Here We Go Again

It’s high time that the Philippines revives plans to use nuclear power says Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi.

During the Alliance Global Sustainability Conference, the secretary was quoted to have said: “For the past several years, the DOE, through our Nuclear Energy Program Implementing Organization, has been working under the close guidance of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to assess the feasibility of safely and responsibly harnessing nuclear energy in the Philippines.”

Here we go again talking about nuclear energy. This isn’t the first time we are hearing government officials consider this power source. In 2018, the local government of Sulu signified interest in a modular  Nuclear Power Plant (NPP). Last year, the national government signed up with Russia’s state nuclear company, Rosatum Overseas to study the idea of constructing nuclear plants in the country.

In his recent speech, the Energy Secretary admits that we are ripe to opening the Philippines to nuclear energy again but building these plants will definitely take time. “Considering the potential of safely utilizing nuclear energy for our power needs doesn’t mean that nuclear power plants will immediately come out of the woodwork. The entire process will take time, especially since we are still at the stage of addressing the infrastructure issues needed in developing a national nuclear power program.” 

Unfortunately, it takes more than just “addressing the infrastructure issues” in developing a national nuclear power program. There’s just too much complication in the legislative and regulatory framework for nuclear power development in the Philippines. It also does not help that there are no local Human Resources or experts for this energy source.

Let us start with the problem with the regulatory framework covering nuclear power. First off, it has been 50 years since the regulatory framework for NPPs was created. It is safe to say that the “Science Act of 1958 and the Atomic Energy Regulatory Act of 1968 “or RA 5207 is already outdated. 

Under RA 5207, the Philippine Atomic Energy Commission or PAEC was tasked to regulate nuclear power development and operations. It was also in charge of licensing engineers. However, PAEC was already downgraded to the Philippine National Research Institute or PNRI, which only regulates nuclear and radioactive materials. So, which agency then will issue a license to build and operate a nuclear facility? Which agency or commission will regulate professionals tasked with building, operating and maintaining NPPs?

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Experts who helped build and operate the BNPP are either retired or no longer around. Photo c/o http://www.Filipinotimes.net

 

Speaking of professionals, we don’t have the technical skills to build, operate and maintain nuclear plants locally. We cannot rely on experts who helped build the Bataan Power Plant as they are either retired or no longer around to help us. The original plant manager, Fidel Corea, has passed on.

The lack of qualified people for nuclear power development in the country is a major concern that even lawmakers tried to address. 

For example, the late Senator Miriam Santiago filed the House Bill 580 “Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) Operability Act” which sought to mandate and create a training program for all technical aspects of the BNPP. The bill proposed the creation of a Nuclear Power Engineering Department under the College of Engineering at the University of the Philippines. This bill was in recognition of the fact that the Philippines does not have the manpower needed to build, run and regulate NPPs.

Having nuclear plants in the country isn’t just about building the facilities. Developing nuclear power means fixing our laws, regulations and investing in Human Resources, among other concerns. Yet, here we are again talking about nuclear power for the Philippines. 

The Energy Secretary said that a survey commissioned by his department revealed that there’s a 65 percent approval rating on the possible construction of a new NPP. Hence, “I feel that the time is ripe for intensified and informed public discussions on nuclear energy and its potential role in our energy security agenda.” 

Sure, we can have a discussion of nuclear plants in the country. But if we are to ensure the energy security of the country, then we should double our efforts in meeting our goal of having more renewable energy in our power mix instead.

Perhaps the government should be reminded of our failure in meeting our renewable energy targets. Just last year, the DOE admitted that the Philippines had failed to meet its RE targets 10 years after the Renewable Energy Act was enacted.

Just how far behind is the Philippines in its commitment to renewable energy development goals? Under the National Renewable Energy Program of 2011, the DOE was aiming to triple the renewable capacity from 5438 MW to 15,3054 MW by 2030. However, only 7000 MW were added as of the end of 2017.

Last year, National Renewable Energy Board (NREB) chairman Monalisa Dimalanta said that non-RE sources were growing faster than renewables “There are a lot more plants that were built that were using non-RE. The pie got bigger with the share of non-RE getting bigger. For RE, the increase was not proportional,” Dimalanta said.

The DOE also noted that failure to roll-out programs also contributed to the government’s failure to meet RE targets, “When we assessed the NREP and implementation, there were delays in issuances of development of support mechanism, like Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) on-grid and off-grid, Green Energy Option Program (GEOP) and the RE market,” DOE-Renewable Energy Management Bureau (REMB) director Mylene Capongcol said.

And this is what I don’t understand. Again and again, I’ve been saying that renewables can help us achieve energy security as we are endowed with natural resources that we can harness. We also have the expertise to develop these resources. We have the regulatory framework to guide us (although they do need a lot of improvement). Yet we are spending so much time and even resources in discussing and paving the way for nuclear energy when we should be focusing on renewable energy development. 

I say it’s high time for the government to focus on the work needed in the RE sector first before making grand plans for NPPs comeback.

https://www.philstar.com/business/2020/02/07/1990930/cusi-revives-plan-consider-nuclear-energy

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.