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Nuclear energy for economic growth

The Department of Energy (DoE) announced last Tuesday, July 9, that the “Agreement for Cooperation Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy” or the “123 Agreement” signed by the US and the Philippines in San Francisco on Nov. 16, 2023, came into force on July 2. It is a beautiful agreement because it provides for the safe and efficient use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes — in agriculture, healthcare, industry, and power generation applications.

On nuclear energy development in particular, DoE Secretary Raphael P.M. Lotilla said that the Nuclear Energy Program-Inter-Agency Committee (NEP-IAC) “is now finalizing the country’s nuclear energy program roadmap which outlines key targets that must be achieved for the successful use of nuclear energy for power generation. Under the 2023-2050 Philippine Energy Plan (PEP), the entry of nuclear power generation capacities is targeted in 2032 with at least 1,200 megawatts (MW), and additional 1,200 MW by 2035 and 2,400 MW by 2050.”

Thank you, Secretary Lotilla for this clear timeline — although I wish that the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) could be refurbished soon and start operation before 2030. And that micro modular reactors (MMR) and small modular reactors (SMR) would be given the green light while the BNPP is being refurbished, then large nuclear power plants be commissioned in the next decade.

Several Asian countries embraced nuclear energy many decades ago. Japan produced at least 1 terawatt-hour (TWh) of nuclear energy in 1968 while India did the same in 1970. China is a late comer, producing at least 1 TWh only in 1993. The most surprising is the United Arab Emirates (UAE), an oil-gas producing and exporting giant, which started building huge nuclear power plants of 1,345 MW capacity yearly for four years from 2012 to 2015. So, now it has 5,380 MW of nuclear power capacity. They started producing a little electricity in 2020, rising in succeeding years to 32 TWh in 2023 alone. Our BNPP had a capacity of only 620 MW and could have generated about 4.6 TWh of electricity every year.

The US and UK started using nuclear power in the 1950s, Russia in the early 1960s. France remains the biggest nuclear-powered country in Europe and is now the third largest in the world behind the US and China (see the table).

The decline from the peak nuclear/total generation ratio to 2023’s ratio is notable in the following countries: the UK which, from a peak of 27.4%, went down to 14.3% in 2023; Germany which went from 29% to 1.4%; Sweden, from 51% to 29%; Belgium, from 55% to 40%; Switzerland, from 41% to 32%; Japan, from 31% to 7.6%; and Taiwan, from 16% to 6.3%.

In contrast, India, South Korea, China, Pakistan, and the UAE keep raising their nuclear generation capacity yearly.

In the Philippines, two energy companies have made explicit plans to develop nuclear energy — Aboitiz Power (AP) and Meralco. Both are looking at the role of manpower training and education in nuclear engineering.

AP’s Vice-President for Corporate Affairs Ronald “Suiee” Suarez — who was with us in Toronto during the Philippines Nuclear Trade Mission to Canada last March, organized by the Embassy of Canada in Manila — made a good observation. He said that “when we visited McMaster University and Ontario Tech, they showed that educators are at the forefront of cultivating the talent pipeline of engineers and industry professionals who will either operate the nuclear technologies, run the business, or regulate the industry. The academe has the tools and know-how to push the envelope and present society with options for a broader application of nuclear science. In the developed world, beyond the generation of electricity, nuclear has been instrumental in the development of isotopes used in medicine, materials engineering, particle research, and industry, which benefit the greater economy.”

On July 1, Meralco officially introduced the pilot batch of scholars under its Filipino Scholars and Interns on Nuclear Engineering (Fission) program. Five Meralco engineers will participate in the two-year nuclear engineering program abroad, at the University of Illinois Urbana in the US, and at Harbin University in China. After completion of the academic program, the Fission scholars will be sent to nuclear technology companies for their internships. When they return to the Philippines in 2028, they will be reintegrated into Meralco and be assigned to its nuclear power generation unit.

Meralco Executive Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer Ronnie L. Aperocho is optimistic. He said that “Fission is a major step in accelerating the education and training of technical and regulatory talents in the highly specialized field of nuclear engineering. This manifests Meralco’s steadfast commitment in continuously developing the workforce in the energy sector.”

Meralco Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Manuel V. Pangilinan is more emphatic, saying that “This country — and Meralco — should be prepared for and committed to nuclear energy. Supporting aspiring energy professionals will help build a talent pipeline of nuclear energy experts, paving the way for a smarter and greener future for our country.”

Very good, gentlemen. We need fast growth, sustained fast growth, in the Philippines. Meaning that power demand will rise fast, and high energy-density nuclear power can easily fill the big supply gap. Intermittent renewables like wind-solar and bulky gas plants will have a hard time providing the huge baseload power needed for the fast-rising power demand.

Bienvenido S. Oplas, Jr. is the president of Bienvenido S. Oplas, Jr. Research Consultancy Services, and Minimal Government Thinkers. He is an international fellow of the Tholos Foundation.


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