MANILA

Speak out: Philippines should not pursue nuclear

NUCLEAR energy is one of the most divisive issues regarding the link between energy security and sustainable development. Advocates call for nuclear power to have an increased share in the global energy mix. It produces less greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels (i.e. coal, oil), making it a potential mitigation option to fight climate change. Given current technological standards, nuclear power also has the highest capacity factor of any low-carbon power source, able to meet the baseline energy requirements of various countries.

However, its long-term economic and environmental impacts are too much to offset these benefits. Thus, nuclear energy should not be prioritized as an energy source over renewables globally and in the Philippines.

Global context

Despite what its proponents claim, nuclear power is more expensive than low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels. In the United States, the average cost of newly-generated electricity per MWh by 2022 for nuclear (USD 90.1) is higher than that for solar (USD 46.5), onshore wind (USD 37.0), and hydropower (USD 73.9).

A similar case is observed in the United Kingdom, wherein the share of wind and solar energy sources to electricity generation (29 percent) recently exceeded that of nuclear power (21 percent). The costs of large-scale solar and onshore wind (GBP 80 and GBP 62, respectively) are also lower than that of nuclear (GBP 93), showing the viability of renewables.

Some would point to recent developments in developing countries as examples of the viability of nuclear energy in a carbon-constrained world. Specifically, China is the world's fastest expanding nuclear energy producer, with 19 power plants under construction as of 2017. However, wind has surpassed nuclear in energy generation from 2000 to 2016, producing 241 TWh compared to the latter's 213.2 TWh. Projections indicate that solar will also exceed nuclear power generation in the next few decades.

Contrary to popular belief, nuclear power is not completely renewable. While the energy itself can be regenerated, the material used to produce it such as uranium is finite. These materials also need to be mined and processed, resulting in increased risks for environmental degradation. These activities may not even be included in accounting for the carbon footprint of nuclear power plants throughout its life cycle.

The costs of building, operating, and eventually decommissioning such power plants are also more expensive than renewables. In Europe, nuclear power projects experience delays and overruns that only increase costs. For instance, the construction of a new reactor in Finland was finished nine years behind schedule and exceeded the budget by over USD 5 billion. In France, a 1650-MW nuclear reactor took six more years to build and cost EUR 7 billion more than initially projected.

Given these global circumstances, switching away from fossil fuels towards higher energy efficiency and renewables remain the best way to go towards limiting global warming. Investments in nuclear energy should instead be directed towards addressing the weaknesses of renewable energy systems, such as increasing capacity of existing technologies and innovations in expanding storage capacities. Efforts should also be focused on creating favorable market conditions to allow low-carbon technologies to be competitive with others towards sustainable energy generation worldwide.

Philippine context

In the Philippines, the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) has been its only attempt at nuclear power generation. The question of operating the facility remains controversial, especially given issues on its construction. Building the pressurized water reactor took more than a decade and cost USD 2.3 billion. This was three times as much as the proposed budget and higher than the project costs for building such technology in other countries. The Chernobyl disaster ultimately prevented its commissioning, with the Philippine government taking 30 years to complete its payments.

Proponents are pushing for the full operation of the BNPP, citing the low operating costs of nuclear power and its low carbon emissions relative to fossil fuel-based power plants as the basis for the facility's reactivation. However, several issues persist that make any plans for its reopening and any new nuclear power in the Philippines unlikely.

First, the Philippines lacks a legal framework for using nuclear power. Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, head of the Energy Committee, remarks that "should the Philippines decide to pursue adding nuclear power to the energy mix, a comprehensive legal framework on the use of nuclear power would first need to be crafted to tackle these issues".

Steps such as the establishment of a well-defined regulatory body, import and export controls, emergency preparedness and response, and radioactive waste management need to be addressed. The country would also need to ratify several international nuclear conventions to strengthen standards on security, safety, and liability.

Second, the cost for the rehabilitation of the BNPP is too much for the Philippines to risk its resources. A study by Russian and Slovenian nuclear experts last year revealed that it would cost USD 3 to 4 billion to rehabilitate the facility. More funding will also be needed for training personnel on its management and securing the power plant from structural defects and hazards such as earthquakes.

Third, at a time of urgent and immediate action against climate change, it is imperative to promote low-carbon alternatives to strengthen the Philippines's long-term energy security. Rapidly decreasing the country's dependence on fossil fuels will firmly place it on a path towards resilient sustainable development.

Given its high potential for wind and solar that remains largely untapped, the country must focus on developing these resources instead of investing in nuclear power. Focusing on fixing the BNPP and constructing new reactors could take more than a decade before becoming operational. This timeframe will be too long for the country to contribute towards a peak in carbon emissions worldwide as indicated in climate projections, as well as meet its targets in its Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement.

Current global market trends indicate that renewables will continue becoming cheaper and more efficient in power generation more than any other energy source in the next few decades. Small-scale renewable energy systems near their intended consumers are also more suitable for its archipelagic setting, with communities in areas such as Romblon and Negros as models for future initiatives.

The future of Philippine energy must move forward instead of going against projected market trends, which would ultimately hurt its national development. Heavily investing on nuclear power will only send the nation on the wrong path.


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