Nuclear power for the Philippines?



I MUST confess to being a supporter of nuclear power. Yes, there have been some highly dramatic safety incidents–Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island–but there is quite a lot of nuclear power around. It produces about 11 percent of all the world’s electricity. In the UK and USnuclear power provides about 20 percent of national electricity. The top user is France where nuclear contributes 76 percent of all power.

Despite its high capital cost, nuclear power is reliable and has been relatively cheap although with the falling cost of renewables, particularly solar, it is no longer the cheapest source. But against that, it is suited to big capacities which renewables other than major hydro are not.

Prior to the Fukushima incident, Japan was actively increasing its nuclear capacity from 30 percent of power generation up to 40 percent. Fukushima stopped all that and all 50 nuclear power plants were shut down by 2012. Only two have subsequently recommenced operation. Japan, like the Philippines, is in the Pacific Ring of Fire, a major fault zone around the Pacific Ocean in which about 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes occur. Nevertheless, Japan had been using nuclear power fairly safely for the past 50 years.

Once again the issue of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) is being raised. This old chestnut pops up every few years or so. In 1973 the capacity of BNPP at 620MW would have increased the Luzon installed capacity by a significant 20 percent. Today that 620MW would increase Luzon capacity by a much less significant 5 percent.

Trying to renovate structures built over 40 years ago which even at the time suffered significant defects and was sited close to a geological fault, is in all likelihood not an economic proposition, particularly given its relatively small capacity. But that is not to say that there is no place for nuclear power in the Philippines. Like Japan, the Philippines has little in the way of natural energy resources, and nuclear power even within the Pacific Ring of Fire can be designed, built and operated safely.

Doing a study of the potential for nuclear power in the Philippines sounds like a good idea. Whilst such a study could not ignore the presence of the BNPP, it would be highly restrictive to focus solely on its refurbishment. Seismic stability is crucial as is adequacy of water supply for cooling and distance from main centres of population for public safety.

Nuclear power plants–and the Chinese are eager to export their own nuclear technology–have a bad habit of extreme cost growth and of taking longer to develop than ever may have been anticipated. This was also the case with the BNPP in its original development.

So, whilst studying the potential, the cost effect and possible sites and even perhaps considering distributed nuclear power (smaller “package plants”) is an idea of obvious merit, I would only give a very low probability of such an initiative actually materializing into developed nuclear power plants. There will be huge public opposition to the idea. The billions ofmoney involved in such development will present irresistible opportunities for personal benefit across a wide range of interest parties. And the bureaucrats would have endless fun developing the procedures needed to support Philippine nuclear development and safety.

There are about 75 nuclear power plants being built around the world now. To consider one or two for the Philippines is worthwhile provided that the ability to take the initiative all the way to fruition is studied very carefully beforehand and is assured. Otherwise, the result could well be another power planning crisis like the one that arose from the cancellation of the BNPP in 1986, the consequences of which in terms of the cost of electricity in the Philippines, are still with us today.


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