Days ago, the Department of Energy released the results of an SWS survey saying 79 percent of Filipinos would support nuclear power if President Rodrigo Duterte pushed for its development. This is a wise position to take because we should broaden our concept of acceptable carbon-free energy sources.
Before we explain our position, however, we strongly caution against the revival of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant. That mothballed facility was designed based on old technology. So much progress has been made since 1976, when construction began at the Bataan plant. Newer technology not only makes nuclear power plants more efficient but also much safer.
One development in this field worth looking into is the Traveling-Wave Reactor (TWR), which is being championed by billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates. He is the founder and chairman of TerraPower, which is poised to build this new type of reactor in China. The project has been delayed, however, because of the US-China trade war, but it seems likely that construction will begin in 2020.
What is interesting about TWR is that it can function on waste uranium, which is a byproduct of present-day reactors. Conventional nuclear plants run mainly on enriched uranium, but a TWR requires only a fraction of that to get started. After starting, it makes and runs on its own spent fuel. According to a 2010 article in The Atlantic, “The benefit of this design is that the reactor doesn’t require constant refueling and waste removal. It can run — it is thought — for decades without refueling. This, the companies currently working on a TWR design insist, makes nuclear power safer and cheaper.” And based on a recent Netflix documentary on Mr. Gates, the United States has enough spent nuclear rods to fuel TWRs for several decades.
Conventional reactor designs require uranium rods to be replaced every 18 to 24 months. Finding a safe storage space for the spent fuel has been a point against the development of nuclear plants. But the TWR seems to resolve that issue.
Reliable and green
From a energy security point, nuclear power makes sense. Nuclear power can offer “spinning reserve,” which means it can continue to produce electricity even when the wind is not blowing or when the sun is not shining.
To be clear, the nuclear option can be pursued even as we develop renewable energy sources. But the problem with wind and solar is that they are dependent on the weather to work. In other words, they do not contribute to the baseload supply, unlike nuclear and fossil fuel plants.
The problem with fossil fuels, particularly coal and oil, is that they emit greenhouse gasses. But that is not a problem with nuclear power. In fact, Mr. Gates thinks that nuclear power may be the answer to global warming. Last year, he wrote an open letter to his employees saying, “Nuclear is ideal for dealing with climate change because it is the only carbon-free, scalable energy source that’s available 24 hours a day.” The most credible counter-argument to that does not dispute the “green” benefit of nuclear power, only that it is not enough to replace all the legacy plants that exist and meet the world’s growing demand.
As it is, nuclear power accounts for about 10 percent of the world’s total electricity. Again worldwide, nuclear represents 29 percent of all low-carbon power. And in the US, that source represents 55 percent of its low-carbon power.
Of course, there are arguments against nuclear power, mainly that it is expensive to build. And as that SWS survey showed, few Filipinos want a nuclear power plant in their backyard. Clearly, the memories of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukishima continue to spook them.
If that is the case, the greatest barrier to embracing nuclear may be public awareness. Nuclear power plants are all over the world. They operate, as they say, out of sight and out of mind. In contrast, the impact of power plants that run on coal and bunker fuel is harmful and palpable. Given the high level of support for nuclear power, it deserves serious consideration.