By Charmaine A. Tadalan

IT WILL TAKE YEARS to revive a nuclear energy development program due to inadequate laws, skills and infrastructure, even as the country scrounges for more energy sources to support its fast-growing economy, a senator and an expert said on Monday.

Senator Sherwin T. Gatchalian, chairman of the Senate’s Energy committee, said Philippine laws are inadequate for the development of this form of energy, with the head of the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI) citing the need first for a comprehensive nuclear energy law.

“We have to be very cautious in moving forward because kulang pa tayo sa mga batas at kulang pa tayo sa mga framework (We still lack laws and a framework),” Mr. Gatchalian told reporters in a briefing, Monday.

He advised the government to take extra precaution to ensure safe construction and operation of nuclear plants.

He noted that there are no laws that will regulate nuclear energy development, including proper disposal of nuclear waste.

President Rodrigo R. Duterte in his visit to Russia last week closed an agreement to explore the possibility of nuclear energy development. Mr. Duterte said in his Sunday arrival briefing that he plans to consult the Cabinet on the agreement.

Sought for comment, PNRI Director Carlo A. Arcilla said much remains to be done to lay the groundwork for revival of the country’s nuclear energy program.

“I agree with Senator Gatchalian: we haven’t yet approved the comprehensive nuclear law which will guarantee an independent regulator,” Mr. Arcilla told BusinessWorld in a telephone interview on Monday.

A measure providing for a nuclear regulatory framework nearly hurdled the 17th Congress, after it secured third-reading approval in the House of Representatives, but remained pending second-reading approval in the Senate.

Mr. Arcilla also said lawmakers will have to review Republic Act No. 9136, or the Electric Power Industry Reform Act of 2001, to incorporate provisions covering the development of nuclear energy.

Mr. Arcilla said Science and Technology Secretary Fortunato T. Dela Peña, who joined Mr. Duterte in Russia, has not yet given any instruction as regards the nuclear energy deal with Russia.

Regulations are just one of the factors that need to be considered in exploring nuclear energy development, Mr. Arcilla said.

He noted that the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will turn over its 19-point report on the Philippines’ readiness next month. “The INIR mission is the Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review basically, [whereby] the IAEA reviews each country’s readiness to go into nuclear power program, according to its 19 milestones approach,” he said. “That study… was completed and will be turned over to the Philippines in November.”

Factors considered include nuclear safety, regulatory framework, funding and financing, human resource development, legal framework, safeguards and radioactive waste management.

Mr. Arcilla cited the need to explore nuclear energy since the Malampaya gas reserve — which accounts for about 40% of supply in Luzon and a fifth nationwide — could be depleted by 2024. “There are very important reasons that the Philippines should consider nuclear energy. The main overriding one is our Malampaya gas reserves will run out in five years.”