By Victor V. Saulon

Nuclear revival in spotlight at IAEA summit

Posted on August 30, 2016

HEADS of the country’s largest power producers and industry officials have kept an open mind about the prospect of nuclear energy for the Philippines, although some expressed reservations about its viability in the short term on lingering doubts about its safety and acceptability.

The Department of Energy (DoE), meanwhile, will not discriminate against nuclear energy or any technology that will bring reliable and affordable electricity as the country’s requirement for power grows, an official of the government office said.

Their stand comes as the country hosts this week an international conference on nuclear energy, which could put the spotlight once again on the country’s mothballed nuclear power plant and several attempts in the past to revive it.

“We will not disqualify anybody... but we will also emphasize that in that summit we will not be forced by anybody to come up with nuclear power plants,” said DoE Undersecretary Felix William B. Fuentebella.

From Aug. 30 to Sept. 1, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation (IFNEC) will be holding a conference in Manila to discuss the prospects of nuclear power in the Asia-Pacific region.

“It’s a high level study that will help Filipinos come up with the resolution whether or not to go into it,” Mr. Fuentebella said.

Isidro A. Consunji, DMCI Holdings, Inc. president and chief executive officer, said he has no problem with nuclear power for the Philippines as long it is “safe and competitive.”

Luis Miguel O. Aboitiz, president of the Philippine Independent Power Producers Association, said the country has a merchant electricity market, a business environment that allows investors to freely come in and put up power development projects.

“If a private entity wants to build a nuclear plant, there is nothing preventing [it] from doing so,” he said. “But it will have to compete with all the coal, gas and geothermal plants under development.”

As of June, the Philippines has a total installed capacity of 20,055 megawatts (MW) and a dependable capacity of 17,925 MW, with coal accounting for at least a third of the total, DoE figures show. Independent estimates place the country’s present power requirement at around 11,500 MW, or comfortably lower than the existing dependable capacity.

But by 2030, the DoE projects the country’s demand for electricity to grow by an additional 10,191 MW, over 70% of which will be coming from baseload plants or energy supplied mostly by coal-fired power sources.

Between this year and 2019, around 7,040 MW will be added to the grid if all pending committed projects come online as scheduled. The figures were based on data collated by the department as of April 2016, which also showed “indicative” projects that were awaiting funding, which could bring in 11,000 MW more.

Antonio R. Moraza, president of Aboitiz Power Corp., said nuclear would most likely meet a lot of resistance due to potential safety issues. Although saying that he is not an expert in the technology, he said the “proven units are quite big” and might cause “stability issues for the grid.”

Dr. Edgardo G. Alabastro, vice-chairman of Federation of Philippine Industries’ environment committee, said the group has yet to deliberate on its stand on nuclear energy, but he sees the technology as a possibility only in the long term because of the negative public perception.

He said the key is for a nuclear plant to be built in a geologically sound area away from populated urban places.

“Maybe an island,” he said, adding that science is available to preempt problems. “We can learn from other countries.”

But some countries with nuclear plants have been drawing up plans to get rid of them, said Henry J. Schumacher, vice-president of the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines.

“I hope this [nuclear] is not an option. Countries like Japan and Germany are deciding to get out of it because of the dangers involved in terms of natural calamities and in disposing of the used nuclear material,” he said.

“I firmly believe that the Philippines has better options in renewable energy that is dropping in costs continuously,” he added.

Jose M. Layug, Jr., a former DoE undersecretary, was neutral about any move to adopt nuclear energy as part of the country’s power system. He served the office at a time when a plan to study nuclear energy was brought up.

Mr. Layug, a senior partner in a law firm, advises Senator Sherwin T. Gatchalian, who chairs the Senate committee on energy.

“To me, as long as it’s cost-efficient, and will be accepted by the people, [and] we have enough space for it, why not?,” he said.

“There’s no reason for us to prevent any resource or fuel type. But cost is a factor and also acceptability because wherever you will build it kailangang ma-accept [has to be accepted].” he added.

He said during the term of Jose Rene D. Almendras as DoE secretary, a plan to study nuclear energy for the country was scrapped.

“Sec. Almendras was against nuclear because Fukushima happened during our time,” he said, referring to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in Japan on March 11, 2011. “We had to cancel the nuclear study plan.”

The Philippines had a nuclear program when Ferdinand E. Marcos was president in the ’70s. Bataan nuclear power plant began construction in 1976, but was stopped after the Three Mile Island accident in the US in 1979. A safety inquiry later disclosed a string of anomalies, including its location which is said to be near a geological fault line.

The country’s hosting of the conference is part of its “commitment in exploring all alternative energy resources to ensure supply security and stability,” the DoE said in a statement to announce the event.

The conference is led by the DoE as the host agency, together with the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Science and Technology through the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute and the National Power Corp. Up to 18-member states of the IAEA will join the event.

Jose S. Alejandro, director of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI), said his group is “fully behind” the DoE’s efforts “to listen, evaluate and understand the various available options that would range from power sources to policies and processes, including nuclear and other power alternatives.”

“PCCI views those efforts always in the context of the total and clear objectives stated by DoE, which is to achieve sustainable and reliable power supply at affordable and competitive cost as quickly as possible,” he said, adding that is because of the “trade and investments competition from our neighbors and partners that we face daily.”