I am almost positive I was not the only one who reacted to the latest news from the Department of Energy with the incredulous question, “You want to build a what, where?”
The ‘what’ is a small modular reactor (SMR), a nuclear generating facility that has a capacity of about 100 megawatts, and the ‘where’ is the island province of Sulu. The leading lights of Sulu are quite aggressive in their lobbying to the DOE, Energy Undersecretary Donato Marcos disclosed over the weekend, saying, “They usually visit Secretary Cusi, proposing that they host an SMR.”
The technology itself is not the troubling issue in this case. SMRs were largely developed from nuclear power systems used in ships and submarines, and are generally safe in the right hands. Like any nuclear power system, the heightened risk comes from the fact that almost any significant potential failure is likely to be catastrophic, but the probability of the risk being realized is generally very low.
What is troubling is first of all, the obvious fact that Sulu is not one of the more politically or socially stable areas of the country, and the less obvious but more important fact that the country is, at this point, wholly incapable of operating or regulating a nuclear power industry.
There are institutions both inside and outside the country that would like the Philippines to be able to explore nuclear power, a point that was raised in a conversation I had a couple of weeks ago with a representative from the Asean Center for Energy. Perhaps the country would be doing so in earnest, or already have a productive nuclear power sector, if it had not already built and decided not to operate an outdated magnet for controversy in the form of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant.
Marcos’ comments a few days ago revealed, maybe unintentionally, just how far the country is from being able to manage nuclear power according to acceptable international standards. Marcos implied that the nuclear advocates in Sulu were getting ahead of themselves and the country at large because the DOE has only recently “met with people from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). They are capacitating our technical working group to realize our 19 infrastructure requirements,” he said.
Those 19 infrastructure requirements were defined in a presentation last year, and include the National Position, which presumably means overall policy toward nuclear power; the regulatory framework; financing; safeguards other than those directly related to the safety of the nuclear facilities (such as in contracts or financing arrangements); emergency planning; handling of nuclear waste; nuclear safety, i.e., in actual plant operations or waste handling; stakeholder involvement; management of nuclear facilities or corporate entities; procurement; the legal framework; radiation protection; human resource development; security and physical protection—one might imagine this would be a significant issue in restive Sulu; the nuclear fuel cycle, which also relates to waste handling; and overall environmental protection.
The implications of the very existence of this list is that while the Philippines might not be wholly lacking in all areas, there is some shortcoming in every area that needs to be resolved to make nuclear power safe and productive.
These are fundamental factors, and the assertion by some advocates for resurrecting the BNPP that all it will take is to refurbish the plant (at the bargain price of just $1 billion) and fire it up is completely irresponsible, as is the reportedly “aggressive” push by Sulu to put a nuclear plant on that island—an island, it should be noted, whose political status is somewhat uncertain, as it is part of the ARMM and the not-yet realized Bangsamoro autonomous region.
Nuclear power is probably completely unnecessary in the Philippines, given the country’s abundance of renewable energy options, but exploring the technology and the means to manage it properly can pay dividends beyond nuclear energy, and so there is something to be said in favor of continuing to pursue the long, slow process of capacity building alluded to by Undersecretary Marcos. And the new perspective of the DOE—that the problematic issue of the BNPP can simply be bypassed if it cannot be satisfactorily resolved—is also a helpful development.
Nevertheless, it is time for the Philippines to realize that nuclear power, if it is ever to be a viable option, lies somewhere in the distant, unseen future. To meet the country’s power needs, priority should be placed on practical existing solutions, and not flights of fancy.