REGARDLESS of how Congress and the Department of Energy feel about nuclear power, the major factor shutting down the world’s nuclear industry is economics. Only where nuclear power is pushed, controlled and heavily subsidized by a central government is development proceeding, at a rate close to that projected just a decade ago.

It has since become clear that nuclear power is a very expensive way to produce electricity. Construction cost overruns have risen sharply, largely because of delays from mismanagement, legal suits, government red tape, and new and more stringent safety requirements.

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Construction costs have been increasing so rapidly that some US utilities face bankruptcy. Operation and maintenance costs, once expected to be negligible, rose by an average annual rate of 18 percent, far above the inflation rate. Furthermore, commercial nuclear plants in the United States have operated far below the projected 80 percent capacity, because of frequent breakdowns, lengthy maintenance operations and the need to comply with federal safety standards.

Studies by nuclear economics expert Charles Kmomanoff have shown the average capacity factor for all US nuclear reactors was 59 percent since 1982. Coal-fired plants performed slightly better, but with their lower construction costs today, they can produce electricity more cheaply. Today, one way to burn coal more efficiently, cleanly and cheaply is to use fluidized-bed combustion (FBC). In FBC, a stream of hot air is blown into a boiler from below to suspend a mixture of sand, powdered coal and crushed limestone. The upward flow of air constantly churns and tumbles this powdered mixture, so that it resembles a boiling liquid with the consistency of thin oatmeal.

When the mixture is heated red-hot to 480 degrees Centigrade, the powdered coal is burned very efficiently and the limestone is converted to calcium oxide, which reacts with the sulfur dioxide released from the coal to form dry, solid calcium sulfate or gypsum. This process removes 90 to 98 percent of the sulfur dioxide produced during combustion.

Definitely, the Philippines cannot afford to subsidize nuclear power plant operations, which most developed countries do.

Eventually, full-scale FBC boilers will replace conventional coal boilers fitted with scrubbers, because FBC boilers (1) are expected to have lower construction and operating costs, (2) can burn a variety of low-grade fuels including rice hulls, heavy oils, wood and wood waste, urban and industrial sludge, sewage sludge and high-sulfur coal, (3) can be retrofitted to a conventional boiler, (4) are simpler, more reliable and use less water than scrubbers for sulfur dioxide removal, (5) produce fewer nitrogen oxides than conventional coal boilers because the coal is burned at a lower temperature, and (6) have a useful by-product, namely solid calcium sulfate.

This by-product can be removed and sold as a road sub-base, or for cement, soil conditioners and other uses. Also, coal’s large world supplies should last for about 100 to 900 years.

While evolved small-scale nuclear power plants will commercially be available, at the latest, 10 years from now, the Department of Energy (DOE) should prioritize the development of geothermal energy.

Geothermal energy escapes through hot springs, geysers and volcanoes. Geothermal wells can be drilled, like oil and natural gas wells, to bring this dry or wet steam and hot water to the earth’s surface.

Economic incentives can also be extended to citizens who desire to use photovoltaic cells to produce electricity from direct solar energy, as well as indirect solar energy from wind.

Congress should legislate tax incentives to companies developing designs, in which solar cells can be built into the roof during construction.

Likewise, government support is needed in today’s wind machines. In countries such as the United States, modern wind turbines are being used by homeowners to provide most, if not all, of their electricity. Small private companies and utilities operate wind farms, consisting of clusters of up to several hundred wind turbines connected to an electric grid to generate power commercially.

Economics is the Achilles’ heel of nuclear power for poor countries like the Philippines. PNoy should study his energy options very carefully.