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Nuclear Philippines is a future full of costly risks

12:07 AM September 12, 2016

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts—The Duterte administration recently floated the revival of a white elephant of the martial law period—the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP)—to meet the country’s burgeoning energy needs. “Revival” actually is an inapt word; the facility never went online in the first place.

Going nuclear is a highly inappropriate option because of its potential to cause catastrophic damage due to accidents, sabotage or terrorism; to produce very long-lived radioactive wastes; and to exacerbate nuclear proliferation. It is also water intensive, slow to construct, and very expensive. With many countries already phasing out nuclear power in favor of renewable energy technologies, the nuclear option is but a costly and risky diversion for the Philippines.

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While it is true that nuclear energy is a mature, low-greenhouse gas emission source of baseload power, many important risks attached to this option have been aptly demonstrated as reality—at Three Mile Island in New York, Chernobyl in Ukraine and, closer to home, Fukushima in Japan. Although new performance records for new reactor designs have emerged, some of them touting the technology’s improved safety records, the risks associated with nuclear energy linger.

Large-scale property damage and evacuation costs from nuclear accidents are the key liabilities of having a nuclear facility in an earthquake-prone country like the Philippines. In a matter of hours, a nuclear disaster could generate global fear and horror; this has been illustrated in the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, that brought about the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

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Managing radioactive waste produced by nuclear reactors is another challenge. If we cannot even effectively attend to simpler solid waste management problems, how can we ensure that we will have the capacity to store radioactive wastes for thousands of years?

Nuclear proliferation is another big risk. Under the guise of a civilian nuclear energy program, several countries have developed nuclear weapons. How can we address the risk of terrorists gaining access to nuclear materials, especially with our endemic corruption problem?

Another disadvantage of the nuclear option is its water-intensive property. With climate change already altering the water cycle, how can we ensure adequate water supply for these facilities, especially during water shortages and droughts?

The long construction and deployment times that a nuclear facility demands—typically between 10 and 36 years—highlight the technology’s expensive cost. As currently structured, nuclear power plants are therefore nonviable for most emerging economies such as ours. How can we afford the billions of pesos needed for a commercial reactor?

The best energy option for the Philippines is not nuclear but the already proven and demonstrated renewable energy technologies. These are relatively less risky, environmentally benign, socially acceptable, and economically plausible options. These include utility-scale and distributed solar, wind, micro-hydro, and geothermal installations. Our equatorial, geographic and archipelagic location, which translates into a tremendous renewable energy potential, is a natural blessing many countries are envious of.

Projects that transform our huge wind, water, sunlight and geothermal resources into our much-needed energy can be constructed quickly, within two to five years, but without the risks and costs attached to nuclear. Wind farms, for example, take one to three years in the development stage—that is, the time required to identify a site, purchase or lease a land, monitor winds, install transmission, negotiate a power-purchase agreement, and obtain permits—and between one and two years to construct. Solar farms take almost the same time. A geothermal power plant takes between two and three years in the development stage and two to three years to build. The costs for constructing renewable systems are now dwindling, with some even lower than building coal-fired power plants. New jobs generated from these new installations are also greater than what coal and nuclear facilities can create.

If the Duterte administration wishes to make a dent in the future of Philippine energy, the short construction time, lower costs, and more jobs that renewables offer should be excellent reasons to merit political support. These are in addition to the environmental and health benefits—like reduced emissions and pollution that the transition brings. Getting the politics right, which means the strongest possible push for renewables from the Duterte administration, is the first necessary step. Equally important is the strong rallying support from civil society and the business sector.

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Those critical of tapping our renewable energy potential often highlight the variable output of some of these technologies—wind power and photovoltaics in particular. While there is some truth to these claims, these are but perceptional oddities. Obviously, no power plant can operate continually. Some nuclear facilities have even met extended unplanned shutdown periods of more than one year. By contrast, the intermittency of wind and solar outputs can be addressed by matching electricity demand through forecasting, making grids smart, and increasing energy efficiency.

Bringing the BNPP—or any nuclear energy facility for that matter—online is nothing but a risky and costly digression to an effective approach to our energy supply problem. Adopting this most expensive and very risky remedy only curbs what we can (and must) spend on the more promising approaches. For this administration to be truly concerned about the future of energy in the Philippines, renewables, not nuclear, is the way forward.

 

Laurence Delina, of Boston University and Harvard University, researches on climate change, energy security, and international development. His recent book is “Strategies for Rapid Climate Mitigation.”  He is from South Cotabato.

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