- At 17, Enrique Razon Jr worked in a cargo-loading company for minimum wage, then rose through the ranks.
- Today the Filipino billionaire is at the helm of a conglomerate spanning ports, gaming, utilities, power generation and hospitality, among others.
- Razon Jr now seeks to help solve his country's power problem through small modular reactors (SMRs).
Manila: Filipinos currently pay at least 30 per cent higher for electricity, compared to neighbours. This chokes industries and jobs. How to beat high power rates?
Filipino billionaire Enrique Razon Jr., Manila's undisputed "king" of ports and the country’s second-richest person, thinks he’s got the solution.
How? By deploying small modular nuclear power reactors, also known as SMRs.
From minimum wage earner to billionaire
Though this may take years, if not decades, Razon Jr., 63, is ready to run the gauntlet. The tycoon is known for his tenacity, an ability to thrive in the midst of challenges. “Always be prepared for crisis,” he's been quoted as saying.
Known to friends and family as “Ricky”, Razon Jr wears many hats. He is one of the more low-key billionaires with a work ethic admired by many. When he was 17, Ricky dropped out of school to start working at the family's cargo-loading company — for minimum wage. Then he rose through the ranks.
Today, with a net worth estimated by Forbes at $8.1 billion in 2023, he is the Philippines’ ports king. He competes on the global stage, but keeps his cards close to his chest.
His business empire covers everything from ports and terminals, gaming, infrastructure, mining, utilities and hospitality.
Listed ICTSI, the Manila-based port handling giant he chairs (market cap: $7.3 billion), operates 34 ports and terminals in 20 countries. He also heads Bloomberry Resorts Corp. (market cap: $2.22 billion), a gaming operator.
Prime Infra, Razon Jr's infrastructure arm, is involved in utilities and power generation. Its assets include a controlling stake in Manila Water Co. and nearly half of the Malampaya Deep Water gas-to-power project (via Prime Energy), which generates over 2 gigawatts for the Luzon power grid, and is eyeing a $584-million IPO later this year.
Pivot to nuclear
Now, Razon Jr is riding the new wave of nuclear power’s resurgence. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr has made known his advocacy for power produced by the well-established science of splitting atoms.
In November 2022, Marcos Jr (also known as “Bongbong”, or BBM) said he wanted to develop nuclear energy in the Philippines in partnership with France.
Born: March 3, 1960 (age 63 years)
Net worth: $8.1 billion (2023, as per Forbes)
Spouse: Lizzie Santos-Razon
Children: Katrina Razon
Education: De La Salle University Manila
That same month, US Vice President Kamala Harris revealed during a visit that Manila and Washington are in negotiations on possible nuclear energy cooperation.
In May 2023, Ricky was among the Filipino tycoons who accompanied BBM on a working visit to Washington, during which President Marcos Jr met US President Joe Biden.
Prime Infra, which emerged as the Manila partner of Oregon-based NuScale Power Corp., gave an unsolicited proposal to build SMRs in the Philippines. Details were scant. But it added a buzz around nuclear power’s prospects in the Asian country.
Why Philippine power rates are high
A study made by Ateneo de Manila University cited the reason for high power rates: a spike in global prices of coal and natural gas.
Philippine residential rates in 2021 (at constant 2015 prices) were USc 13.81/kWh (US cents per kilowatt hour) versus USc 10/kWh in Thailand, USc 8.12/kWh in Indonesia, and USc 4.58/kWh in Malaysia.
Why are SMRs the in thing
Razon wants to solve that in part with SMRs, and in the process address the frustration over high power rates and deep-seated resentments over rolling blackouts, a dire situation that puts the country at a great disadvantage: power intermittency and high rates push industries and jobs elsewhere, usually its Asean neighbours.
Prime Infra has also set it sights on new gas wells and solar power projects.
It cited the experiences of France, the US and South Korea, among others.
France (population: 68 million) has 56 nuclear reactors generating 61 gigawatts; South Korea (population: 52 million), currently has 24 reactors. The US producers 91.5 gigawatts — the world’ biggest — from 93 reactors spread across 30 of the country's 50 states.
The Philippines today (population 110 million), has only one research reactor that’s not producing electricity.
Now, given the order, and hard realities that are hard to ignore, the country’s archipelagic feature, natural disasters and unreliable and expensive fossil-fuel based power, there's a renewed interested in nuclear energy.
“We need everything (to address the energy problem)… and this new technology is something,” Marcos Jr told US media in May.
Ricky and NuScale execs were quick to the draw. They announced their partnership, though the area in which to build the first SMR was not named. The first target: Luzon (one of the three big island groups, where Manila is), an official told local media. NuScale stated they are keen to conduct a study on possible SMR sites.
Safety concerns, earthquake fault positioning, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island incidents prevented its operation. The coup against President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. in 1986 sealed its fate as a white elephant.
BNPP faced numerous issues — construction, location, permits, and kickbacks — leading to a US court dispute. The $2.3 billion sovereign loan (originally $500 million, the construction tab given by Westinghouse) burdened Filipino taxpayers.
Payment concluded in April 2007, but BNPP has not produced a single watt of power.
Design approved: SMR upsides, downsides
NuScale has something going for it. In January 2023, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved the 50-MW design for its SMR, making it America’s first small advanced light-water SMR.
Its key advantage: modularity. That means SMRs can be put together in a factory and shipped as a completely-built unit to a location which could provide instant power.
The world’s first advanced SMR located just off Russia’s Arctic coast began operations in May 2020.
There are other SMRs under construction — or in the licensing stage — in Argentina, Canada, China, Russia, South Korea, and the US, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Anti-nuke campaigners in the Philippines are unconvinced. They say SMRs are mostly experimental and there's the issue of radioactive waste. They cited Germany, which is pushing renewables like solar and wind, exiting from nuclear power altogether.
The Ateneo de Manila University, on the other hand, categorised nuclear energy and SMRs as “clean fuel” power that “can be considered as an addition to the fuel mix”.
“Given the archipelagic nature of the Philippines, with several off-grid areas, SMRs may be a cost-effective form of distributed generation,” the researchers stated.
Will it happen?
The biggest challenge for nuclear power yet: public acceptability. Would Ricky find a way around it? Would Filipinos accept an SMR in their backyard? To address opposition, will Razon give nearby residents huge discounts or free electricity?
Would Ricky and NuScale build their SMRs as an independent power producer (IPP) or for other IPPs — providing a competitive alternative to utility-owned and operated power? There are no clear answers just yet.
What’s clear is the need is there, and SMRs offer a solution: Over 160 ships are powered by more than 200 small nuclear reactors (mostly submarines, icebreakers and aircraft carriers).
On its LinkedIn profile, Prime Infra states the company’s assets include both renewable and sustainable energy, water, waste management and construction — “but will soon expand to other industries, further diversifying our portfolio and improving our services and commitment to various communities around the world.”
With careful planning and his usual persistence, Ricky's solution to his country’s pernicious power problem could very well happen, sooner or later, thus potentially making him the Asian country's "king" of nuclear power.