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WHENEVER nuclear energy is mentioned, some of the words associated with it are Fukushima, Chernobyl, and the mothballed Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP).
Now, more than a year since the Philippine government declared that nuclear power would be part of the country’s energy mix, the technology is gaining ground as power firms team up with foreign experts to undertake feasibility studies.
The Manila Electric Company and Aboitiz Power Corp. are keen to explore nuclear energy development, starting with micro modular reactors (MMR) or smaller nuclear plants with less than 20 megawatts (MW) of capacity.
Meralco chairman Manuel V. Pangilinan said MMR would benefit off-grid areas because these are ideal for energizing island provinces and hyperscale data centers.
“There are two interesting benefits that it could bring. One is the impact of MMR to supply adequate and 24/7 power supply to hyperscale data centers that PLDT and Globe are building for this country.
“Another side of it is its impact on desalination plants,” Pangilinan said.
MMR, he said, would address the water needs in coastal towns. “We have inadequate supply of water…this will solve water issue as well by adopting this nuclear solution.”
His group has tapped US-based Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp. (USNC) to conduct a feasibility study that will commence middle of next year. USNC specializes in MMR.
“The prefeasibility study will take three months, while the [full] feasibility study will take another six months…. Hopefully by the middle of next year, we’ll have the feasibility [study results] and we will share it with everybody, including the government,” Pangilinan said during the Giga Summit on Sustainable Energy, Energy Efficiency, and the Future Grid 2023 hosted by Meralco Power Academy.
To support the country’s changing energy needs, Aboitiz Power president and CEO Emmanuel Rubio said “no technology should be excluded from consideration,” including nuclear.
“In this context, we are actively exploring small modular reactors [SMR] for quick rapid deployment and flexibility when they become commercially viable and can be deployed in the country,” said Rubio, adding that once the technology becomes available, “It’s going to be [an] economically feasible solution that’s not emitting carbon dioxide.”
SMRs have a power capacity of up to 300 MW per unit, or about one-third of the generating capacity of traditional nuclear power reactors.
Aboitiz Power is also tapping Ultra Safe to bring the technology into the country. “We’re still in early discussions. We’re about to sign an NDA [non-disclosure agreement] with Ultra Safe just to continue the discussion,” said Rubio.
Moreover, it is also in discussions with Rolls-Royce and US-based NuScale Power Corp. “I think these are two entities that are ahead in terms of SMR development. From what we are told the earliest commercial operations of SMR will be in 2028,” Rubio had said.
‘RE all the way’
But nuclear power isn’t everybody’s cup of tea.
While Meralco and Aboitiz Power are looking forward to the results of the feasibility studies and discussions, ACEN Corp. would rather focus on renewable energy (RE). The power arm of conglomerate Ayala Corp. is targeting to achieve a 100-percent RE portfolio by 2025.
“We’re just monitoring developments on nuclear. Not actually pursuing. We’re focusing on renewables,” said ACEN President Eric Francia in an interview.
As part of its transition plan, ACEN aims to deliver reduction-led decarbonization by 2040, with an interim target for 2030, and a Net Zero status by 2050.
A question of ‘need’
To get the ball rolling, the Department of Energy (DOE) recently unveiled the country’s proposed new energy roadmap that now includes nuclear in the power mix.
Under the proposed Philippine Energy Plan from 2030 to 2050, nuclear energy capacity is forecasted to reach 1,200 MW by 2032, 2,400 MW by 2035, and 4,800 MW by 2050. The target nuclear capacity would include eight 150MW SMRs in operation by 2032.
“The plan also supports the inclusion of nuclear energy, which, if harnessed safely and responsibly, can significantly contribute to diversifying the energy mix,” said DOE Undersecretary Giovanni Bacordo. The numbers are still preliminary and are subject for review pending the final approval of the Philippine Energy Plan.
The DOE has since been pushing for the development of SMR in island provinces that have limited grid access. Given their size and relative transportability and ability to provide non-intermittent power supply with low carbon and predictable supply cost, SMR could go a long way in developing island provinces.
Provinces such as Palawan, Cagayan and Sulu could be the possible sites, added the DOE.
President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr., in his recent visit to the US, said the country has a “shortfall in power supply,” which could be addressed with the support of NuScale’s SMR.
“We need everything. We just have to have everything and this new technology is something,” the President had said.
NUCLEAR power is currently not included in the Philippine energy mix even if the country had early on built a nuclear power plant.
The 620MW BNPP is the country’s first and only attempt at nuclear-power development. It was supposed to be the first of two nuclear plants to be built in the northern province of Bataan. It was also the first nuclear power plant in Southeast Asia, and was identified as a solution to the 1973 oil crisis that had adversely affected the global economy, including the Philippines. The project, however, was mothballed in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.
According to DOE Energy Policy and Planning Bureau Director Michael Sinocruz, the government has not yet dismissed the possibility of reviving the nuclear plant.
“We are not yet abandoning the possible rehabilitation of the BNPP, but we need to do a feasibility study whether we can rehab the BNPP at a reasonable cost, whether rehabilitation of BNPP is cost-effective to us,” said Sinocruz.
We need to commission. So, there are several proposals that we received for the conduct of the feasibility study for the BNPP.”
State-owned power generation firm Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP) had undertaken the first pre-feasibility study on the rehabilitation of BNPP in partnership with the National Power Corp. It has even offered to rehabilitate BNPP for around $1 billion to as much as $2 billion.
“They [South Korea] have an offer for us to revive the plant; they say they can operate our plant within five years. That is the fastest way to have nuclear power in the country even if it is 620 megawatts,” said Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI) Director Carlo Arcilla, adding that South Korea has the exact model of BNPP that has been operating for 40 years now.
Every pro has its con
VARIOUS groups have opposed nuclear power, citing its dangers and difficulty of disposing of its radioactive waste.
According to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), SMR technology is “too expensive, too risky and too uncertain.”
David Schlissel, IEEFA director of resource planning analysis, said, “NuScale has insisted its costs are firm and that the project will be economical. But based on the track record so far and past trends in nuclear power development, this is highly unlikely.”
Greenpeace campaigner Khevin Yu said nuclear energy companies are “practically making the Philippines the ‘guinea pig’ for untested risky technologies to promote their business.”
He also pointed out that the SMRs are still untested and unproven, and that there is currently no way to safely store nuclear waste. “Even if they actually succeed in putting up nuclear plants, it will take a long time before we are able to use it. Furthermore, we will be stuck with maintaining a ticking time bomb, which will endanger the lives of nearby communities should an accident occur,” Yu added.
People for Power (P4P) Coalition, represented by Gerry Arances, expressed its disappointment at the casual disregard for the risks of nuclear power “to a country like the Philippines, vulnerable as it is to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and the threat of climate change.”
The vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy, meanwhile, said that it would take years before the country is able to put up a nuclear power plant because stringent measures must be implemented.
“The modular plants will come in by 2026 or 2028. These are small so these are easy to deploy in one to two years. Within his term, modular can happen, but not those over 1,000 megawatts because those would take 10 years,” said Senator Sherwin Gatchalian.
He said there is a need to convene experts, lawmakers and government officials to craft laws related to the utilization of nuclear power. “I think the first step is to have an Executive-Legislative coordination meeting to determine the necessary laws we need to craft. This is very technical and Congress and Senate cannot do it alone. We need the technical experts to write it and we also need international lawyers to participate,” Gatchalian explained.
Nuclear addresses all challenges
TO allay fears on safety, local and foreign experts are betting big on nuclear.
House Special Committee on Nuclear Energy chairperson Rep. Mark Cojuangco said nuclear power is the safest energy source of all. “It’s time we be serious about nuclear as the destination technology, to lower our importation requirements and to have clean energy that is not only clean but also reliable and the cheapest combination of all of the above,” he said.
Ike Dimayuga, a senior research scientist at Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, said studies have shown that the fastest way to an affordable, reliable, low-carbon energy future includes a significant share of nuclear energy because it can generate carbon-free electricity 24/7, and it is the ideal complement to wind power and solar energy in creating a carbon-free energy future.
“It is important to include nuclear energy as part of the green energy mix, particularly in light of SMR technology and hybrid energy systems,” he said.
Roland Backhaus, Ultra Safe executive vice president for strategic engagements, who also participated in the Giga Summit, said the Philippines faces the seemingly opposing challenges of promoting national security, grid stability, and grid reliability.
“Renewable energy can contribute to a solution but cannot provide the Philippines with reliable, always-on, baseload energy, much less process heat for increased industrialization. Safe, clean and reliable MMRs will provide carbon-free energy while improving quality of life,” he said.
Invest in local talents
AS one of the country’s major players in the energy industry, Meralco has been proactively preparing for the introduction of nuclear technologies in the Philippines.
Pangilinan announced that the company would invest in local talents and support aspiring Filipino nuclear engineers to help accelerate the development of the country’s technical and regulatory talent pipeline through education and training in the highly specialized field of nuclear engineering.
“Meralco will send some of our engineers to a two-year graduate program targeting local talents who are graduates and practicing mechanical, electrical, material Engineering, and related areas in universities in the US, in Canada, Korea, Japan, France,” Pangilinan said.
Meralco has launched a program called Filipino Scholars and Interns on Nuclear Engineering, or FISSION, to address identified gaps that could impede the government’s transformative initiatives, such as the absence of expert safety regulators and technical professionals capable of operating nuclear technologies, specifically the SMR and MMR.
EVEN though the country has taken a national position on nuclear, DOE Secretary Raphael Lotilla said there is a need to have a regulatory and policy framework in place first.
“We’ve always taken the position that we should not ban technologies, but we should set standards. The Philippines has been the earliest supporter of the peaceful uses of nuclear power,” he said, adding that the regional sharing of best experiences and practices as well as challenges and expectations among both developed and developing countries is a welcome conversation.
Despite nuclear’s rosy promises of a green future, there is still much to do. But forging partnerships with relevant government agencies, the academe, and private sector partners to collectively shape a sustainable energy future is a good start, Lotilla said. “Hopefully, this is the start of exploring and considering seriously new options for this country.”