ENVIRONMENT: Nuclear energy for power generation

“Our shortage of electricity is a real, serious problem that we cannot downplay. But if we focus exclusively on it, we run the risk of seeing just the trees and not the forest.”

That was what Rufino Bomasang, then energy undersecretary, told community journalists who attended a media briefing on business and economics reporting at Los Baños, Laguna years back.

Almost four decades later, the same scenario is happening. As the country continues to pursue a path of global competitiveness, it is becoming evident that securing an adequate energy supply will be ever more critical to its growing industries.

Some experts are thinking of nuclear energy as one possible option. In fact, President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. has expressed his interest to adopt nuclear energy as part of the country’s power mix.

Make nuclear power a part of the solution to meet energy demand. This call came from Dr. Art Romero, a geoscientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Berkeley, California.

“We need to keep an open mind, make it a part of the solution to meet an increasing energy demand while meeting a low carbon diet,” said Dr. Romero, who was one of the panelists in a recent webinar on “Integrated Energy Solutions Addressing Security and Sustainability.”

The webinar was hosted by the Department of Science and Technology- Industrial Technology Development Institute (DOST-ITDI), in partnership with the Philippine Association for the Advancement of Science and Technology (PhilAAST).

According to Dr. Romero, the country’s transition to cleaner energy based on the roadmap prepared by the Department of Energy (DOE) “is doable in a gradual fashion” and without putting a heavy burden on the economy.

The DOE’s Philippine Energy Plan (PEP) is a comprehensive roadmap of programs and projects in the energy sector to ensure sustainable, stable, secure, sufficient, accessible, and reasonably-priced energy.

During his talk, Dr. Romero recommended some measures to secure energy sources. First and foremost, he said the country needs to facilitate the indigenous energy exploration and development for both conventional and clean energy sources to avoid the cost of importing oil. “This would drive the cost down and help ordinary consumers,” he said.

There is also the need to continue to diversify power generation, and distribution, while encouraging grid interconnectivity possible; increased competition drives prices down, and interconnected grids improve reliability and minimize power outages.

The last proposed measure is the need to keep nuclear options open. Nuclear power is the use of sustained nuclear fission to generate heat and electricity.

The Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNNP) is the country’s first and only nuclear power. The Westinghouse Electric built it during the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos at a cost of US$2.2 billion. It was mothballed in 1986 due to safety concerns, even before it could begin operations.

During the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, proponents wanted the BNPP rehabilitated. But it would cost a whooping US$1 billion to rehabilitate.

“From an economic standpoint, it may be cheaper to revive a mothballed facility than to build a new one,” Dr. Romero said. “Note that nuclear power is considered clean since it doesn’t contribute to carbon emission.”

Nuclear power is the second largest source of low-carbon electricity today. With almost 500 operating reactors globally, providing 10% of global electricity supply, nuclear power is safe as wind and solar, but its image has suffered from low probability, high consequence events like Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Because of this, Dr. Romero emphasized there is the need to conduct due diligence, technical hazard studies, and engineering and safety reviews. In addition, there is the need for government action support, especially on the need to raise public awareness of the consequences of global warming and the need for clean energy.

“We need public support to influence public officials to act. This is a global issue with a direct impact on the Philippines,” Dr. Romero pointed out.

Non-renewable energy depends primarily on fossil fuels which include coal, oil, and natural gas. On the other hand, renewable energy sources, which are considered to be inexhaustible, include solar power, hydroelectric, geothermal energy, and biomass energy.

In the July 7-21, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone, former American vice president Al Gore wrote: “Renewable energy sources are coming into their own. Both solar and wind will soon produce power at costs that are competitive with fossil fuels.”

The country’s current energy mix is composed of 60% coal which are mostly imported from Indonesia and 20% from the Malampaya gas field.

Director Carlo A. Arcilla of the DOST’s Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI) suggested that nuclear power can help in supplying the 20% presently supplied by the Malampaya gas field which is fast depleting.

“Actually, renewables and nuclear can complement each other,” said Dir. Arcilla during an interview with DOSTv’s Expert Talk Online. “Wind and solar depend on the status of the weather. To add to that, it has only a 30% capacity factor unless you have an expensive battery.”

Solar power has become popular in recent years. But Dir. Arcilla has one concern about it. Solar energy requires one hectare of land to produce one megawatt, and this will become more challenging since the Philippines is an archipelagic country.

“Nuclear is more of a baseload energy meaning it is more reliable due to its continuous production of energy,” Dir. Arcilla said. “It could provide backup for wind and solar.”

On the issue of safety, Dir. Arcilla admitted there were some accidents but have minimal casualties and incidents are isolated.

“If you look at the number of hours operated by coal and gas versus nuclear; nuclear has one of the lowest incidents,” he explained. “Though if there is an accident, it could be spectacular. That is the issue. However, in terms of lives lost, it is minimal. If you are running nuclear, you are not burning coal; meaning, it is not releasing carbon dioxide.”

He stressed that nuclear, in general, will be helpful for all especially if risks are managed properly. He added that if people have concerns with nuclear, he cited the case of the United States, where 94 nuclear power plants are being operated. With an average lifespan of 60 years, nuclear supplies 20% of its energy requirements.

But nuclear power is expensive, some skeptics claim. “Definitely, it is expensive due to its huge capital cost,” Dir. Arcilla said. “However, if you amortize it for over 60 to 80 years; it would become cheaper. And most importantly, it does not release carbon dioxide; it is the cleanest source of baseload power on earth right now.”

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