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Mapping The Future

The power challenge

12:33 AM October 10, 2016

(First of two parts)

Power supply availability, distribution and use influence greatly the cost of power, which now holds back our economic growth. How to make these factors bring down the high cost of power is the power challenge before us.

1. On the availability of power supply

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We need 6,086 megawatts of added power supply capacity to sustain our economic growth, says the Department of Energy. This need has re-ignited public debates on the nuclear power option (NPO) and the rehabilitation of the mothballed Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP).

Let me focus on a few points.

Nuclear power trends motivate also the interest in the NPO. As of the second quarter of 2016, records of the World Nuclear Association (WNA) show the nuclear power global capacity, from about 440 nuclear power reactors in 32 countries, reaching over 385 gigawatts. An additional 68 nuclear power plants (NPPs) are being constructed in 15 countries, mostly in Asia, with China leading. In the Asean region, WNA considers Vietnam the “front runner,” while other countries, including the Philippines, are also considering the NPO.

The Nuclear power option

The BNPP has already cost us more than $3 billion to build and maintain. We continue to spend about P27 million annually (up to P50 million annually, according to one report) to maintain it, although there have been attempts or proposals to make it useful—by using it for tourism, converting it into a natural gas or coal-fired power plant, or rehabilitating to operate it. Rehabilitation cost was estimated in 2013 at about $1 billion.

But some of those who favor the NPO will rather build a new NPP, due mainly to risk issues associated with the BNPP.

On the NPO, therefore, we have to evaluate and decide on: a) the BNPP and b) the NPO, with a new NPP in a new site. For each, we could state the three main options simply as “Go,” “No Go,” and “Hold for now.” Dr. Kelvin Rodolfo, professor emeritus, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois, Chicago, sees only the “No Go” option for both. For him, an NPP, old or new, is hazardous and will never work for the Philippines, which is a “volcanic and earthquake-prone area.”

But since some scientists favor consideration of the NPO, although not the BNPP, we could consider the NPO after identifying and analyzing well the issues associated with it. The main ones are the risk, economic, and political issues. I will focus on the risk issues.

It is careless to say that an NPP is safe without analyzing it first. Risks are assessed for a specific NPP, usually with Probabilistic Risk Assessment (PRA), a methodology that answers three main questions: What can go wrong? How likely is it to occur? What will be the outcome? The main sources of risk are man-made hazards within and outside an NPP and natural hazards. PRA expresses the assessment results in terms of risks to life and the economy.

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The quality of the PRA depends on the data used, the assumptions or experts’ judgments made in the absence of data, and how the assessment is conducted by whom. Since a complete PRA could cost several million dollars, one may focus on priority concerns, e.g., natural hazards, which may lead to an obvious decision choice.

On natural hazards, e.g., earthquake, volcanic eruption, tsunami, storm surge, or a combination of them, uncertainties arise from the behavior of nature and how the design and management of an NPP will overcome any adverse behavior.

Dr. Rodolfo and other local experts, particularly Prof. Mahar Lagmay of the National Institute of Geological Sciences and his student R. Narod Eco, have studied geological hazards affecting the BNPP and have written scientific papers on them.

Their main conclusion is: There is active faulting at the NPP site, which is not only near the Mt. Natib volcano, but is on it!

Their papers cover also the evaluation of engineering design following the 2012 guidelines from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The conclusion—the design can address lahar hazards but not the two other volcanic hazards, pyroclastic flow and lahar flow from Mt. Natib. When the BNPP was built, the planning of NPPs “did not involve well-established, internationally accepted guidelines to set criteria and procedures for assessing potential volcanic hazards.”

Could the BNPP’s engineering design be improved still to address those volcanic hazards? At what cost?

(To be continued)

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TAGS: Bataan nuclear power plant, economy, Energy, Management, Philippine news business update
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