Rethinking nuclear energy
At the sidelines of the 30th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Leaders’ Summit in California last week, the Philippines and the United States signed the so-called “123 agreement” on nuclear energy cooperation. The “peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement” is required under Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act of 1954 to provide a legal basis for American companies to export nuclear fuel, reactors, equipment, and other specialized nuclear materials to other countries. The US has 23 civil nuclear agreements with such countries as Russia, China, Canada, South Korea, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Taiwan.
The day before, power distributor Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) signed a cooperative agreement with US-based Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp. to study the deployment of “one or more” small modular reactors (SMR) in the country. Under the deal, which was also signed at the sidelines of the Apec event, the American firm will conduct a four-month pre-feasibility study to familiarize Meralco with its proprietary Micro Modular Reactor energy system and assess how this can be effectively used locally.
As if on cue, the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice immediately balked at the new nuclear agreement, saying it “vehemently opposes nuclear energy in the country” and advocated for a shift toward sustainable solutions. “Nuclear energy, touted for clean energy, releases pollutants worsening the planet’s temperature. The resulting radioactive waste persists for years, often irresponsibly dumped or stored, lacking proper technology for disposal,” it said in a statement.
Groups opposing nuclear energy need not panic this early, but instead consider the tremendous advances in nuclear technology since the first commercial operation of nuclear power stations in the 1950s. According to the United Kingdom-based World Nuclear Association, the private-sector organization seeking to promote the peaceful worldwide use of nuclear power as a sustainable energy resource, nuclear energy now provides about 10 percent of the world’s electricity from about 440 power reactors. It is also the world’s second-biggest source of low-carbon power at 26 percent of the total in 2020. In 2021, it said 13 countries produced at least a quarter of their electricity from nuclear, with France getting as much as 70 percent, while Ukraine, Slovakia, Belgium, and Hungary about 50 percent.
For the Philippines, the initial idea is for the study and eventual deployment of the so-called SMRs, not the conventional large facilities such as the mothballed Bataan nuclear power plant. In the US, its Department of Energy considers SMRs as a key part of the agency’s goal to develop safe, clean, and affordable nuclear power options. “The advanced SMRs currently under development in the US represent a variety of sizes, technology options, capabilities, and deployment scenarios. These advanced reactors, envisioned to vary in size from tens of megawatts up to hundreds of megawatts, can be used for power generation, process heat, desalination, or other industrial uses,” it pointed out. The first SMRs in the US are under licensing review by its Nuclear Regulatory Commission and will likely be deployed in the late 2020s to early 2030s.
The United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in a September 2023 update on small reactors, noted that both public and private institutions are actively participating in efforts to bring SMR technology to fruition within this decade, citing that Russia’s Akademik Lomonosov, the world’s first floating nuclear power plant that began commercial operation in May 2020, is producing energy from two 35-megawatt SMRs. “Other SMRs are under construction or in the licensing stage in Argentina, Canada, China, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. More than 80 commercial SMR designs being developed around the world target varied outputs and different applications, such as electricity, hybrid energy systems, heating, water desalination, and steam for industrial applications,” it said. The only caveat is that while it is admitted that SMRs have lower upfront capital cost per unit, their economic competitiveness is still to be proven in practice once they are deployed.
According to the IAEA, SMRs offer unique attributes in terms of safety, efficiency, economics, and flexibility. This should be a key factor in pushing the use of SMRs in the country given safety concerns about the conventional nuclear power plants, as well as the culture of corruption and inefficiency in our system.
It is a fact that new generating capacity is needed in the Philippines to replace old fossil fuel units such as coal-fired facilities that emit a lot of carbon dioxide, and to meet increased demand for electricity as the economy grows. If properly done, with safety and viability ensured, SMRs can be an ideal solution to increasing and stabilizing the electricity supply from clean sources in the country in the coming years.