- On Monday, US Vice President Kamala Harris, who is visiting Manila, announced the US and the Philippines are initiating talks on a civil nuclear cooperation deal.
- The so-called “123 Agreement”, which spells out nuclear non-proliferation provisions, will provide the legal basis for US exports of nuclear equipment and material to the Asian country.
- Having been once bitten by the promise of nuclear power, any such project will be a closely-watched undertaking in the country amid the rise in renewable energy alternatives.
Manila: Filipinos pay $19 per 100 kilowatt-hours (KWh) of electricity, generated using mostly fossil fuels. It's the highest electricity rate in the whole of Asia.
In contrast, their South Korean neighbours pay less than half — about $9.7 per 100 kWh — the second-lowest among the rich, 38-member Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations, according to a globalpetrolprices.com report.
South Korea, about one-third of the land area of the Philippines, has 25 nuclear power plants. That Philippines has one (which cost taxpayers $2.3 billion, but was never used).
What is Manila's stance on nuclear power?
In March 2022, before he left office, former ex-President Rodrigo Duterte signed an executive order committing the Philippines to develop a nuclear energy program as a national policy. It calls for the development of nuclear power infrastructure and covers the planning and construction, operational, commercial, and post-operation stages of nuclear power plants.
In his first state of the Nation Address in July, President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr has clearly stated his administration’s target: make power more affordable and reliable.
One solution he mentioned: the possibility of utilising the latest nuclear power technology, specifically the use of small modular actors (SMR), or micro-nuclear reactors (MNRs) using lower-cost pre-fabricated nuclear power generators.
President Marcos Jr said his country’s civilian nuclear policy must be compliant with the regulations of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Regulations for Nuclear Power Plants, bolstered following the Fukushima Daiichi incident in Japan in 2011.
South Korea, in contrast, has utilised nuclear power more than 40 years with zero incident. Its land area is about one-third that of the Philippines’, but the former currently has 25 active reactors — providing about one-third of the peninsula’s electricity.
South Koreans have gained enough expertise to build nuclear power plants for other countries, too.
Who will fund the so called SMR nuclear power plants?
Marcos Jr, a known advocate of renewables, has pushed for private funding for scaling up of hydro-electric, geothermal and wind energy projects in the country.
In his previous statements, President Marcos Jr said favours public-private partnership (PPP) schemes to finance SMRs.
The 621-megawatt Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) was funded by government loans. Under what was described as a vague agreement with Westinghouse, construction started in July 1976 (while President Ferdinand Marcos Sr's Martial Law was still in place) and was completed in 1984.
The project racked up billions in cost-overruns — from the original price tag of $500 million for a two-reactor "turn-key” project, the final tab went up to $2.3 billion, with only one reactor. Though completed in 1984, nuclear fuel rods were never loaded and the plant did not produce a single watt of electricity after it was mothballed.
A corruption case filed by the Philippine government in a US court ended in an out-of-court settlement. It was only in 2007 — 31 years after the initial loan was taken out — that the Philippine government managed to fully pay its BNPP obligations.
What’s the new nuclear cooperation deal with the US?
On Monday (November 21, 2022), US Vice President Kamala Harris announced that the US and the Philippines are initiating talks on a civil nuclear cooperation deal.
Once in force, the so-called “123 Agreement” will provide the legal basis for US exports of nuclear equipment and material to the Philippines, the White House explained in a fact sheet released on Monday. It added that the deal aims to support expanded partnership on “zero-emission energy” and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Advanced nuclear reactor technology
“The US is committed to working with the Philippines to increase energy security and deploying advanced nuclear reactor technology as quickly as safety and security conditions permit to meet the Philippines’ dire baseload power needs,” the White House said.
“Such a deployment would support both energy security and climate goals, as well as support workers and businesses in both countries,” it added.
Harris arrived in Manila on Sunday evening for talks — strengthening cooperation on security, economy, and climate action — which a senior US official said has been the “theme” of Harris’ visits to other countries.
Why does the Philippines want to use nuclear power now?
A survey showed majority of Filipinos would welcome the idea of producing electricity from nuclear power if it helps the country. The country has the highest cost of electricity in Asia.
There's hope that adding nuclear energy into the power mix would make energy more reliable — and affordable — seen as key to the country’s development. The country aims to hit 8 per cent GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth rate, but its energy sector is beset by high cost and low reliability.
More than half of the country’s energy comes from coal. In the Asean region, the Philippines has the highest cost of electricity at $104 per megawatt hour (MWh) vs $71/MWh in Indonesia and $75/MWh in Singapore, according to 20202 IHS Markit data.
What are SMRs?
SMRs are advanced nuclear reactors that have a power capacity of up to 300 MW(e) per unit, which is about one-third of conventional nuclear reactors.
One advantage of SMRs: they are physically only a fraction of the size of a conventional nuclear power reactors — thus making it possible for components to be factory-assembled and transported as a unit to a location for installation.
The nuclear energy sector in the United States has transported this material securely without causing any accidents, injuries, or environmental damages.
Since 1970, more than 7,000 cargoes of spent fuel have entered the US, but no radioactive material has leaked or anyone has been hurt.
There are concerns, however, about the rising cost of energy from SMRs and environmentalists are calling for scaling up of "green" renewables instead, like wind and solar coupled with grid-scale batteries to compensate for intermittency of solar and wind. These will be the subject of discussions among decision makers in the Philippines and in the public sphere.
What do Filipino leaders say about nuclear energy?
Many Senators and Congressmen back the idea. Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri said exploring the nation's potential for nuclear energy as a reasonably-priced and dependable power source will have his "full support".
Senate President Pro Tempore Loren Legarda, a known environmentalist, said she is open to exploring the possibility of nuclear energy but it must be considered "clean energy”.
Senator Francis Tolentino is likewise in favour of nuclear energy, which he learned has zero emission. "President Marcos’ notion is that nuclear energy will provide greater means of support in uplifting the lives of our countrymen," he said.
Senator Sherwin Gatchalian also said he was open to the idea and asked for information from the Department of Energy (DOE) on whether nuclear energy should be added to the nation's energy mix, given the growing threat of climate change.