Such Folly

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Modular nuclear plant for Sulu? Renewables is a much better option. Photo c/o pinterest

The local government unit (LGU) in Sulu is said to be looking at putting up a modular nuclear power plant (NPP).

A report by The Inquirer quoted Energy Department’s spokesperson and undersecretary Felix William saying, “Yes, Sulu. It’s actually small. They are looking at a modular facility.” The undersecretary, however, admitted that a modular nuclear plant is a remote possibility.

And Fuentebella is right to say so. After all, the suggestion is a folly.

For one, what we have are outdated legislative and regulatory frameworks to guide us in developing a nuclear power plant. Whoever suggested building a nuclear power plant in Sulu seems to have forgotten that our regulatory framework covering NPPs were created more than 50 years ago. However all these were either repealed or downgraded during President Cory’s time. In particular, Philippine Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) was downgraded to a Philippine National Research Institute (PNRI). PAEC was regulating the nuclear power development and operations including licensing of engineers.

The existing legislative framework in the regulation of nuclear technology in the country are the Science Act of 1958 and the Atomic Energy Regulatory Act of 1968 or RA 5207 where there are two different regulating agencies in the use of radiation, namely the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI) and the Bureau of Health Devices and Technology (BHDT) under the Health Department.

The PNRI is in charge of regulating nuclear and radioactive materials while the BHDT governs the electrically generated radiating emitting devices in all the fields. Unfortunately, our current framework fails to define the regulatory responsibilities of nuclear plants. Neither of these bodies have the competence nor authority to regulate nuclear power.

Who then would issue a license to build and operate the nuclear facility since there is no licensing agency anymore? We need to create a new law that would define the responsibilities of each regulating agency in charge of nuclear power.

And even if we can pass a law quickly, there remains the question of human resources. In the first place, how much expertise do we have on nuclear technology locally? This leads me to my second point.

The Philippines lacks the technical skills for a nuclear power plant. There is a shortage of qualified experts and experienced workers in running an NPP. Those involved in building the Bataan power plant may no longer be around or have retired from work altogether.

This a known fact. The absence of qualified people is a gap that some lawmakers tried to address when they proposed the re-opening of the Bataan Power plant.

For example, House Bill 580 or the “Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) Operability Act” filed by the late Senator Mirriam Santiago had a provision mandating the creation and implementation of a training program for the management and operation of all technical aspects of the BNPP.

The same bill also proposed for the University of the Philippines (UP) to form a Nuclear Power Engineering Department under the College of Engineering, which should only be to “offered for enrollment to the top twenty percent (20%) of engineering graduates” of the university. The proposal also called for a separate course in UP that will specialize in nuclear power industry regulation.

The late senator obviously knew what she was proposing. Her senate bill recognized the lack of qualified people to build, run and regulate NPPs in this country and the need to recruit the brightest minds to handle nuclear energy. Up to this day, there remains a shortage of people to run and regulate nuclear power.

In the absence of local experts and experienced personnel, who will then build and run the NPPs? Are we to turn to foreigners and rely solely on their expertise? This raises the question of whether we should entrust the operations of a power plant entirely in the hands of foreigners. Our current laws, unless exempted by another law, prohibits foreigners from practising their profession in the country.

Plus, let us not forget that Sulu remains to be a conflict area where bombings and gunfights are constant. Keep in mind that an accidental release of radioactive material from a nuclear could cause death, acute health effects and even long-term environmental consequences. Putting a nuclear plant in the middle of a war zone may have dire repercussions. The idea of putting a nuclear power plant in a location with persistent bombing and shooting is absurd.

So, where did the suggestion of using a modular nuclear power plant come from? Was this the idea of a person or entity who has yet to hear the benefits of renewable energy? Have we forgotten that the Philippines including conflict areas in Mindanao are well endowed with natural resources that can be utilized to generate power?

We should focus on what is doable. Banking on indigenous renewable energy and distributed generation is the sensible alternative rather than the modular nuclear power plant.