‘Government should tap safer energy sources in West Philippine Sea’

By Butch Fernandez & Lenie Lectura – November 13, 2016

from Business Mirror

Instead of spending $1 billion to revive the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy urged the government to use money to develop power supply in resource-rich areas of the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

Sen. Sherwin T. Gatchalian made the proposal, as the government scrambles to look for alternative energy sources to fill the power-supply shortfall when the Malampaya gas field in Palawan—which accounts for 40 percent of the Luzon grid—dries up in 10 years.

In the absence of “compelling positive findings” favoring BNPP’s revival, Gatchalian said, “it would be more prudent to invest the $1 billion required to refurbish the BNPP in the exploration and development of untapped indigenous energy sources, especially within the energy-rich waters of the West Philippine Sea.”

“One billion dollars is a lot of money. We have to make sure that we are investing this substantial sum in cost-efficient energy ventures, which are guaranteed to make significant contributions to the long-term stability of our energy supply,” Gatchalian said over the weekend.

He admitted to being wary of government plans to operate the BNPP without “clear and intensively researched” national nuclear policy.

Gatchalian sent signals he would block the plan to revive the BNPP until the Department of Energy (DOE) presents to his committee a comprehensive feasibility study on the prospects of utilizing nuclear power in the Philippines.

He said such a study is necessary before the DOE can proceed with plans to switch on the Marcos-era BNPP. “We cannot jump into nuclear energy on a piecemeal basis.”

“This feasibility study on nuclear power will be critical to objectively assess the merits of adding nuclear power to our energy mix,” Gatchalian said.

He said such a feasibility study would have to tap independent international experts in geology, nuclear physics, engineering and other key fields to independently assess the prospects of nuclear power in the Philippines, “with environmental and community safety as the primordial concern.”

Gatchalian noted that the regional trend is to veer away from nuclear power. For instance, he pointed to Vietnam, which just recently cancelled building plans for two nuclear-power plants “due to economic viability concerns.”

He said the Vietnamese experience illustrated the need to undertake “hard research and crafting a comprehensive long-term plan before jumping into nuclear power.”

‘We are at risk of wasting significant time and resources on a nuclear white elephant,” Gatchalian said, referring to the over 30-year old BNPP built during the Marcos regime.

Mixed reactions

MalacaÑang’s approval of plans to revive the BNPP drew mixed reactions from industry players.

Federico Lopez, chairman of First Gen, said “it pays to study” the plan first before any final decision is made.

“At the end of the day, the safety issues are important, especially because we are in the Pacific Ring of Fire. If we do address the safety issues, then that’s a good thing,” he said in an interview.

He added that it helps if the country is able to tap into many sources of energy, including nuclear, but then safety issues have to be the government’s top priority. “That’s why it’s a good thing to study it first and compare it with other alternatives. That should be part of the plan.”

For the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco), the company’s president remains “open minded.”

“We have to look at the entire package. We will see how this plan of the government progresses. In the end, if it delivers competitive, safe, reliable power, then it may just work. We will take a look at it. We’re always open minded,” Meralco President Oscar Reyes said in an interview.

They all agreed the country needs to explore all sources of energy to support the growing economy, but stressed the need for a well-crafted study, followed by a national nuclear policy.

Last Friday Energy Secretary Alfonso G. Cusi announced in his speech during the inauguration of First Gen Corp.’s two newest natural gas plants in Batangas that President Duterte has directed the agency “to proceed to work for its [BNPP] implementation and full operation.”

Duterte earlier said no nuclear-power plant would be put up during his six-year term.

According to Cusi, the President did not change his mind. “I explained to him what the country needs. We have to look at the future of the country. After I explained it, I asked clearance to proceed.” This conversation took place during the last Cabinet meeting, according to Energy Undersecretary Donato Marcos.

The DOE is currently proceeding with unified and coordinated efforts and activities with the creation of a Nuclear Energy Program Implementing Organization (Nepio).

The Nepio is headed by a Steering Committee with top DOE officials at the helm, while DOE bureaus will create technical working groups (TWGs) to ensure effective and timely implementation of its functions and responsibilities.

The Department of Science and Technology and its attached agencies, DOE attached agencies, other relevant government offices and local and international partner-organizations will be asked to assist the Nepio in its work.

The 620-megawatt (MW) BNPP is the country’s first and only attempt at nuclear-power development. It was supposed to be the first of two nuclear plants to be built in the northern province of Bataan. It was also the first nuclear-power plant in Southeast Asia, and the vaunted solution to the 1973 oil crisis that had adversely affected the global economy, including the Philippines.

Unfortunately, however, the project was mothballed in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. But then, clamor for the reopening of the BNPP was revived during the power crisis in the 1990s and the skyrocketing of oil prices in 2007.

During these periods, Cusi said the DOE actually came close to reconsidering nuclear power as a potential energy source for the country.

But then the Fukushima nuclear-plant incident happened in 2011, creating global panic and concerns about the safety and integrity of nuclear plants.

 

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