The path to nuclear energy | Inquirer Opinion

The path to nuclear energy

/ 05:15 AM May 27, 2024

By all indications, President Marcos is determined to accomplish what his father and succeeding presidents had failed to do—harness the power of nuclear energy to bolster the country’s tight electricity supply.

Last week, on the sidelines of the high-level Indo-Pacific Business Forum, Energy Secretary Raphael Lotilla and United States Agency for International Development-Philippines mission director Ryan Washburn signed an agreement to train Filipinos on how to build and operate nuclear plants for civilian use through scholarships and academic exchanges.

“This will help the Philippines develop the skilled workforce needed to build a clean energy infrastructure, including the ability to operate state-of-the-art nuclear power plants,” said Daniel Kritenbrink, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

This comes months after the signing of the landmark 123 nuclear cooperation agreement by Manila and Washington in November last year on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco.


Energy mix

The agreement that the US has so far entered into with 47 countries governs the “safe and secure use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” and paves the way for possible US investments in nuclear energy that is included under the Philippine Energy Plan for 2023 to 2050.

“We see nuclear energy becoming a part of the Philippines’ energy mix by 2032 and we are more than happy to pursue this path with the United States as one of our partners,” Mr. Marcos said during the ceremony last year.

His enthusiasm was shared by conglomerates such as the Aboitiz Group and Metro Pacific led by Manuel V. Pangilinan, who took the policy signal of the Marcos administration to proceed with their own partnership talks to put up nuclear power plants in the Philippines.

The Manila Electric Co., for example, has entered into a cooperation agreement with US-based Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp. (USNC) to study the local operation of a micro-modular reactor energy system, a fourth-generation system that can supposedly deliver “safe, clean, and cost-effective electricity to users anywhere” and scheduled for first nuclear power in 2026.


Toxic nuclear waste

On the other hand, the Aboitiz Group’s power unit, Aboitiz Power Corp., is exploring collaborations with USNC as well as NuScale Power Corp. which is developing small modular reactors that can, in theory, replace boilers of existing, carbon-emitting coal-fired power plants that account for some half of the country’s energy mix and transform them into nuclear plants.

But as exciting as these plans may sound, opposition to adopting nuclear energy in the Philippines has remained.


The mere mention of it has been arousing strong feelings since the 621-megawatt Bataan nuclear power plant was mothballed in 1986, with the vocal opposition centering mainly on questions over the high construction cost and risks to public safety and to the environment, especially on the handling of toxic nuclear waste.

Memories of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and most recently the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear facility in Japan are indeed still fresh, thus nuclear power plants had failed to graduate from the concept stage from the time of former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

‘Clean’ energy source

But the urgent need to add generation capacity—especially in the face of the dwindling supply of natural gas from the Malampaya natural gas field that powers 40 percent of the plants in Luzon—has made even hardcore skeptics give nuclear energy the benefit of the doubt.

Arguments favoring nuclear energy have also been strengthened by the advances in technology worldwide and evolution of safety guidelines and operations since the 1970s when the first President Marcos began the process of putting up the Bataan nuclear power plant.

Small modular nuclear reactors, for example, can be as small as a city bus and can be readily deployed in a number of the country’s more than 7,000 islands.

And they are deemed a “clean” energy resource that can be used as a baseload power plant—or can run 24 hours a day, seven days a week unlike some renewable energy sources such as hydro and wind.

Safety of the public

At the same time, the government’s target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2030 has also prompted the revisiting of the option of using nuclear energy, which can help cover the need for new capacity to meet the demand that is estimated to grow by 6.6 percent a year until 2040.

Widespread public acceptance, however, can only be attained if the Marcos administration can demonstrate its commitment to put in place safeguards and the necessary regulations so that the benefits of nuclear energy can be harnessed without heavily compromising the safety of the public and the environment.

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Minus that trust and guarantee of the safe and responsible use of nuclear energy, Mr. Marcos will end up sharing the fate of his father instead of leaving a legacy of getting nuclear energy off the planning stage and closer to becoming a reality.


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