By Angelica Y. Yang

NUCLEAR POWER holds the potential to address the country’s need for reliable, always-on baseload power, but the risks posed by the energy source could be a key sticking point towards its adoption, experts said.

Philippine Nuclear Research Institute Executive Director Carlo A. Arcilla said nuclear can effectively substitute for the output from gas-fired plants soon to be lost when the Malampaya field is depleted.

“Malampaya will run out in five years, so what will you (do to) replace that Malampaya share? Do you want to replace it with more coal? Or will you import natural gas?…My argument then is, why can’t you put nuclear?” he said in an interview with BusinessWorld on Wednesday.

He added that nuclear energy can also “back up solar and wind, even more stably than coal.”

Mr. Arcilla described solar and wind as good alternative energy sources, but they “cannot supply baseload demand” because they only operate for around 70% of the day, he said.

Power plants are classified as either “baseload” — which are always on and typically fueled by the most cost-effective energy sources, to meet the so called “base demand” below which power demand never falls — or “peaking” plants, which are more expensive to run or less reliable, which are engaged only when baseload capacity is about to be exceeded.

He said nuclear energy was a fraction of the cost of most fossil fuels, adding that imports of coal for a year’s usage require fifty Panamax vessel loads.

“The fuel for the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) will cost about $20 million, give or take a few million. That fuel will last for 18 months,” he said. The coal required to generate the equivalent amount of power for the same 18 months would amount to “something like $600 million,” Mr. Arcilla said.

He made these comments a week after the Department of Energy announced it will submit the results of a public perception study on nuclear power to President Rodrigo R. Duterte by the end of the year.

In July, the President organized an Nuclear Energy Program Inter-Agency Committee to study and make recommendations on the inclusion of nuclear into the energy mix. The committee’s report will be submitted to the President by the end of the year.

In a text interview with BusinessWorld, Gerry Arances, Executive Director for the environmental think tank Center for Energy, Ecology, and Development, said he was “appalled that taxpayers’ money was being used to study a form of energy that will endanger people’s lives and livelihoods.”

“We ask our energy authorities to stop being advocates of myth, claiming that nuclear energy is beneficial when in reality its fuel would still have to be imported…when the external costs and risks it possess are immeasurable,” he said.

He added that the presence of a nuclear facility in a country vulnerable to climate change would expose communities to “extreme” risk.

“Nuclear accidents triggered or worsened by the climate crisis are bound to happen,” Mr. Arances said. He maintained that tapping the country’s renewable energy potential was the “way forward.”

Meanwhile, Senator Sherwin T. Gatchalian, who chairs the Senate Committee on Energy, described nuclear as a complex and risky fuel source.

“There is merit to studying nuclear energy or the possibility of the use of nuclear energy. The technology is evolving, and innovation is catching up with nuclear power. So we cannot also (rule out) that possibility, but then again, it’s a very complex and risky fuel source,” he told BusinessWorld in a phone interview Thursday.

Asked about the BNPP, he said that it should not be revived. “In my opinion, it should not be jump-started because we will be spending so much time on addressing the pushback rather than (building) a strong nuclear power industry,” he said.

He said it was very important to have a proper nuclear waste disposal facility. At present, he said, that the country does not have contingency measures in place to prevent a possible nuclear mishap.

“For nuclear, we have zero. And if you compare to typhoons, we barely can barely survive typhoons. And nuclear is a different case kasi (because) you have (issues like) contamination, radiation, which are very complex,” Mr. Gatchalian said.