October 22, 2019
EARLIER this month, President Rodrigo Duterte visited Russia for the second time during his term. It was a productive trip that bolstered Philippine-Russia relations and marked the signing of several agreements, including a memorandum of intent to “jointly explore the prospects of cooperation in the construction of nuclear power plants in the Philippines.”
Upon returning to Manila, the President declared he would consult his Cabinet to see if anything in the nuclear deal would need the consent of Congress since the proposed project may face constitutional challenges.
Although there has not been any Supreme Court case on this matter, most if not all lawyers would agree that the construction of a nuclear plant in the country will not violate the nuclear ban in our Constitution. What is mandated by our basic law is to keep our territory free from nuclear weapons, not nuclear plants. In fact, Fr. Joaquin Bernas, SJ, a member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission, clarified that the constitutional provision is not a ban on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy but on nuclear arms, weapons and devices.
With power demand already outstripping supply in many areas, and with the country’s power rates among the highest in Asia, our energy and economic managers should seriously look into adding nuclear power generation into our energy mix.
Data gathered by Australia-based firm International Energy Consultants show that the Philippines has the second highest electricity price in Asia. The country’s total electrification rate, or those with access to electricity, is at 83 percent. According to the Philippine Institute for Development Studies, there are still 16 million Filipinos without electricity. While the urban electrification rate is 94 percent, the rural electrification rate is at a paltry 73 percent.
Coal already fuels half of the Philippines’ power grid, with natural gas and renewables each accounting for over a fifth, and oil the rest. With an economy growing as fast as China’s, the country’s energy consumption is expected to triple to 67,000 megawatt (MW) by 2040 from the present 23,815 MW installed capacity. Unless the country invests in nuclear power generation, most Filipinos won’t have access to affordable and sustainable electricity in the near future.
Regrettably, most Filipinos are closed-minded to the idea of nuclear plants. When we hear nuclear plants, we immediately associate it with the accidents at Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island. Hollywood movies depicting a desolate world populated by zombies after a post-nuclear catastrophe only seem to reinforce this perception. The reality, however, is that a nuclear plant is not only safe but also economical, sustainable and environmentally friendly.
Consider this: Nuclear plants have been generating electricity since 1951. The world’s oldest running nuclear power plant in Beznau, Northern Switzerland has been producing 730 MW since 1969. It is one of five nuclear plants that form 35 percent of Switzerland’s energy mix.
The world’s largest economy, the US, is also the world’s largest producer of nuclear power, accounting for more than 30 percent of worldwide nuclear generation of electricity. America has 98 operating nuclear power reactors in 30 states, operated by 30 different power companies.
Since 2001, these nuclear plants have achieved an average capacity factor of over 90 percent, generating up to 807 terawatt hours (TWh) per year and accounting for about 20 percent of the total electricity generated. And with its Clean Air Act requiring a reduction in carbon emissions from US power plants of 25 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and more by 2030, more states are now turning to nuclear power generation.
France, another European economic powerhouse, derives about 75 percent of its electricity from its 58 nuclear reactors. It produces so much electricity that it is the world’s largest net exporter due to its very low cost of generation, and gains over 3-billion euros in revenue per year from this. Realizing that it has few known indigenous energy resources, France sought to achieve greater energy security by expanding the country’s nuclear power capacity.
France now boasts a substantial level of energy independence and almost the lowest electricity cost in Europe. It also has an extremely low level of carbon dioxide emissions per capita from electricity generation since over 90 percent of its electricity is nuclear or hydro.
Despite the hundreds of nuclear reactors around the world, serious nuclear accidents have been rare. The three highly publicized accidents are the only major incidents in the history of civil nuclear power. This means the 17,000 cumulative nuclear-reactor years of commercial nuclear power in 33 countries have been relatively safe and worry-free.
The developers of modern nuclear reactors are learning from these mishaps. In the cases of Chernobyl and Fukushima, while human error and natural disaster played a role, the failures were caused because the plants could not keep the nuclear reactors cold enough. Modern systems seek to address these problems by installing duplicate emergency cooling systems. Other models involve passive cooling in the case of a loss of power — taking its cue from the events at Fukushima.
In addition, newer, “Gen IV” designs offer fully passive cooling systems and ways to more efficiently use nuclear fuel. As technology advances, nuclear reactors, machines and equipment are just going to get safer and more efficient.
While the Philippines vacillates on its nuclear power policy, other Asian countries are ramping up their commercial nuclear power capacity. China, India, Japan and South Korea have constructed more than 20 operating power reactors each, in order to meet their clean energy goals and growing domestic electricity consumption.
We, on the other hand, have a mothballed nuclear plant costing $2.3 billion that’s been turned into a tourist spot. Maintaining this nuclear plant-cum-tourist spot is costing Filipino taxpayers another P40 million per year.
If we are to meet the country’s increasing power demand and establish energy security, we should not keep nuclear energy off the table. Not that we are ready. We, however, ought to start developing the infrastructure for nuclear power, including laying down the standards, safety and security protocols for nuclear plants, emergency response and preparedness, waste management, radiation protection, and other governmental frameworks.
The recent nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia can be a first step toward meeting our country’s pressing need for development as well as energy security that will insulate us from fluctuations in fuel prices and the instability of political relationships with large oil and natural gas producers.
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