Philippines in nuclear push as power crisis looms

By Ashley Erika O. Jose, Reporter

IRA C. CONCEPCION, 17, founded the Youth for Nuclear last year to try to debunk the myths and misconceptions about nuclear energy and push its use amid a looming power crisis.

“It’s mostly the lack of information that makes Filipinos hesitant about nuclear power,” the senior high school student from the Ateneo de Manila University, who used to be against nuclear energy, said via Zoom. “We want to bring that information to them.”

The Philippines is facing a looming energy crisis as the Malampaya natural gas fields, which supply about a third of Luzon island’s energy needs, are expected to be depleted by 2024.

A rising population and some of the highest electricity costs in Southeast Asia present formidable energy production challenges for the country.

High electricity prices and the country’s heavy reliance on imported fuel pushed the Philippine government to revive plans to add nuclear energy to the country’s power mix despite safety warnings from environment experts.

President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. in his first address to Congress in July said it was time to reexamine state policy on nuclear energy.

In 2022, coal remained the country’s top energy source at 55%, followed by natural gas at 21%, geothermal at 10%, hydro at 8%, and at about 1% each for solar, wind, and biofuels and waste, according to the World Nuclear Association.

Energy Secretary Raphael P.M. Lotilla has said 80% of the country’s coal-fired power plants use imported coal.

In response to the 1973 oil crisis, the Philippines under the late president Ferdinand E. Marcos commissioned Westinghouse Electric Corp. to build the 621-megawatt electrical Bataan Nuclear Power Plant in the country’s west for $1.9 billion (P104 billion).

It was completed in 1984 but was never commissioned due to safety and corruption concerns.

The nuclear plant became the target of anti-nuclear protests in the late 1970s and 1980s, criticized for being a threat to public health, especially since it was located in an earthquake zone connected to Mount Natib, a dormant Caldera Volcano in the province.

Critics have also raised health issues, reliance on imported uranium, high waste and the steep cost of decommissioning after Korea Hydro and Russia’s Rosatom State Nuclear Energy Corp. submitted proposals in 2017 to rehabilitate the plant.

Aside from studying the feasibility of a nuclear power program including the revival of the Bataan plant, there are also proposals to build small modular reactors.

Pedro H. Maniego, Jr., a senior policy adviser at consultancy group Climate and Sustainable Cities, said nuclear power plants are the most “inflexible” and don’t match the Philippines’ energy demand profile.

But if the government really wants to push it, small modular reactors are the best option, he said in an e-mail, noting that these are “more flexible and can complement the needs of the grid.” But it’s a new technology with few units operating worldwide, he added.

In 2021 countries including Argentina, Canada, China, Russia and the United States were at the licensing stage to build small modular reactors, data from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) showed. There are more than 70 commercial designs being developed globally.

“More commercial information and viability data based on actual performance and costs are needed,” Mr. Maniego said. “The Philippines should not be the testing ground for this new nuclear technology.”

REVIVALPangasinan Rep. Mark O. Cojuangco, who heads the House of Representatives Special Committee on Nuclear Energy, said that there’s no reason to be afraid of nuclear power. “Regulations are in place,” he said in a virtual interview.

But the country should rationalize regulation by setting up a Philippine Regulatory Atomic Authority, he said, adding that regulatory power should not be concentrated in the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute.

“We need an independent regulator,” the congressman said. “All of the institute’s regulatory powers should be transferred to this body. There is no need to amend existing regulatory framework. Over the years we have established all the laws and regulations regarding ionizing radiation.”

The Philippines also has the Science Act of 1958, which was enacted to integrate and intensify scientific and technological research and development.

Mr. Cojuangco, who met with South Korean officials last month to seek help in reviving the Bataan plant, said the country’s high electricity costs stem from its reliance on imported fuel, whose prices are too volatile.

Government talks with South Korea had been on and off, he said, noting that the last offer to rehabilitate the plant stood at $1.19 billion in 2017.

“With that amount, the return of investment will be easy,” he said in Filipino. “South Korea can facilitate the rehabilitation of the nuclear plant because they are the experts in this field. The amount might have to be fine-tuned. The Philippine and South Korean governments and the proponent — Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co. Ltd. — should coordinate.”

It may take a while before the Philippines fulfills its nuclear ambitions.

For one, it must conform to strict IAEA requirements including on safety, funding, regulation, emergency planning, nuclear waste management and environmental protection, Michael O. Sinocruz, officer-in-charge of the Energy department’s Energy Policy and Planning Bureau, said.

The country must also train workers to sustain the nuclear industry, Alvie Asuncion-Astronomo, an associate scientist at the Department of Science and Technology, told a forum last year.

Andrea Luz Nery, a senior research specialist at the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute, said there are plans to include nuclear research in the country’s high school program.

Ms. Concepcion, the student, thinks going nuclear is the only way to go for the Philippines to meet its rising energy needs.

“Nuclear power is reliable, cheap and clean,” she said. “It’s a very powerful thing.”