WHY THE PHILIPPINES SHOULD NOT GO NUCLEAR FOR ENERGY GENERATION 

March 30, 2022

The Philippines is primarily a fossil fuel-based economy. Its total energy mix comprises 75.2% fossils, while the rest (24.8%), are renewables. Of the fossils, coal has the biggest share at 47%, followed by natural gas at 22%. With the recent announcement that the Malampaya gas fields are nearing depletion is the simultaneous alarm that the Philippines is facing an energy crisis by 2024.  At almost the same time, the Duterte Administration issued Executive Order (EO) No. 164, allowing the country to tap nuclear power as an alternative energy source. The EO also directed the Department of Energy to conduct a pre-feasibility study on the viability of introducing nuclear power. The Nuclear Energy Program Inter-Agency Committee (NEP-IAC) was also tasked to make recommendations on the use and viability of the mothballed Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) and the establishment of other facilities for the utilization of nuclear energy. 

This is on the heels of a rapid lowering of costs of renewable energy technologies, making them very competitive with fossils and nuclear energy. A full accounting of external costs like adverse impacts from climate change, risk of nuclear accidents and cost of fuels over the long term, make renewables not only the energy generation option of choice but a strong alternative to choices like nuclear which has catastrophic accidental risks. The probability of acute nuclear risk translating into actual impacts like nuclear accidents, remains the same. Not only has this Administration procrastinated in going with the rest of the world on the shift to climate friendly, clean and cost-effective sources like renewables, but it is also deliberately choosing options which are high cost, “fossilized” and with high risks like nuclear,” considering the unique siting of the Philippines in the Pacific Ring of Fire, with very high seismic risks.

DISADVANTAGES OF USING THE NUCLEAR OPTION TO GENERATE ENERGY

Operationalizing a technology option, the advantages of which have been eclipsed by other emerging, more superior technology choices like renewables run energy systems, is like resurrecting the dead. It may have been the technology of choice and at the apex of its popularity then when the Philippine Government decided to construct the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, but it is certainly not the case now. In fact, it is an old, less superior (and possibly obsolete) technology and installation compared to the modern nuclear power generation systems. 

High Risk of Accidents and Cost of Impacts

Ironically, despite the fact the BNPP was planned, funded, and constructed during the Martial law years, its due diligence with regards to appropriateness of siting, was never approved. Technically, therefore, it has not completed the requirements for implementation. The Environmental Impact Study which was reviewed by the National Environmental Protection Council’s (NEPC) Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Review Committee never resulted in an Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC). Technically, the EIA law (Presidential Decree 1586) did not take effect until four years after it was issued (1982). The BNPP was, therefore, not legally covered by the EIA requirement. However, the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island forced a review of the BNPP Environmental Study by NEPC’s EIA Review Committee. The major concern of the experts comprising the Review Committee was the finding that the BNPP was constructed on top of an undisclosed fault (Lubao Fault), an active earthquake fault running through the nearby Mount Natib. The Lubao lineament and the Napot Point and Cabigo fractures are faults connected to the Manila Trench, a long, deep furrow. Collectively, they have historically caused strong earthquakes around the BNPP area. Altogether, the safety review of the plant revealed its around 4,000 siting and technical defects. Annex 1 provides the Safety Report by Dr. Ernesto Sonido, one of the Philippines’ most respected geologists at the time, the salient points of which were shared in a Congressional Hearing led by Cong. Roilo Golez. 

Aside from the safety issues, corruption was a serious concern, forcing the Cory Aquino Administration to order its stoppage. A court ruling in 2012 also ordered the project broker to return $50 million in ill-gotten wealth.

Costs Involved

Normally, cost is the number 1 criterion used by Countries in choosing their dominant technology for energy provision to their people. Therefore, the cheapest option will always win out. This was until the problem of global warming and climate change (the first leading to the other) were established, needing a global Climate Change Convention to solve.  So, while cost trumps everything, countries are also now making decisions on their long-term energy mix based on their commitments under the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement and averaging out the cost over the long term. For this purpose, they are factoring in the contribution of fuel cost, cost of technology acquisition, start-up capital cost for the infrastructure and operations and maintenance costs. However, what normally are not disclosed for nuclear energy systems are the insurance cost of incidents/accidents and waste disposal costs. It is these last two cost items which should be fully factored and disclosed in the comparative analysis of the energy technologies that countries will choose from.  

Generally, comparison of energy options uses standard metrics like a.) Levelized cost of electricity (LCOE), “a metric that attempts to compare costs of different methods of electricity generation on a consistent basis. It is often presented as the minimum constant price at which electricity must be sold to break even over the lifetime of the project. LCOE is the net present value of all costs over the lifetime of the asset divided by an appropriately discounted total of the energy output from the asset over that lifetime b.) Levelized cost of storage, is like LCOE, but applied to energy storage technologies such as batteries which is secondary. This is, therefore, incomplete if the primary source of generation is not factored into the overall costing. c.) Levelized avoided cost of electricity, is a metric that “addresses some of the shortcomings of LCOE by considering the economic value that the source provides to the grid.” The economic value considers the dispatchability of a resource, as well as the existing energy mix in a region. d.) Value-adjusted levelized cost of electricity, is a metric devised by the International Energy Agency (IEA) which includes both the cost of the electricity and the value to the electricity system.

Global levelized cost of generation (US$ per MWh) provided by 4 international organizations   revealed that Renewables i.e. solar (utility) and wind (onshore) are cheaper (40 and 56 USD, respectively), compared to nuclear (new) and coal at 68 and 88 USD, respectively.

Over time, bigger capacity and no fuel costs for renewables will further drive down the per MWh cost of renewables. 

Safety and Security

In general, the nuclear power industry seems to be safe, overall, based on the publicized incidents: only 5 serious ones (accidents/disasters) brought to global attention. These are:  1.) Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster. (1986); 2.) Fukushima Nuclear Disaster, Japan 2011; 3.) Kyshtym Nuclear Disaster, Russia 1957; 4.) Windscale Fire Nuclear Disaster. Sellafield, UK 1957; and 5.) Three Mile Island Nuclear Accident. Pennsylvania, USA 1979.  Three of these have publicized economic costs: Chernobyl accident costs were estimated in 1992 at 180 billion DM (about 90 billion Euro, not inflation-adjusted), more recently estimates have risen to hundreds of billions including US $235 billion (for Belarus alone in 2003). The Fukushima accident costs estimates range from US $10 billion (government pledge for cleanup costs) to more than US $100 billion. For the Three Mile Island accident, US $2.4 billion of damages were estimated.

What is not generally known are the series of incidents, which, if not managed, can translate to catastrophic disasters. Between 2001 to 2006, the United States Government Accountability Office reported more than 150 incidents from nuclear plants not performing within acceptable safety guidelines. Japan, with its high culture of safety, had a series of accidents involving its first nuclear power plant, the Tokai Nuclear Power Plant, the first occurring in 1997 involving its nuclear waste which caught fire, releasing radiation reaching 40 kilometers southwest of the plant.  Another accident occurred in 1999. In 2011, it had to be shut down again because of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami which also damaged and caused the closure of the Fukushima nuclear power plant. 

Aside from the environmental effects involving release of radiation into the atmosphere, and direct health impacts and deaths from the accidents, there is another serious risk involving nuclear wastes. In the process of generating energy in nuclear reactors using uranium, another by-product is produced that is of high concern: Plutonium which can be used to produce atomic bombs. This is normally one of the unknowns and highly kept secret in the nuclear power industry. 

Availability of Other Climate Benign, Cost Effective, Safe and Geographically Compatible Alternatives like Renewables

Obviously, comparing the costs and benefits of the conventional fossil and nuclear power generation with renewables, notwithstanding that the former seem to be advantageous in terms of economies of scale, renewables should still be the obvious choice for the Philippines. Their costs are fast becoming competitive and over the long term, will involve savings from fuel costs. Fully costed, including their environmental benefits, renewables are the way to go. One of the major factors to be seriously considered by the Government in deciding on the energy mix for the country is the fit between sources and geography, not only in the context of resource availability but safety and security. Being uniquely in the Pacific Ring of Fire, the country’s exposure to seismic hazards is a given. As shown by Japan’s experience, this should be a primary factor to be considered. The Philippines cannot afford the possibility of having to deal with the fallout of nuclear accidents. If Japan, a wealthy country, incurred difficulty in dealing with their nuclear disasters, the Philippines could be pushed to an economic debacle from which it might not be able to recover from for a long time.

By virtue of its geographic situation and resources, the Philippines has almost all the renewables (solar, wind, tidal, hydro, geothermal) plus the other fast maturing technologies like hydrogen. Moreover, comprising islands, the Philippines can have cost effective decentralized energy generation systems. To create economies of scale using renewables, VP Leni’s vision of establishing the Philippines as a hub for “climate industries” is not only feasible; it is the way to go. It augurs well for the Philippines’ socioeconomic sustainability and job creation without the conventional risks from installations like nuclear power plants. 

What should be facilitated is the passage of policies and development of programs which incentivize the establishment of decentralized renewable energy systems according to the available RE resources throughout the country. Corollary with this is the establishment of a Transformative Research and Development Strategy and capability to generate the needed knowledge base and competencies and negotiating well with its developed country Partners to obtain the guaranteed Means of Implementation (MOI) support under the Climate Change Convention and the Paris Agreement (Finance, Technology, Capacity Building).

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