Is the Philippines ready to go nuclear or will the country be taking a big risk by considering it? In a country with 24 active volcanoes, the concern is very valid. Volcanic eruptions have the potential to cause earthquakes and vice-versa. Nuclear plants, even as they are built to resist seismic activities, are still vulnerable to them.
Earlier in March, then President Rodrigo Duterte signed an executive order (EO) that added nuclear energy to the country’s power mix. He ordered the Department of Energy (DOE) to develop a nuclear power program that should be based on the standards of the International Atomic Energy Agency, according to the Philippine Energy Plan 2018 to 2040.
In the EO, the ex-president said that he believed nuclear power can help bridge the gap between rising energy demand and supply. He described nuclear power as a “viable alternative source” of baseload power that can address the projected decline of coal-fired power plants.
The EO assigned the Nuclear Energy Program Inter-Agency Committee to conduct further studies on the possible use of the US$2.2-billion Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP), which was completed in 1985 but mothballed in 1986 after anti-nuclear groups backed by various grassroots organizations held nationwide strike or “welgang bayan” against it.
Environment groups, on the other hand, have been consistent in saying that nuclear power should not be considered for the Philippines. Now that the new president Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has also declared his support for nuclear power, even as he also said that he supports renewable energy, green groups want public discussions on the implications of adopting the former for climate action given the country’s high vulnerability to climate change and the new president’s record when it comes to environmental concerns.
Nuclear or renewable energy?
During the campaign season in February, Marcos Jr batted for renewable energy that was lauded by advocates. He said he wanted “to improve the quality of solar panels and other alternative and renewable energy sources” because he saw a need to address high electricity rates in the country. He has been quoted in the media saying installing solar panels in Filipino households, especially in underserved areas, can be a solution.
“Because solar panels are still not all that reliable, many Filipinos are still apprehensive of buying them, they think that panels are prone to damage. If the government is more strict about quality monitoring, then everyone will be encouraged to install solar panels in their own homes,” Marcos Jr said.
“If all our homes had solar panels – wouldn’t it generate big savings for everyone? If even our factories use solar energy, the prices of their products would certainly go down.”
Marcos Jr also said earlier the country has the potential to be a “major wind power producer” and he will push for reforms towards this end.
“We must explore other energy resources, like wind, solar, hydro, biomass, geothermal, and ocean energy sources. We have to break our dependence on imported crude oil for our households and industries to enjoy low-cost and uninterrupted power supply,” he said.
Observers said there is a real need to address power issues in the Philippines if the country is to keep up with developments of the global economy. The top five countries with the highest power rates in Asia are Japan (P12.31 per kWh); the Philippines (P8.96 per kWh); Singapore (P8.83 per kWh; Hong Kong (P6.53 per kWh); and Thailand (P6.23 per kWh).
During his electoral campaign, Marcos Jr also made a promise to push for 100 percent household electrification.
Nuclear energy option
Even as Marcos Jr declared his commitment to solar and wind energies, however, he also said that he wanted the Philippines to have at least one nuclear power plant. He made this declaration in March, supporting the EO his predecessor signed to promote nuclear power generation.
Marcos’ support came at the heels of an exchange of memoranda between senior Philippine and US officials to promote the two countries’ cooperation in the use of nuclear energy.
A group of scientists is also questioning the Marcos Jr government’s agenda when it comes to power utilities. The group, AGHAM-Advocates of Science and Technology for the People,
said the priority bills of the administration on public utilities do not address primary problems because these are still hinged on privatization and deregulation which automatically mean higher water and electricity rates for the public.
In his first State of the Nation Address (SONA), Marcos Jr said the country should expand its power sources to address energy needs. His solution was to build more coal-fired power plants and explore nuclear power. He also said, however, he supports tapping available renewable energy sources including natural gas as a complementary energy source.
AGHAM said while they acknowledged the need to develop all possible indigenous energy resources, renewable energy is very promising if fully developed, “We are still wary about the nuclear option that the government is considering,” said Jona Yang, the group’s secretary general.
The Marcos Jr government is also considering recommissioning the BNPP.
“The president’s insistence on recommissioning the mothballed power plant and the introduction of the small modular reactors put into question how prepared we are on nuclear waste disposal, public safety and the fuel source, who are all not addressed,” Yang said.
The environmental advocate said the 621-megawatt nuclear plant will not solve the aforementioned problems on supply but will further aggravate them.
Nuclear power will not solve problem of high electricity rates
The Philippines has the most expensive electricity rates in Southeast Asia. In 2016, power rates in the country were higher than that of Thailand by 1.5 times. Consumer groups have long been pointing out that high electricity costs are not so much because of the lack of supply but because of the control of private owners of power utilities.
In the Philippines, private distribution utility companies and not the government control the energy production, power transmission, and sale of electricity.
The passage of the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (EPIRA) made it possible for private corporations to build and operate power facilities. They can recover their capital and generate massive profits by charging consumers.
“Without doubt, this will also be the case if the BNPP is recommissioned. It will be an additional burden to consumers as all the prerequisite costs to operate the plant, such as nuclear tax, recommissioning, and waste disposal costs, would be pass on to consumers,” Yang said.
According to a feasibility study by the Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO), the BNPP can be rehabilitated within four to five years. It will cost US$1 billion. In 1984, however, the Philippines already paid US$2.1 billion for the construction of the reactor, but the project was never operational.
Yang pointed out the government is attempting to justify the recommissioning of the BNPP by saying there is a shortage of electricity in the country. “In our analysis, the country still has enough power supplies,” she said.
“As of 2020, the country has an installed capacity of 26,250 megawatts (MW) with a dependable capacity of 23,410 MW. The peak demand was just 15,282 MW that same year. We have more than enough in the coming years.”
Renewable energy advocates have been drumbeating that to gain energy sufficiency, the country should harness its indigenous energy resources instead of utilizing imported fuel or considering nuclear energy. They also argued recommissioning the BNPP will make the Philippines dependent on uranium which has to be imported from other countries.
“The BNPP is already antiquated, faulty, dangerous. It has served as a milking cow for corrupt practices. We’re risking too much if we allow an old facility with around 4,000 technical defects to operate. The government also cannot present a concrete plan for the disposal of spent uranium fuel,” Yang said.
Another group staunchly against nuclear power, Greenpeace Philippines, expressed alarm that exploring nuclear energy will “burden Filipino consumers economically and expose the country to health hazards, contamination and disaster risks.” It said there are many unsolved issues such as the inherent safety risks and disasters associated with nuclear power plants.
According to the group, nuclear energy is the most expensive and dangerous source of electricity. The Philippines, it said, will have to spend billions to source fuel, expertise, and technologies, all of which will have to be imported from overseas, from planning to operations.
Greenpeace said DOE’s time and the taxes of Filipinos would be put to better use harnessing cheaper, safer, and more sustainable renewable sources, such as solar and wind, which are abundant in the Philippines. “These can also be more quickly deployed,” it said.
Nuclear safety risks and threats
Admittedly, on the matter of generation capacity, that of nuclear power plants has been determined to be higher (at least 93.5 percent). They can fully operate for 341 days out of every year.
Solar farms in comparison have a capacity factor of 24.5 percent or 89 full days out of 365 days given that solar panels produce electricity only when there is sunlight. There are, however, many ongoing research and development efforts to increase the efficiency of panels to collect energy. Battery storage technology is also developing at a fast rate.
Dr. Giovanni Tapang, Dean of the College of Science, University of the Philippines, pointed out this matter of generation capacity is very negligible when considered against the inherently dangerous nature of nuclear reactors.
He said: “We cannot forget the massive damage to human life and the environment caused by the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine and the Fukushima incident in Japan. The former was caused by human error and the latter by a natural disaster.
“In both cases, there were constant threats to the communities established near or around the facilities. It’s also known that nuclear accidents and disasters can spread radioactive debris far from their epicenter.”
Tapang also pointed out another concern, which was nuclear facilities generate toxic wastes such as uranium mill tailings, spent (used) reactor fuel, and other radioactive wastes during their normal operations.
“These remain radioactive for thousands of years. Leaks from nuclear facilities have also been known to happen and they cause adverse health effects on those exposed to them for long periods.
“These materials are subject to special regulations for their handling, storage, and disposal, but in low-technology countries like the Philippines not known for maintaining the highest public safety standards, there are no guarantees that will not come in contact with the outside environment.”
Ordinary citizens speak out
Ordinary Filipinos are also weighing in on the issue that has become a hot topic for debate on social media and news sites. In an interview with Maritime Fairtrade, physics high school teacher Majalla Roldan said the government should also consider waste produced by nuclear power plants, heat, and radioactive materials.
She said: “Consider as well the risks and the probability of meltdown, especially in a geologically active region like ours. Nuclear energy is efficient but the half-life of fissionable materials is too long for it to be contained safely in a geologically active region like the Philippines.
“Heat pollution is also hard to disperse and the cooling towers of nuclear plants require vast amounts of water which we don’t have. We don’t have any other place but our rivers to put the heated water in, and it will be deadly to aquatic life.”
Roldan also said the government should consider environmental factors apart from climate change such as soil and water pollution, the presence of active volcanoes, and the location of the Philippines.
“Our islands were formed along the subduction zone formed by three tectonic plates, geology-wise. We also need education and expertise, we also need to build a culture of safety and science to manage nuclear energy. Lastly, nuclear plants and the fuel that runs them are expensive. Japan is already scaling back on nuclear. Europe and the US are also rethinking their reliance on nuclear energy,” she argued.
Advertising executive Elver Sanay also has qualms on nuclear power, saying it is only safe until something goes wrong.
“Chernobyl? Fukushima? Remember? Not against nuclear energy but it has to be done correctly. The problem is that the Philippines is a very political and corrupt country. There will be many serious issues during the development of a nuclear facility,” she said.
Industrial engineer Jaime Harrauri for his part said watching the series “Chernobyl” has convinced him against nuclear power. “The Philippines is the last country I’d trust to run a nuclear power plant. We can’t even fix a road or follow simple rules and you want us to run a nuclear power plant?!”
As for lawyer Brix Reyes, he believed the government should be “realistic”. “The Philippines, geologically, is in the Pacific Ring of Fire. We’re vulnerable to all kinds of natural disasters. Building nuclear power plants may be a little bit more sustainable, but it is not a safe good energy source,” he said.
“Consider the cost of construction, operation, and maintenance of nuclear power plants – for sure they will not help lessen the cost of commercial and residential electricity.”
Corruption, said store manager Audrey Go, is also a factor against nuclear even as she said it is viable. “When your government is so corrupt that it skimps investing in quality construction and manufacturers, we will just be wasting funds. We can’t trust corrupt officials to manage a highly sensitive and expensive nuclear project and expect it to be safe,” she said.
Actions against plans to revive the BNPP have also started, especially all over Bataan where groups like the Nuclear-Free Bataan Movement (NFBM) continue to hold public fora and symposia to engage the public, especially local communities in Bataan, regarding nuclear energy and its hazards.
In support of such efforts, other advocacy organizations, such as Kalikasan Center for Environmental Concerns (Kalikasan CEC), are demanding the Marcos Jr. government to put together and implement mechanisms that will enable the community of environmental advocates to be heard and consulted when it comes to development programs and projects that will have an impact on the environment, including nuclear facilities.
“We will also be closely monitoring how the new government is making good on its promises to utilize more renewable energy and ensure that there is accountability when it comes to the power generation and climate change agenda it will implement,” it said.
Explore safer energy sources
Other energy options are sustainable, safe, accessible, affordable, and reliable to address the expected power demand of the Philippines. While it is a fact nuclear energy is a technological option, it is not a good option and the country can do without it. The country’s leaders should give more weight to the safety of Filipinos and the environment, and nuclear power’s social and economic viability.
While the Philippines has to have a steady supply of energy, it should no longer come from fossil fuels and the government has to bring down carbon emissions that lead to global warming and which exacerbate climate change.
Both solar and nuclear power are sources that do not produce carbon dioxide, but the latter comes with human and environmental risks that cannot be compensated by the electricity it can produce.
For now, however, the debate on whether the Philippines will go on the path of nuclear power has only just begun.
All photos credit: Nukes Coal-Free Bataan and Greenpeace Philippines