the possible use or rehabilitation of the $2.2-billion Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP), while 65 percent favored the construction of new ones.

The 620-megawatt (MW) BNPP is the country’s first and only attempt at nuclear-power development. It was supposed to be the first of two nuclear plants to be built in the northern province of Bataan. It was also the first nuclear power plant in Southeast Asia, and was identified as a solution to the 1973 oil crisis that had adversely affected the global economy, including the Philippines.

The project, however, was mothballed in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. However, clamor for the reopening of the BNPP was revived during the power crisis in the 1990s and the skyrocketing oil prices in 2007.

During these periods, the Department of Energy (DOE) actually came close to reconsidering nuclear power as a potential energy source for the country. But then the Fukushima nuclear-plant incident happened in March 2011, creating global panic and concerns about the safety and integrity of nuclear plants.

Major policy shift

THEN the order, which “commits” the government to the introduction of nuclear power into the state’s energy mix for power generation, was signed on February 28 but was only made available to the public on March 3.

The Palace basically justified the sudden announcement—described by Senate Minority leader Frank Drilon as a “major policy shift” best left to the next administration—by clothing the EO as part of urgent efforts to boost energy security and cut reliance on fossil fuels, at a time when steadily rising global oil prices were further driven up by the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

“Nuclear power shall be tapped as a viable alternative to baseload power source along with alternative resources, to address the projected decline of coal-fired power plants which come under increasing environmental opposition,” a portion of the EO read.

The DOE has already banned new coal power projects in the country. The projected demand for a clean energy pathway in the country is expected to grow at 4.4 percent a year, requiring almost 68 gigawatts of additional capacity by 2040.

“Considering this demand and the depletion of natural gas resources, nuclear power will play an important role to contribute to the required capacity to achieve energy security, especially to meet the needs of an emerging upper middle-income country,” the EO stated, adding that nuclear power is a viable component to bridge the gap between rising energy demands and supply.

There are 16 areas being considered as possible sites for nuclear power plants, according to DOE Undersecretary Gerardo Erguiza. These are in Bataan, Batangas, Cagayan, Negros Occidental, Zamboanga del Norte, General Santos, Sulu and Quezon. These are the same areas being eyed for nuclear power plants with small modular reactors that are suitable for the off-gird areas of the Philippines.

“These areas are considered because they are isolated, the availability of the cooling system, basically based on general standards, but there is a process to be followed,” he said, adding that the possibility of integrating nuclear power in the country might come as early as 2027.

Energy security, transparency

However, he stressed that it would be up to the next administration if it will support the nuclear energy program (NEP) that will be crafted by the Nuclear Energy Program-Inter-Agency Committee (NEP-IAC). He said there should be a regulatory framework for the NEP which will require legislation.

“Adopting a nuclear program is not just about constructing nuclear power plants. It is a matter of energy and national security. Should it be decided in the future that the Philippines is fit and finally ready to embark on its nuclear energy journey, then we would be able to look back and appreciate this landmark
issuance,” Erquiza pointed out.

For Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, chairman of the Senate Energy committee, transparency “is the most important factor in any discussions on nuclear power.” The Senate, he noted, has funded the Department of Energy’s nuclear research and feasibility study of P266 million since 2018. “This study should be made public in order for the Filipino people to understand the risks and benefits of nuclear power injected into our energy mix.”

Gatchalian stressed, “Transparency is key in building the confidence of the public on the use of this complex source of power.

“Having said that, establishing nuclear power from the ground up entails numerous pieces of legislation and policies to ensure the safety of the public.”

Gatchalian lamented that with just six session days left in the 18th Congress, “there is no ample time to enact any nuclear power-related proposed laws. It will be up to the next administration to decide whether the benefits of nuclear power outweigh the risks and pursue nuclear as a source of power for our country.”

‘Good fiscal housekeeping’

While many perceived nuclear energy as a “complicated” energy source and a “very risky business,” the chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means called this a “good fiscal housekeeping.”

“We spend around P40 million every year to maintain Bataan Nuclear. That means we’re spending that much on a white elephant. I think part of the mandate of the EO, which is to review the BNPP, has to include whether we should already totally decommission the asset as scrap metal, if it’s really dangerous and unsafe,” Rep. Joey Salceda said, adding that “it is time to decide whether to revive it, or scrap it altogether and start over”.

Also, Salceda said Congress may consider a “franchise approach” to operating the BNPP.

“I think we should bid it out as a public-private partnership and grant its operator a franchise. The thing with nuclear power plants is the gestation period for the investment requires several decades. So our private partner will need the political and legal security of a franchise from Congress. That is definitely on the table, and I will tell President Duterte to consider that approach as well,” Salceda explained.

Environmental groups, however, opposed the adoption of nuclear power mainly because of its inherent risk to public welfare.

Greenpeace Philippines said the issuance was “spurred by misguided interests that are not aligned with the interests of the Filipino people.” They also called on Duterte to revoke the issuance and also extended a similar appeal to the next administration to scrap the NEP.

“The next administration will already inherit a huge debt burden and the pursuit of nuclear will make this even heavier due to steep capital costs for construction, operation of nuclear plants, enormous costs of radioactive fuel storage, and costs for managing a nuclear incident that can reach billions of dollars, as well as price volatility as almost all sources of uranium are in conflict areas,” Greenpeace campaigner Khevin Yu said.

The Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC) agreed that nuclear power will be “a massive economic burden” to the Filipinos.

“Nuclear is even more rigid than coal. It cannot provide the power needs of the country and will only exacerbate the already precarious, unstable conditions of the grid and will make electricity more unreliable and expensive,” said Renato Redentor Constantino, ICSC executive director.

The Center for Energy, Ecology and Development (CEED), meanwhile, said the next administration should decide if it would allow nuclear energy in the country.

“With its already terrible legacy of a mismanaged power sector, we advise the Duterte administration not to come up with more decisions that only make life harder for Filipino consumers. As the administration’s end draws near, why not let the next leadership determine whether nuclear really is the answer to the many problems plaguing the power and energy sector?” CEED Executive Director Gerry Arances commented.

While the debate goes on, the EO insists that the State shall ensure the “peaceful use” of nuclear technology in the country. To appease concerned groups, the government said it will invest in programs on stakeholder involvement to enhance public acceptance and increase awareness on the advantages of nuclear power.