‘Be prepared’

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

The timing was rather fortuitous when President Rodrigo Duterte decided to finally approve and sign Executive Order (EO) No. 164 that now included nuclear energy as part of the country’s mixed sources of electricity generation. Fortuitous in the sense that Malacañang made public the approval of EO 164 coming at the heels of the Ukraine-Russia armed conflict.

President Duterte signed EO 164 on Feb. 28 or four days after his “comrade,” Russian President Vladimir Putin, gave the go-signal for the “special military actions,” a.k.a. invasion of Ukraine. Raging on for almost two weeks already, the armed attacks of Russia against Ukraine have lately become indiscriminate. Russia even targeted two biggest nuclear energy facilities in Ukraine.

Following these attacks, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of the United Nations (UN) sounded alarm bells over possible radioactive fallout on the scale of Chernobyl incident. Also located in Ukraine, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster was blamed to flawed Soviet reactor design and alleged serious mistakes by the Russian plant operators.

The UN warned Russia against further attacks on non-military targets such as nuclear power plants that could further endanger the safety of the rest of the world. This is not to mention the fact that Russia has lots of nuclear weapons just like the United States and some of its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies in Europe.

Thus, the decision of the outgoing Duterte administration to usher back nuclear energy into our country’s power generation plants became rather ill-timed.

At present, the country’s energy mix included the more expensive oil and gas-fired power plants and heavy carbon-emitting coal-fired plants. The country also has huge reservoirs of geothermal and natural gas energy sources as well as other indigenous energy sources from hydro-electric, solar, wind, and other potential renewable energy sources still untapped.

As stated in EO 164, President Duterte cited, he has looked at the economic, political, social and environmental aspects in finally rolling out a nuclear power program for the Philippines. With less than four months remaining before the Chief Executive steps down from office at Malacañang on June 30 this year, EO 164 became nothing but a mere wish to put up a fully functioning nuclear power plant in our country soon.

It was the late president Ferdinand Marcos who first tried to put up one in Morong, Bataan in 1976. Completed in 1984, the Bataan nuclear power plant (BNPP) was supposed to put in additional 621-megawatts (MW) of electricity to serve the entire Luzon grid. Reportedly constructed at a total cost of $2.3 billion by the US Westinghouse, the BNPP never got to be operated when the new administration of the late president Corazon Aquino ousted Marcos in 1986 and decided to mothball it amid reported safety and corruption issues.

And the rest, as we say, is history. The Philippine government paid back the foreign loans that funded the construction of the BNPP. Multi-million dollar suits and litigations against Westinghouse dragged on for years at international arbitration courts while Filipinos suffered long hours of blackouts due to power supply shortages.

In EO 164, President Duterte believes that nuclear power can help bridge the gap between rising energy demand and supply, describing it as a “viable alternative source” to the existing mix of energy sources that generate and operate our country’s existing baseload power plants.

“Nuclear technology (can also) help minimize the possible trade-offs between emissions and the environment. Life cycle emissions from nuclear power chains are comparable with the best renewable energy chains and several orders of magnitude lower than fossil fuel chains,” President Duterte stated in EO 164.

If going back to nuclear energy is really that urgent, EO 164 should have been issued yesterday, idiomatically speaking.

It takes about four to five years to construct and put on stream a regular baseload power plant that can generate 500 to 1,000 MW. But a nuclear power plant takes a much longer time.

President Duterte’s EO 164 was handed down more than a year after an inter-agency body that included the Department of Energy (DOE) submitted it for approval. As EO 164 declared, the country’s nuclear power program will be based on the standards of the IAEA, according to the Philippine Energy Plan 2018 to 2040.

Actually, Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi first hinted this to us during our Kapihan sa Manila Bay virtual news forum last Wednesday about an EO already signed by President Duterte to start anew the development of our country’s nuclear energy program. “I don’t like to pre-empt things. But I believe we have the EO for that (nuclear energy program),” Cusi disclosed.

It was in December 2020 when the DOE-chaired Nuclear Energy Program Inter-Agency Committee (NEP-IAC) submitted to the Office of the President their initial report endorsing the adoption of a national position for a nuclear energy program.

However, it would be the next elected leader after the term of President Duterte who would decide whether the Philippines is now ready to build its own nuclear power plant.

But the signing of the EO, according to Cusi, will also allow the country to start exploring the possible deployment of small modular reactors (SMRs) in power barges to connect electricity to remote island provinces. The IAEA describes SMRs as “advanced nuclear reactors that have a power capacity of up to 300 MW per unit.” Cusi identified Cagayan, Palawan and Sulu as among the local government units interested and willing to acquire SMR units produced by either Russia or South Korea.

Cusi, however, explained the issuance of EO 164 was a necessary first step of President Duterte to jumpstart a nuclear energy program again in our country.

Cusi likened this policy declaration to the Boy Scouts’ motto: “Be prepared.” For energy security of the country, he averred, this is the legacy of President Duterte to the future generation of Filipinos.

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