Philippines Taking New Look at Nuclear Power

It’s been nearly 35 years since the Philippines mothballed the country’s only nuclear power plant, declaring the 621-MW Bataan facility would not be commissioned despite the country spending $2.3 billion on its construction. That decision is being revisited as the nation looks for a way to increase its power generation capacity, in a country where demand for electricity is soaring as part of an economic expansion.

Fitch Solutions Group in a September market report said, “Nuclear power will offer an effective solution to meet the country’s rising power demands over the coming decade, particularly as coal-fired power—which [the] Philippines has largely turned to—comes under increasing environmental opposition. Should nuclear be successfully introduced in the power mix, coal-fired power will face the highest risk of being displaced.”

President Rodrigo Duterte in July announced an executive order to create an interagency panel to look at creating a national policy for nuclear energy. Alfonso Cusi, the Philippines’ energy secretary, has been a vocal advocate of nuclear power as a way to increase the country’s supply of electricity. Cusi also has said the nation needs a way to get Southeast Asia’s highest power costs under control. In a statement after Duterte’s announcement, he said the president’s move is “a major step towards the realization of a Philippine nuclear energy program,” adding that it would “help shield our consumers from traditional power price volatilities.”

Duterte’s committee is expected to look at the feasibility of adding nuclear power from both and economic and environmental standpoint, and the president has said safety will be his top consideration in deciding whether to pursue a nuclear program. Cusi in September said the country’s Department of Energy proposed budget for 2021 does not provide funds to build a new nuclear plant, or upgrade the Bataan site, saying support from lawmakers and the public must come first.

1. The Bataan nuclear power plant was built in the 1970s, but it was never commissioned. Officials in the Philippines have discussed upgrading the plant, and finally bringing it online, as part of the country’s nuclear program. Source: Creative Commons / Jiru27

Previous discussions of starting up the Bataan plant (Figure 1) gained little traction, owing to safety concerns and the plant’s ties to former President Ferdinand Marcos and his martial law regime. Marcos, who ruled as a dictator for more than 20 years, in 1976 ordered construction of the Bataan plant in response to the global energy crisis; he maintained that nuclear energy was the country’s answer to the Middle East oil embargo that had created economic challenges. The plant was never fueled, though, due to safety concerns after the Three Mile Island accident in the U.S. in 1979, and the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 in the then-Soviet Union.

The plant’s availability is expected to be a more serious part of any nuclear discussion this time. Filipino officials also have been talking with Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear enterprise, about a feasibility study looking at the deployment of small-scale nuclear reactors across the country. Rosatom, along with Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co., in 2017 submitted plans to bring Bataan online, with costs ranging from $1 billion to more than $3 billion. Since 2009, the Bataan facility has been open for paid tours, which the government said has helped defray maintenance costs.

The plant features a Westinghouse-built light water reactor. The country’s Department of National Defense, along with the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute, last year urged the government to revive Bataan. Mauro Marcelo, an engineer who oversaw the maintenance and preservation of the Bataan plant before he retired earlier this year, told Reuters that other companies interested in the Philippines’ nuclear program include China’s top nuclear power plant builder, China Nuclear Engineering and Construction, and Tractebel, a Belgium-based company that supports development of energy projects worldwide. Marcelo said bringing Bataan online would be at least a five-year project, but would be faster than building a new nuclear plant, which would likely take a decade or longer.

A Rosatom spokesperson in August, in comments submitted to POWER, said that the company in October 2019 signed a “Memorandum of Intent on cooperation in the sphere of small modular reactors (SMRs) with the Department of Energy of the Republic of the Philippines. This allows us to share vast knowledge and experience we accumulated over the course of 75 years. [The] Department of Energy is following [a] technologically unbiased approach to create the most efficient, affordable, safe, and environmentally friendly energy mix for the country. We welcome the recent signing by President R. Duterte of the Executive Order No. 116 directing a study for the adoption of a national position on a nuclear energy program.”

Coal-fired power generation accounts for more than half of the Philippines’ electricity, with natural gas and renewables each accounting for just more than 20%. Oil-fired boilers provide the rest. The Philippines’ rapidly growing economy, which increased 6.8% in the first three months of this year prior to the worldwide spread of COVID-19, led to projections that the country’s electricity consumption, which was 90.2 TWh in 2018, according to the International Energy Agency, would triple by 2040.

Carlo Arcilla, director of the Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (DOST-PNRI), said recently that “the biggest issue in the Philippines is that we have one of the most expensive power [costs] in the world.” Arcilla has said nuclear, while requiring a great upfront investment, would be preferable due to lower fuel costs. “Ask anyone who has relatives abroad, and they will tell you the stark difference between their electricity rates and ours,” Arcilla said in a statement in mid-August. “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. 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.”

Rosatom today accounts for two-thirds of the globally exported nuclear power projects under construction, with 36 reactors in the pipeline in 12 countries. China also is growing its nuclear power influence, with 12 projects under construction worldwide. Both Russia and China have a keen interest in nuclear power in the Philippines and across Southeast Asia.

The Rosatom spokesperson told POWER: “We believe that nuclear power, which is reliable in terms of providing stable electricity, is one of the most promising, safe and economically feasible solutions to supply clean energy to countries of Southeast Asia and the whole world. Apart from being a key baseload power source, nuclear power provides zero CO2 emissions and can play a great role in advancing our common efforts to prevent climate change.”

Rosatom said that SMRs “could be one of the best decisions in terms of nuclear power development in the region as a mobile solution that does not require large-scale grid infrastructure. SMRs can provide a stable electricity supply to large industrial facilities and remote communities and would also be efficient in hybrid systems when used alongside renewable energy sources. Taking into consideration the geography of the region, we would say that both onshore and offshore nuclear power plants with SMR reactors could be a perfect solution. Floating nuclear power plant is an efficient energy solution for coastal and island territories and can be adapted to different climatic conditions, such as hot tropical climate, without compromising safety properties. Once implemented, it can ensure the energy independence of the country.”

Darrell Proctor is associate editor for POWER.

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