HomeCommentaryShould the Philippines adopt nuclear energy?

Should the Philippines adopt nuclear energy?

Smooth sailing is not on the horizon for the Philippines’ Department of Energy’s plan to include nuclear power in the country’s energy mix.

Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi recently submitted to President Rodrigo Duterte an executive order to this effect. While Duterte was reported to have said he would read it, his spokesman clarified that it has not been signed yet.

In asking Duterte to sign the executive order, the energy department cited the rapid growth in electricity demand, and the urgent need to ensure 24/7 power supply. 

In fact, the department has been working closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency to study the feasibility of the safe use of nuclear energy in the Philippines.

In 2018, Duterte declared his desire to ensure that adequate security measures are in place before considering a nuclear energy program in the country. He said any proposal to use nuclear energy must be thoroughly studied by congress and the people.

Tight safeguards must also be put in place to prevent nuclear meltdowns that endanger public safety.

Such safeguards are being given greater emphasis amid earlier studies to determine whether the mothballed Bataan nuclear power plant could still be rehabilitated and switched on to add to the country’s current energy mix. 

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This mix consists of power plants dependent on coal and fossil fuels, although there is now increased reliance on renewable sources, such as solar, wind, and hydro power, among others.

Then there’s the vehement opposition to nuclear energy from the Church and environmentalists.

Philippine Energy officials inspect the facilities at the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant. The facility was completed in 1984 at a cost of $2 billion, but never produced a single watt of electricity. (Photo courtesy of the Philippines’ Department of Energy)

Bishop Gerardo Alminaza of San Carlos, a consistent advocate of clean energy, has warned that the nuclear accidents in Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima all happened in countries with far more advanced technology, infrastructure, and experience than the Philippines.

“(These) are powerful albeit sorrowful reminders of the risks of nuclear power that we need not expose Filipinos to,” he said.

Bishop Alminaza expressed hopes that Duterte would convince the energy department to focus on promoting renewable energy, since this is a cheaper and safer source of energy compared with the potentially grave risks from nuclear power.

“Instead of empowering our people, energy from nuclear activities threatens human life and the lives of creatures big and small,” the prelate said.

The bishop urged Duterte not to sign the executive order and to remind Cusi that renewable energy should be the country’s primary source of electricity.

“This is what would truly be beneficial to our people, and also serve as a concrete act of care for our common home,” he added.

The environmental group Greenpeace Southeast Asia is even more scathing in its reaction to the news that the Energy department wants the country to tap nuclear energy.

“Greenpeace condemns this latest move by Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi to include nuclear power in the Philippine’s energy mix. This is an underhanded maneuver that blatantly disregards any attempt at consultation, even while proposing to expose the Filipino people to the inherent and serious dangers of nuclear power,” Greenpeace Philippines said.

The group warned that nuclear power is the most dangerous source of electricity, and throughout their life cycle, nuclear plants contribute significantly to climate change. Nuclear is also the most expensive option for power generation, as capital costs are astronomical and construction delays can last up to 17 years. 

Moreover, the industry still has no solution to the safe and permanent storage of spent radioactive fuel.

Greenpeace said in other parts of the world, nuclear facilities are being decommissioned and phased out from energy plans. Germany has started decommissioning its nuclear plants, while Switzerland has banned the construction of new nuclear plants. Spain plans to close down all of its existing plants.

In France, one plant began construction in 2007, but because of delays and safety precautions that usually hound all nuclear power construction, it is not expected to be finished until 2024. 

Instead of exposing Filipinos to unnecessary risk, the group said, the energy department should fast-track the development of renewable energy sources and immediately phase out “dirty” coal in the country’s current energy mix.

I can understand the concerns being raised by the Church and environmental advocates regarding the adoption of nuclear energy. But perhaps the government, particularly the energy department, should make public the studies it has already undertaken on the applicability of nuclear energy to the country. 

Will the economy really benefit from nuclear energy? How much would it cost to rehabilitate and upgrade the Bataan nuclear power plant, if that’s still possible, and to build new ones?

Would nuclear energy fit into the national government’s economic and social priorities beyond the current administration’s term? Or should we really make renewables the mainstay of our energy policy and close the door entirely to the nuclear option? 

These questions demand answers. The debate should therefore continue, so that Filipinos can make an informed choice, rather than having an executive order making the nuclear option a fait accompli.

Ernesto M. Hilario writes on political and social justice issues for various publications in the Philippines. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of LiCAS.news.

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