THINK ON THESE: Nuclear tech vs. climate change

When I was still in high school, I usually thought of nuclear technology as something to do with nuclear bombs. I was partly right but there’s more to it than just a weapon of mass destruction.

Nuclear energy is the energy in the nucleus, or core, of an atom. Atoms, which consist of protons and neutrons, encompasses all the matter in the world, and energy is responsible for holding the nucleus together.

Nuclear energy can be used to produce electricity, but it must first be released from the atom. However, nuclear energy is not only for power generation but also for agriculture, medicine, and other industries, according to the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI).

During the 51st Atomic Energy Week celebration recently, Secretary Renato U. Solidum Jr. of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) sees several opportunities for nuclear science and related studies to help address our concerns on climate change.

“Climate change is a problem that we all need to look into. We will be victims of global warming, so we need to act, and nuclear technology would play crucial roles in addressing our concerns on this,” said Sec. Solidum.

The science chief emphasized how nuclear science and research studies provide solutions as an alternative energy source for power, as well as in developing new breeds of agricultural crops resistant to heat or requiring less water, minimizing the impact on our food supply.

Sec. Solidum further said: “The protection of the environment will also utilize nuclear technology. Although we believe the Philippines is not a major contributor to greenhouse gases, we should look at these pollutants from a health perspective, not only from the climate perspective because we will be affected by pollution, aside from the increased temperature and changes in rainfall patterns all over the country.”

Apart from its well-established roles in medicine, agriculture, and industry, the science chief said that the renewed campaign towards the inclusion of nuclear power in the energy mix adds a new dimension to the roles of PNRI, a line agency of DOST. This includes not only mastering a potentially invaluable power source for economic progress but also ensuring safety, security, and responsible use.

“This is the reason why the country’s science department has its full support for the efforts of the Nuclear Energy Program Inter-Agency Committee (NEP-IAC), as well as the establishment of a unified independent regulatory body for ionizing radiation sources through the bill for the Philippine National Nuclear Energy Safety Act pending in Congress,” said Sec. Solidum.

During the time of the presidency of Rodrigo R. Duterte, Executive Order 164 was signed, thus including nuclear power in the country’s energy mix. Under the new policy, it stated that the country “shall ensure the peaceful use of nuclear technology anchored on critical tenets of public safety, national security, energy self-sufficiency, and environmental sustainability.”

The DOST, in support of EO 164, issued this statement: “Nuclear power is envisioned to bring down the cost of electricity and to contribute to energy security considering the various limitations now being encountered in the other sources which includes natural gas, geothermal, hydro, and coal.”

Nuclear power is one of the two major alternatives to fossil fuels; the other one is renewable energy (whose sources include solar power, wind power, hydroelectric, geothermal energy, and biomass energy).

“Actually, renewables and nuclear can complement each other,” explained PNRI Director Carlo A. Arcilla in an interview with DOSTv’s ExperTalk 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.”

In the said interview, Arcilla also shared another issue concerning solar energy, which requires one hectare of land to produce one megawatt. “This will become more challenging since the Philippines is an archipelagic country,” he said, adding that “Nuclear is more of a baseload energy meaning it is more reliable due to its continuous production of energy. It could provide backup for wind and solar.”

It’s not the first time the Philippines will go nuclear. Westinghouse Electric built the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) during the time 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.

In 2019, a public perception survey indicated that 79% of Filipinos supported the rehabilitation of the shelved BNPP. In addition, 65% approved of the building of new nuclear power plants.

The idea of nuclear power started in the 1930s, when physicist Enrico Fermi first showed that neutrons could split atoms. The Italian physicist led a team that in 1942 achieved the first nuclear chain reaction, under a stadium at the University of Chicago.

Nuclear power is the second largest source of low-carbon electricity today, recent studies showed. With almost 500 operating reactors globally, it provides 10% of global electricity supply.

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