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An employee checking switches inside the control room at the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant. Image Credit: AFP

Highlights

  • Senior officials considering small modular reactors (SMRs) and more renewable energy sources, instead of refurbishing an unused nuclear power plant.
  • Geologists say the mothballed $2.2-billion Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) poses a safety risk. 
  • Its location is a known geological fault, at the foot of Mt Natib, a potentially active volcano.
  • Even if activated, BNPP’s potential capacity (621 MW) would account for only 4.4% of Luzon grid’s total power generating capacity.

Manila: The Philippines is currently considering modular nuclear power plants, known as small modular reactors (SMRs). The country’s 2.2 percent annual population growth and power-hungry industrial and manufacturing sectors present both a challenge — and opportunity — to find a long-term solution to its over-reliance on coal-fired power plant.

Greenhouse gas-emitting coal plants, which curently costs around $2 billion for a new 600-MW capacity facility, currently account for 57% of the Asian country’s power generation.

Among SMR’s benefits: shorter construction time, in-factory fabrication, relatively safer, highly scalable, ease of siting and it’s generally cheaper too. The downsides: lengthy and costly licensing process for new reactor designs, and a huge number of units must be produced (or ordered) to achieve economies of scale.

Decommissioned

The Philippines’ sole nuclear plant in Bataan was built starting from 1976 under former President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. Though copmleted, it was never activated by Marcos Sr, or by the seven presidents who followed him.

Bataan Nuclear Power Plant BNPP Philippines
$2.3-BILLION UNUSED NUCLEAR POWER PLANT: A view of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant in the Philippines. In response to the 1973 global oil shock — when the price of crude oil quadrupled from $2.90 a barrel to $11.65 a barrel in January 1974 — then-President Ferdinand Marcos Sr issued a decree to build the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP), at the original cost of $500 million. Image Credit: Reuters

Now, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr (BBM) has made it part of his platform of governance to consider nuclear in the power generation mix. He mentioned the latest innovations in nuclear power generation in media interviews. He also cites the high cost of electricity in the country — the highest in Asia — double the cost of electricity in South Korea.

COST | DESIGN OF SMALLER MODULAR REACTORS:
> A 2017 study shows a factory-produced pressurised water SMR might be between 15% and 40% cheaper than a traditional plant scaled to provide the same electrical output.

> SMRs are designed to produce 50MW to 300MW of electricity, compared to the typical 1,000MW of traditional large-scale reactors.

> While a large reactor takes six to 12 years, it takes 3 to 5 years to build an SMR — the majority of construction takes place off-site.

> Proponents argue that SMRs cost less and can be built more quickly than large nuclear reactors.

> The NuScale SMR builder estimates its plant costs just under $3 billion to build, or about $5,078 per kilowatt of capacity (kWe).

> SMRs are said to be safer as they can't melt down.

Nuclear power plant sits next to a volcano?

Recent geological surveys show, however, that the plant’s location at the foot of Mount Natib makes it unsafe. Geologists say the location next to Mt Natib, a “stratovolcano” (with a 6km x 7km caldera) still poses a potential for eruption.

BNPP’s construction also came with allegations of tens of millions of dollars in kickbacks.

$2 billion to $4 billion BNPP rehab budget

Some estimates state that today, it would cost another $2 billion (Php112 billion) to $4 billion ($224 billion) to “rehabilitate” the unused BNPP, though its rated capacity accounts for less than 5% of the power generating capacity on the Luzon grid.

Up to 57% of power in Luzon comes from coal, with only 20% from renewables (geothermal, hydroelectric, wind). 

57%

electricity from coal on mainland Luzon, Philippines

BNPP was never activated. In 2007 — 31 years since construction began — Filipino taxpayers finally paid in full the principal and interest of the US Eximbank loan used to build it.

In 1976, a spokesman for Westinghouse, the BNPP contractor, acknowledged that the company had paid commissions to the Marcos Sr’s aide, Herminio Disini, “for assistance in obtaining the contract and for implementation services.” The spokesman refused to comment on the size of the fees or disclose precisely what Disini had done for Westinghouse citing it was “'proprietary information for commercial and competitive reasons”.

After Marcos Sr. was toppled in 1986 civilian-backed military coup, the BNPP was never activated due to political and safety reasons.

20%

shares of renewables (hydro, geothermal power and wind) out of the total power generating capacity in the Philippines.

Westinghouse had later settled a corruption case filed by the Philippine government over alleged BNPP-related kickbacks. The company then filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and changed ownership.

Today, 46 years since BNPP’s construction started, it’s being considered for “rehabilitation” under President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Sr.

Electricity generated by nuclear power plants is currently considered as one of the most reliable power sources, though 182 plants are considered decommissioned and inactive, including BNPP.

4.4%

Share of BNPP’s rated capacity (621 MW) out of the total power generating capacity of the Luzon grid

The geological factor: Is BNPP unsafe?

In 2012, Science Direct cited Filipino scientists Alfredo Mahar Lagmay and Raymond S Rodolfo, who studied Mt. Natib Volcano’s geological hazards to BNPP.

Specifically, the two scientists cited geological studies stating that the south-west sector of Mount Natib, on which BNPP is built, is a potentially active volcano in the “Bataan volcanic arc” in western Luzon.

The study suggested that volcanic hazards and active faults lying directly beneath the plant “should be considered to help the Philippine government decide on recommissioning the BNPP”.

nuclear power reliance
Image Credit:

> According to Lagmay and Rodolfo, the nearest "eruptive centre" is 5.5 km away from the BNPP. The south-west of Natib Volcano is underlain by lava flows, lahar deposits and at least six pyroclastic density current (PDC) deposits, three directly underlying the nuclear reactor facility.

> They also cited an earthquake fault trending N30°E is aligned with the Lubao Fault, a “capable” fault north-east of the volcanic edifice. The geologists said that radon emissions at the traces of these faults are high and comparable to those at known active faults.

> Aan associated thrust fault at the nuclear reactor site cuts through lahars up to the ground surface. The geologists said their study, published by ResearchGate, can be used for general hazard preparedness of local communities.

> A 1977 geological survey made by Ebasco Services estimates the latest dated (by fission track) eruptive products at Mt. Natib at 69,000 to 27,000 years old.

> Two other geologists (Ruaya and Panem) listed a "Young Volcanics" unit at Mt Natib, estimating the latest eruption at 90-100,000 years ago. They detected five thermal areas present in the summit region.

> In 1987, Philippine National Oil Company-EDC (now EDC) conducted surface geoscientific investigation in an area of about 850 km² covering Mt Natib.

How much is the cost of BNPP rehab?

Joshua C. Agar, Assistant Professor, Structural Engineering Group Institute of Civil Engineering at the University of the Philippines-Diliman, told Gulf News that estimates vary from $2 billion to $4 billlion.

He said, however, that instead of spending that amount of Filipino taxpayers’ money, excluding possible cost over-runs for BNPP rehab, the amount would be better spent on carbon-neutral alternatives, such as large-scale batteries tied to renewables (to cover for intermittency). Private funds or a combination of public-private ownership could also bankroll these.

“Given the climate change challenges, and if we really want to be carbon-neutral, renewable energy are the better alternatives, including biomass, geothermal, solar, hydro, win and ocean power,” Agar told Gulf News, citing the Department of Energy’s 2030 target.

What are the green alternatives to nuclearpower?

Agar also said the country should seriously look at renewables — solar, hydro, wind and geothermal power, as well as wave — including batteries, as they offer long-term solutions, while nuclear can only be considered as “transition” solutions.

As of 2022, the Philippines generates 1,572 MW from geothermal power, about 1,000 MW from hydropower, and 143 MW from wind. 

By 2030, the country's Department of Energy (DOE) plans to ramp them up — triple hydro-electric power production to 6,767 MW, double geothermal power to 3,097 MW, and quadruple wind to 548 MW. In addition, the DOE also set a target of 268 MW for biomass, 35 MW for solar, and 120 MW from ocean wave energy.

Power production
Image Credit: DoE

Isn’t the Philippines using largescale batteries with renewables?

Yes. The power arm of Manila-based conglomerate San Miguel Corporation (SMC) has started operation of an initial 690MW of battery storage facilities, as “peaker” or back-up, tied to power generation plants.

SMC expects to complete 31 energy storage systems by end-2022, with an accumulated capacity of 1GW.

These large-scale batteries are designed to improve power reliability, and address the intermittency of renewables. More importantly, they will make way for the integration of some 3GW of intermittent renewables (solar and wind) capacity.

Throughout the country, SMC is building solar plants in combination with battery storage at 10 locations, set to go online in 2023.

Can Mount Natib provide geothermal power?

The Philippines has about 300 inactive or dormant volcanoes. Today, the country has 7 active geothermal fields — supplying about 12 percent of the nation's energy. The government has a long-term plan to nearly double capacity by 2040.

In March 2021, the Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded Clean Rock Renewable Energy a “pre-development” contract for the Mt. Natib geothermal project. It is approximately 60 km west of Manila or 110 km by car.

The Philippines has 3 main island groups — Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. Luzon accounts for the more than 70% of power generating capacity and consumption. The country’s total demand for power grows by about 3%, according to the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP).

As of June 18, 2022, NGCP estimates the total peak demand at 14,298 MW across the three power grids, against a capacity of 18,052 MW. By 2030, total peak demand is expected to hit at least 17,000 MW, a nearly 20% jump.

nuclear power by the numbers
Fossil fuel prices have recently gone through the roof — nearly tripling from an average $39.68 in 2020 to an average of $101.40 so far in 2022. Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal | Gulf News (Sources: Rosatom | Statista)