The country’s first and only nuclear reactor training facility is finally fully operational as the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute of the Department of Science and Technology has recently granted the authorization to operate the Philippine Research Reactor-1 Subcritical Assembly for Training, Education and Research (PRR-1 Sater), said the DOST-PNRI in a news release.
After it was commissioned in June 2022, or nine months ago, the granting of the authority, through the institute’s Nuclear Regulatory Division, opened the facility to serve its stakeholders from the research and academic community for their growing need for advanced training and research requirements on nuclear technology.
DOST-PNRI explained that the PRR-1 Sater is classified as a subcritical reactor with zero-power configuration and designed to be inherently safe for use solely in nuclear-related training, education and research, not for power generatios.
Thus, it will support PNRI-initiated education programs and courses—including reactor engineering, neutron physics, reactor physics, nuclear safety and radiation dosimetry, among others.
PNRI has entered into partnerships with educational institutions, such as in University of the Philippines Diliman, since 2019, and Mapua University since 2020, to start the offering of the courses.
Triga nuclear fuel loaded
The DOST-PNRI began the loading of Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics (Triga) nuclear fuel in the core of the PRR-1 Sater in June 2022. It signalled the start of the commissioning of the PRR-1 Sater, the DOST- PNRI said.
The Triga fuel is a uranium zirconium hydride alloy manufactured by US-based General Atomics and is well-known for its inherent safety.
The PNRI said the commissioning of the PRR-1 Sater is a milestone for the country as the facility will provide significant support in re-establishing nuclear capabilities in the Philippines.
“This demonstrates that PNRI can handle nuclear materials. We’ve been handling it for the past 50, 60 years,” said PNRI Director Dr. Carlo Arcilla during the loading of Triga.
The DOST-PNRI explained that the PRR-1 Sater has the following objectives: support nuclear manpower development; accommodate local access to an operating nuclear facility; train reactor operators, users and regulators; engage stakeholders in nuclear and reactor engineering; and repurpose available resources of the historical PRR-1 facility.
The project was first conceptualized in 2014, but actual work in the facility began in 2017. It is expected to be fully operational this year, 2023.
While not yet fully operational, the facility was opened for technical visits and awareness seminars on nuclear science and technology.
Atoms for Peace
Built as part of the US Atoms for Peace program to prevent the proliferation of nuclear arms after World War 2, the original PRR-1 facility was inaugurated in 1963 and was operational until its shutdown in 1988, leaving the country with no operating nuclear facility for the last 34 years.
It should be noted that the PRR-1’s closure came after the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) was mothballed in 1986 owing to alleged safety and political concerns.
The BNPP was built by the administration of President Ferdinand E. Marcos, who was ousted in 1986.
With the establishment of the PRR-1 Sater, the Philippines is now one step back on track in re-establishing its nuclear capabilities.
Paving the way for nuclear power program
The new developments on nuclear technology in the country came after former President Duterte signed Executive Order (EO) 164 in February 28, 2022, that includes the potential use of nuclear power in the country’s energy mix, a Philippine News Agency (PNA) report said.
“This policy is the start of the national nuclear power program,” Energy Undersecretary Gerardo Erguiza Jr. was quoted in the news report.
The new policy stated that the country “shall ensure the peaceful use of nuclear technology anchored on critical tenets of public safety, national security, energy self-sufficiency, and environmental sustainability.”
Duterte issued the policy following the recommendation of the Nuclear Energy Program Inter-Agency Committee, which conducted a pre-feasibility study and public consultation on the matter.
Through EO 164, Duterte has recognized that nuclear power can be a reliable, cost-competitive and environment-friendly source of energy based on the experience of highly developed countries.
“[A] Public Perception Survey on Nuclear Energy in 2019 indicated that almost 79 percent of Filipinos expressed approval or acceptability of the possible use or rehabilitation of an existing nuclear power plant,” the EO 164 was quoted.
It also showed that 65 percent approved the construction of new nuclear power plants and 78 percent are open to learning more about nuclear energy, the PNA said.
It is important to note that current President Marcos Jr., in his July 2022 state of the nation address, agreed to consider the use of nuclear energy to address the Philippines’ growing power needs.
“I believe that it is time also to reexamine our strategy toward building nuclear power plants in the Philippines,” he was quoted in news reports.
He said that new technologies are available, including smaller-scale modular nuclear plants.
Nuclear engineering course
Human resources development is one of the Philippines’ current challenges in pursuing a nuclear power plan.
“The last batch of nuclear engineers graduated in 1984 from the University of the Philippines,” the DOST-PNRI noted.
The program ceased after the government shifted away from nuclear power and the mothballing of the BNPP in 1986, it said.
But beyond nuclear power, DOST-PNRI hopes that the recent interest of the academic sector in nuclear science will also extend to other nuclear and radiation applications, given the expertise of certain universities and colleges in various fields of study, such as in agriculture and medicine.
The DOST-PNRI is also strengthening its nuclear training courses. Its Nuclear Training Center conducts more than 20 training courses annually for hundreds of professionals as well as undergraduates, covering topics, such as nuclear technology, radiation safety and protection, and nondestructive testing, to name a few, the institute said.
443 nuke plants worldwide
At the end of December 2019, the global operating nuclear power capacity was 392.1 gigawatt electrical (GW[e]), comprising 443 operational nuclear power reactors in 30 countries, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in its web site.
“Overall, nuclear power capacity since 2011 has shown a gradual growth trend, including some 23.2 GW(e) of new capacity added by the connection of new units to the grid or upgrades to existing reactors,” the IAEA said in its June 25, 2020 report.
As of December 31, 2019, 54 reactors were under construction in 19 countries with a total of capacity of 5,7441 MW(e), IAEA added.
Installed nuclear power capacity under construction has remained steady in recent years, except for continuous growth in Asia, where a total of 5,5067 megawatt electric capacity (MW[e]) operational capacity (61 reactors) has been connected to the grid since 2005.
Image credits: DOST-PNRI PHOTO