By Victor V. Saulon, Sub-Editor

Energy mix need not leave out nuke power -- former Energy chief

Posted on September 14, 2016

NUCLEAR power will be a “good part” of the country’s energy mix, but issues need to be resolved on how it can work in a deregulated environment, a former Energy secretary said.

“On a general principle, nuclear power -- take away public acceptance -- as a technology, in terms of supporting your supply, is a good part of the energy mix,” said Francisco L. Viray, Department of Energy (DoE) secretary from Sept. 1994 to June 1998.

Mr. Viray, who is president and chief executive officer of Phinma Energy Corp., said setting aside concerns such as safety and nuclear waste disposal, could also bring down electricity cost, although qualifying that he has no updated data on how much cheaper it is compared to coal in terms of supplying baseload or reliable power.

“The only thing I can remember is that... power is so cheap that we don’t have to meter it anymore,” he said, recalling previous assessments on the impact on cost.

However, Mr. Viray said he could not see how nuclear power would fit in a deregulated sector. He was energy chief long before the passage of Republic Act 9136 or the Electric Power Industry Reform Act of 2001 (EPIRA), the law that privatized most of the country’s generation, transmission and distribution assets.

Nuclear energy has become an option under the current administration after the recent spate of electricity supply shortfall that resulted in power interruptions in Metro Manila and nearby provinces in recent months.

DoE Secretary Alfonso G. Cusi recently said he was open to reviewing the viability of the mothballed Bataan nuclear power plant, and had initiated the creation of a team that would craft a nuclear energy policy for the country.

For three days in August and September 2016, the Philippines hosted the international conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that included a visit to the Bataan facility that was started in the 1970s but remained unfinished and unused. Nuclear experts also made an assessment of the facility, which was intended to deliver a capacity of at least 600 megawatts.

Along with the nuclear energy policy, the DoE is also formulating an energy mix, which should identify how much power will be needed from generation sources such as coal, natural gas and renewable energy. The department is mandated by law to come up with an energy plan for the Philippines, which needs to be updated yearly.

Mr. Viray said the industry’s deregulation would make it difficult for nuclear energy to be part of the mix without government subsidy.

He said a nuclear plant would need a big power supply contract because the facility could not undergo a “cycle,” or be switched on or off. He added that the plant would always need a ready market, although this would lower the prices at the electricity spot market.

“I don’t know how it will be... how its economics will turn out in a deregulated market,” Mr. Viray said.

Issues about how fast the government can revive the Bataan plant have been raised considering instances in the past when policies have been re-drafted with a change in administration.

Josefina Patricia A. Magpale-Asirit, a commissioner at the Energy Regulatory Commission, said she had attended a workshop with the IAEA in which the duration to open a nuclear facility was set at around eight years.

“In that workshop it was established that it will take at least, in the shortest time ... [about] 8 years minimum for all the preparatory work that will have to be needed,” she said.

But she added the price of electricity produced by a nuclear plant would be more than half the cost of what a coal operator could deliver.