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Opinion

We need clean power for people

BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Ambassador B. Romualdez - The Philippine Star

What is happening in Ukraine is truly tragic because it will impact not only the lives of the citizens of the besieged nation but the rest of the world, with countries just starting to economically recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone knows that economic growth is closely tied to energy, and even before the onset of the pandemic, many countries have been aiming to wean themselves from dependence on fossil fuels, looking for low-carbon energy alternatives – among them nuclear – to avert the catastrophic consequences of climate change.

The attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southeast Ukraine – which caused a building near the site to catch fire – has revived fears about nuclear power. Fortunately, the fire which has since been put out did not cause any damage to the reactors, with normal radiation levels also detected. According to many scientists, what the incident really highlights are the possible dangers when a nuclear site is exposed to warfare.

Notwithstanding what is happening to Ukraine, there is no question that nations must continue the work of economic recovery. In the Philippines, the signing of Executive Order No. 164 adopting a national position for a nuclear energy program is a major step that would help accelerate the country’s economic recovery post-pandemic as we transition away from fossil fuels towards a more climate friendly economic environment. Taking into account the country’s economic, political, social and environmental objectives, the executive order recognizes that a “reliable, secure, sustainable, quality and affordable electricity supply” is essential to achieve our growth targets.

“Towards this end, and taking into consideration the experience of developed and growing economies, nuclear power shall be tapped as a viable alternative baseload power source along with alternative energy sources, to address the projected decline of coal-fired power plants which come under increasing environmental opposition,” the executive order stated.

The DOST’s Philippine Nuclear Research Institute director Carlo Arcilla has been working really hard to elevate the conversation on the use of nuclear power as a green source of energy, citing its low carbon emissions – lower than wind and solar – and its resilience to weather changes. In fact, the US Office of Nuclear Energy described nuclear as a “zero-emission” clean energy source.

In 2019, a public perception survey conducted by the Social Weather Stations showed that 79 percent of Filipinos are open to the idea of including nuclear into the country’s energy mix and the possibility of reopening or rehabilitating the mothballed Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP). One person who has never wavered in his advocacy for nuclear energy is Mark Cojuangco (who is running for congressman of the Second District of Pangasinan), who believes we should revive the BNPP to help avert an impending power shortage since it can add 600 megawatts to the grid. The government of South Korea has already submitted a proposal to rehabilitate the BNPP which can be done within four to five years. Director Arcilla said that reviving the mothballed plant – which is “very well preserved,” according to Mark Cojuangco – is the “fastest route to start nuclear.”

We know there are quite a number of people who are still apprehensive about nuclear power, but international standards on safety, security and safeguards prescribed by the International Atomic Energy Agency will be adhered to in the development of nuclear energy. Besides, there have been many advancements in technology that make nuclear a safer source of energy.

At the recent virtual economic briefing organized by the Philippine embassy in Washington among Philippine economic managers, US officials as well as Filipino and American investors, we discussed key reforms in several sectors that will play a major role in our post-pandemic rebound, among them renewable and nuclear energy.

One of the participants during the virtual forum is Oregon-based NuScale Power that presented its groundbreaking technology in designing small modular reactors (SMRs) that are safer and have fewer and smaller components than conventional nuclear reactors. SMRs can be built in a factory and transported to the site by ship, rail or truck for final assembly and installation, greatly reducing the time for construction as well as the cost.

According to NuScale – which is the first and only SMR to obtain standard design approval from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission – nuclear energy has one of the lowest carbon footprints and does not produce harmful emissions during operation. All wastes are also accounted for and managed during the entire life cycle of the plant. As the SMRs are operationally flexible, they can also enable more renewables on the grid and help decarbonize industrial transportation sectors, making the transition to a clean energy system faster, according to NuScale.

I am one of those advocating for the inclusion of nuclear into the country’s energy mix, recognizing how urgent it is, considering the vulnerability of our current energy sources, more so now with the current pandemic situation. While the government is targeting 2035 for the inclusion of nuclear into the energy mix, this could be possible as early as 2027-2028 with the deployment of SMRs which are suitable for off-grid or island areas of the Philippines which many energy experts say is needed.

As we underscored during the virtual economic briefing, it is not enough that our economy recovers. We have to ensure that the economy of the Philippines comes out of this pandemic as resilient, inclusive and green. Certainly, EO 164 can become one of the Duterte administration’s legacy if this will be followed through into legislation by the next administration – ultimately giving the kind of real people power Filipinos need in their lives.

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Email: [email protected]

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