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Nuclear energy for more power generation


Text by Henrylito D. Tacio

Photo source: Canva

During the Zoom meeting of the newly-formed National Panel of Technical Experts (NPTE) of the Climate Change Commission and convened by the Department of Finance, one of the provocative issues raised was the country’s draft national policy for nuclear energy.

To be or not to be included in the country’s energy mix – nuclear power, that is.

Although the NPTE still did not have an official stand on the issue, some experts offered their insights.

Dr. Jihan H. Adil, environmental planning and engineering expert specializing in wastewater and climate change from Zamboanga City, believed the country is ready to include nuclear energy as studies have shown that 88% of accidents are caused by acts of people, 10% by unsafe actions and 2% by acts of God.

Thus, a well-designed, correctly located, and properly operated nuclear facility will not only contribute significantly to the reduction of carbon emission from the energy sector; it can also contribute to economic development.

Climate change, defined as “a long-term change in the average weather patterns that have come to define Earth’s local, regional and global climates,” could have an impact on the country’s energy supply, along with increasing energy consumption due to increased demand for air conditioning.

With the continuous increase of power bills, the chaotic brown-outs every now and then, and the booming population, it is high time for the Philippines to be engaged in nuclear energy. This is the best option for the country’s long-term plans for more affordable power generation.

“Ask anyone who has relatives abroad, and they will tell you the stark difference between their electricity rates and ours,” said Dr. Carlo Arcilla, director of the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI), a line agency of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST). “That’s how the Philippines lags behind other countries in terms of power cost.”

“Nuclear is simply the cleanest, cheapest and most efficient means of producing electricity,” said Dr. Arcilla, who strongly advocates for the Philippines to finally establish its own nuclear power program. “Nuclear power will especially spare the poorest among the Filipinos who are the ones actually allotting the lion’s share of their income just for electric bills.”

The problem of power generation has been with the Philippines since the 1970s. “Our shortage of electricity is a real, serious problem that we cannot downplay. But if we focus exclusively on it, we run the risk of seeing just the trees and not the forest,” Engr. Rufino Bomasang, then energy undersecretary, told community journalists in a press briefing in the late 1980s.

Today, the same scenario is happening. In fact, as the country continues to grapple with the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, increasing electricity rates and occasional power outages only worsen the national mood.

The Philippines is a member of the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN). Right now, the region is “exploring an approach to diversify its energy mix by introducing clean and reliable energy, such as civilian nuclear energy,” wrote Albertcassy C. Masinas and four others in an opinion that was published in Energy Voice.

“The Philippines, as the third-largest economy and the second most populated country in ASEAN, is having the same battle in balancing the future energy supply and demand,” Masinas and his co-authors wrote. “The country is a net coal and oil importer, which imports nearly half the country’s primary energy supply.”

In 2019, the country’s power supply reportedly reached a total of 25,532 megawatts (MW) of installed capacity, of which fossil fuels accounted for 60%, as coal (35.4%) increased its share of the total power generation to cover for the reduced hydropower output.

“For the upcoming future, especially for meeting the sustainable post-pandemic recovery, the challenges in meeting future energy demand are substantial,” Masinas et al. wrote. “Moreover, the importance of energy transition has opened opportunities for the Philippines to reduce fossil fuel usage and explore other alternative energy sources including nuclear energy.”

Nuclear energy has the capacity to produce baseload power for a continuous supply of electricity 24 hours a day, seven times a week, Dr. Arcilla pointed out. He added that conventional sources such as coal and natural gas also have similar capacity, but nuclear does not entail the high cost of refueling fossil fuels or the carbon emissions that are the bane of a world ravaged by climate change.

In a press release obtained by this author, it is said that a single pellet of uranium fuel almost the size of a pencil eraser contains as much energy as a ton of coal (907 kilograms), three barrels of oil (149 gallons), or as much as 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas.

The PNRI is the country’s lead agency in atomic research and development. It is a member of the Nuclear Energy Program Inter-Agency Committee (NEPIAC) created by Executive Order 116. NEPIAC, whose main task is to study the adoption of a national position on nuclear power, is chaired by the Department of Energy (DOE) with the DOST as vice-chair.

In a statement, the PNRI believes that adding nuclear to the current energy mix will pave the way for more efficient and less costly power costs. In fact, it throws support for the renewed efforts to engage in a nuclear power program as it also pushes for an independent regulatory body through a pending bill in Congress.

The advantages of nuclear energy have been acknowledged by the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST), the country’s leading advisory and scientific recognition body which is also under the DOST.

“Nuclear fuel can be a viable solution to mitigate the effects of climate change,” NAST said in a statement issued some years back. It further stated that nuclear serves as an alternative to fossil fuels not only in terms of environmental impact but also in terms of its economic feasibility.

“(T)he dependence on imported fossil fuels makes the country vulnerable to world energy price volatility. By comparison, the cost of generating nuclear energy is less sensitive to nuclear fuel price due to the larger component contributed by its capital cost,” NAST said.

“We have met the enemy, and he is us,” so goes a popular statement from Walt Kelly. This is particularly true in the case of climate change. There is a “95 percent likelihood” that human activity is the cause of climate change, according to the findings of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The 5th IPCC Report said that human activity released 545 gigatons of carbon dioxide – the main greenhouse gas – from 1750 to 2011. It is projected that if 1,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide are emitted, which at current rates will likely occur between 2040 and 2050, there is a one-in-three possibility that the 2 degrees Celsius limit is above the pre-industrial level will be exceeded.

The Civilian Nuclear Energy Fact Sheet, published by ASEAN Centre for Energy in 2020, said that switching from coal to nuclear can save 859 tons of carbon dioxide per Gigawatt hours (GWh). GWh is a unit of energy representing one-billion-watt hours and is equivalent to one million-kilowatt hour.

“Assuming the coal power plant capacity factor in the Philippines is 65%, the coal power plants produce 51 Terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity every year,” Masinas et al. wrote. “Switching 50% of coal into nuclear power in the Philippines can avoid as much as 22 million tons of carbon dioxide per year.”

That’s one way of decreasing the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. “We need to take action now because a warmer earth threatens food security and public health,” said Loren Legarda, the United Nations Champion for Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation for Asia-Pacific.

“The time has come,” said a joint letter released to the media by the world’s top climate scientists, “for those who take the threat of global warming seriously to embrace the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems” as part of efforts to build a new global energy supply.

The letter signatories were Dr. James Hansen, a former top scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration; Dr. Ken Caldeira, of the Carnegie Institution; Dr. Kerry Emanuel, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Dr. Tom Wigley, of the University of Adelaide in Australia.

At the time when Jericho L. Petilla was energy secretary, the country was looking at nuclear power as a possible source of energy for the country. “We’re looking at it on a long-term basis,” he was quoted as saying. “At the same time, we have to look at the technical side, and then recommend later on if studies show that it’s good for the country.”

According to Petilla, the social dimension – or the possible non-acceptance of nuclear energy by the public – is the limiting factor why the government is excluding it from its energy mix. In addition, under the Philippine Constitution, nuclear power plants are prohibited.

The idea of pursuing nuclear energy for power generation is not new in the country. The 623-MW Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) was completed in 1984. Westinghouse Electric built it during the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos at a cost of US$2.2 billion. 

For “safety concerns,” the BNNP was mothballed in 1986 during the time of Corazon C. Aquino – even before it could begin operations. During the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, proponents wanted the BNPP rehabilitated, but it would cost a whopping US$1 billion to do so.

Nuclear power is the use of sustained nuclear fission to generate heat and electricity. Nuclear power plants provide about 5.7% of the world’s energy and 13% of the world’s electricity, according to Nobel Prize winner Al Gore.

“Globally, nuclear power has contributed to the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions by more than 60 gigatons over the past 50 years, which is almost two years’ worth of global energy-related emissions,” Masinas et al. wrote.

In an interview with Philippine News Agency, Dr. Arcilla said the world is now home to 450 nuclear power plants. About 100 of them are located in the United States. “If it is unsafe, why would Americans have 100 nuclear power plants?” he said.

Aside from advocating nuclear science and technology, the PNRI also continues to push for the enactment of the Comprehensive Atomic Regulatory Act, which will create an independent nuclear regulatory body in the Philippines. International standards prescribe a separate agency that will handle the regulation of all activities and facilities involving sources of ionizing radiation.

“While we are waiting for a law creating an independent body, Republic Act 5207 is still a basis for pursuing nuclear power as it was when the BNPP was being licensed in the 70s and 80s,” says Dr. Carlito Aleta, a scientist specializing in nuclear engineering, and consultant of the International Atomic Energy Agency. “Let’s hope a new bill will be passed by Congress, creating a new regulatory body.” 

RA 5207 is the Atomic Energy Regulatory and Liability Act of 1968. The said Act “encourages, promotes, and assists the development and use of atomic energy for all peaceful purposes, including the production and use of atomic energy facilities and atomic energy materials, subject to regulations.”

The regulations will cover matters involving nuclear power, nuclear and radioactive materials, facilities, and radiation-generating equipment used for diagnosis and treatment of diseases in hospitals and medical centers and other industrial activities in the country.

Meanwhile, two NPTE experts – Dr. Emma E. Porio and Dr. Ramon Lorenzo R. Guinto – offered clean alternatives to nuclear energy that might be beneficial to look into and need to be harnessed.

Dr. Porio is a science research fellow of the Manila Observatory, while Dr. Guinto is the Inaugural Director of the Planetary and Global Health Program of the St. Luke’s Medical Center College of Medicine.

Both experts coined the acronym BIGSHOW, which stands for Biomass, Geothermal, Solar, Hydro, Ocean Thermal, and Wind. “(These are energy) sources that are classified as good for both people and the planet,” they said. 

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