THINK ON THESE: More power to nuclear energy

“Nuclear energy is the scientific achievement of the industrial revolution.”
– David Lloyd George

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The first time I learned about nuclear energy was when I watched a movie entitled The China Syndrome. It tells the story of a television reporter (played superbly by Jane Fonda) and her camera man (Michael Douglas, who also produced the film) who discovered safety cover ups at a nuclear power plant.

“China syndrome” is actually a fanciful term that describes a fictional result of a nuclear meltdown, where reactor components melt through their containment structures and into the underlying earth, “all the way to China.”

Most Filipinos came to know about nuclear energy only when the country started construction of a nuclear power plant following the 1973 oil crisis. The Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) was completed in 1984 but never went into operation. It was mothballed by then President Corazon C. Aquino on the fear of reactor meltdown after the Chernobyl disaster as well as the increase of the price of the plant.

Although nuclear energy is widely used for electricity production, it has often faced an image problem, particularly in the wake of accidents such as the 1985 Chernobyl disaster in what is now northern Ukraine, the 2011 Fukushima accident in Okuma, Japan, or, more recently, the occupation by Russian forces of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine.

“Nuclear is already playing a big role in clean energy delivery; more than a third of clean, carbon dioxide-free energy produced today in the world is nuclear,” said Rafael Mariano Grossi, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). “In Europe, where I live, it’s half. So, it is already part of the solution.

“The problem is that for many years, for a variety of reasons that have to do with Chernobyl or, later, Fukushima, there has been a lot of push back and misinformation about nuclear energy,” he told UN News.

Such misinformation, he pointed out, has reverberated in the conferences and meetings and policy gatherings about energy in general. At the UN Climate Conferences, nuclear energy was resisted, not mentioned, and even rejected.

But at the 2023 Dubai conference, nuclear energy was included alongside renewables. Grossi called it “a major step” adding that “a number of important countries pledged to triple their own percentage of nuclear in their energy mix.”

The Nobel prize-winning International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recognized that, without nuclear energy, it will be almost impossible to decarbonize by 2050.

“So, there will be more nuclear power and the IAEA, along with the UN System in general, will make sure this happens in a safe and secure way, and does not lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons,” Grossi said.

Regarding “misinformation” surrounding nuclear energy, Grossi explained: “The conventional wisdom is that thousands of people died because of the Fukushima nuclear accident. Whilst it’s true that thousands of people were killed by the tsunami (that hit Japan in March 2011), not a single person died from radiation.”

Looking at statistics available globally, “you will see that in terms of mortality, nuclear is even lower than some renewable energies,” Grossi said. “Many people die in air accidents, but we don’t stop flying in aircraft. National governments have a responsibility to keep societies well-informed and set the record straight.”

Grossi, however, doesn’t recommend that the world go nuclear for its energy consumption. “This doesn’t mean that we will go 100 per cent nuclear: we believe in intelligent energy mixes, where nuclear is the baseload energy,” he explained. “It’s very stable, it’s available come rain or shine, you can regulate it, and you can integrate it with renewables.”

During the time of the presidency of Rodrigo R. Duterte, Executive Order 164, which includes nuclear power in the country’s energy mix, was signed. 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 secret here is a mix,” pointed out Dr. Carlo Arcilla, the director of the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute, in a conversation with Asian Power. “We need the mix of the coal that is being phased out and renewables, but we need a stable source and nuclear has to be considered. Nuclear is very clear, there are no emissions. Its waste disposal can be done safely.

The biggest problem with nuclear power, however, is misconceptions and bad rap. “But 10% of the world’s energy is coming from nuclear power and in America, it is 20%, they have nearly 100 nuclear power plants operating for 60 years,” Dr. Arcilla said. “We badly need nuclear as a baseload source of power, but it can only come maybe in the next four or five years, the shortest time the Bataan Nuclear Plant gets started.”

One of the benefits from the inclusion of nuclear power in the country’s energy mix is price. “The cost of electricity from nuclear power is one of the cheapest,” Dr. Arcilla explained to Asian Power. “If you increase the share of nuclear power in the energy mix, that will bring the average down. We don’t want to replace everything with nuclear energy, only in the baseload. If we don’t include nuclear power and rely only on imported liquid natural gas, electricity, which is now expensive, will even go higher. This is one of the only ways we can bring it down.”

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