The tricky road to PH’s nuclear future

The tricky road to PH’s nuclear future

/ 02:07 AM March 19, 2024

WHITE ELEPHANT The Bataan Nuclear Power Plant as seen from above in this drone shot taken on Sept. 16, 2016. —INQUIRER FILE PHOTO

WHITE ELEPHANT The Bataan Nuclear Power Plant as seen from above in this drone shot taken on Sept. 16, 2016. —INQUIRER FILE PHOTO

TORONTO, Canada—Tucked in the middle of Quezon City is a zero-power nuclear reactor, its small body busily churning out dozens of information for 30 or so Filipinos researching about neutron dynamics and the pureness of honey, among others.

About 200 kilometers away, only ghosts of the past roam the halls of an empty giant concrete structure described by some as the “monster of Morong.”


It’s these two facilities that describe the state of nuclear power in the Philippines, or the lack of it, as the country embarks on an energy program to cleanse its electricity grid of dirty sources while making sure it is stable enough to meet the demands of a growing population.


Energy Undersecretary Sharon Garin said the Philippines should have its “first” nuclear plant already up and running by 2032—and that while “very ambitious” and “very tight,” it can be done.

“We can do our very best to try to catch up. We can if we really try hard enough. We’re compliant and we have the capacity to do it,” she told the Inquirer.

READ: As PH plays with idea of nuclear, disaster tales thrive

Curiously, it’s Garin’s use of the word “first” that may pique the interest of those waiting for developments on the mothballed Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, a generation facility that finished construction in 1986 but never switched on amid safety concerns and corruption allegations.

“It’s because we never turned it on,” she said, but qualifying that the government is not closing its doors on refurbishing it and finally making it part of the country’s generation solution or just turning it into a research facility of sorts.

“We are trying to enter into an agreement with [a Korean company] to do a feasibility … if it’s wise to refurbish it or not. And second is, if we’re going through that course, and if it is recommended … how much will it cost us. It might be possible also that it might be more expensive than just putting up a new one,” she added. She said the agreement with Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co. for a feasibility study will move along this year and that legal kinks just needed to be ironed out.



For experts, however, Bataan may be the shortest path to nuclear generation if the country wants to hit that target in eight years’ time.

In an e-mail exchange with the Inquirer, DB2 Consulting Inc. director general Glen Crawford said: “Restoring, modernizing and commissioning a nuclear power plant, which has already been paid for, has been shown globally to have very attractive economics when compared to a new build.”

DB2 Consulting is a Canadian company with specialization in the nuclear power sector. Its confidence in the potential of the Philippines has even sparked a level of excitement among “Canadian coalition of nuclear experts” that they have incorporated an advisory group with the local Securities and Exchange Commission called Philippine Nuclear Services.

READ: Philippines seeks cooperation with South Korea on nuclear power plant project

Crawford explained that aside from the “economic motivation” of reviving the Bataan plant, there is “confidence in the reactor technology based on the long and successful operation of three sister reactors built in the same time-period.” He said these are in Brazil, Slovenia and Korea, each one thriving and either has been granted or looking for a license extension.

He noted that even in Canada, a dozen or so reactors, some aged 50 years, are undergoing refurbishment to extend their lives.

“The economic risk for these types of projects has been minimized by following accepted and proven standards established by the International Atomic Energy Agency, as demonstrated by completion projects such as two reactors at Cernavoda in Romania, which were completed some 10 years or more after construction was previously abandoned for political and economic reasons,” he said.

One such facility undergoing mid-life restoration is the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station, a 3,500-megawatt plant of four reactors 70 kilometers east of Toronto. First commissioned in the 1990s, its owner and operator Ontario Power Generation (OPG) wants to extend its life by another 30 years to cover the electricity needs of 2 million homes.

Safe, secure

Garin was part of a group from the Philippines composed of government officials, the private sector and members of the media that went on a trade mission to Ontario in early March to look into how Canada was able to make nuclear safe and acceptable to its population.

READ: Nuclear energy in PH? Group says there’s not even a Filipino expert on safety, radiation

The facility boasts of a full-scale nuclear reactor mock-up that allows workers to practice their maneuvers before going inside the real plant to make fixes and tweaks in the most precise manner. For the uninitiated, the room is akin to a sports gym where rows and rows of weights are stacked against each other, except that these are pipes ready to be connected to two large walls similar to a computer’s motherboard and warning signs are strewn everywhere.

It’s this kind of planning that allowed OPG to finish refurbishing and reconnecting two units to the grid ahead of time, proving yet again how science and technology allowed Canada to make electricity more cost-effective for consumers.

Not far away from the facility, bordered by a private corn farm and a massive parking area, is a three basketball court-sized lot being prepared to house North America’s first small modular reactor (SMR).

SMRs are flexible and scalable facilities that can be as small as a bus. Because they are easy to build, they can easily be deployed to meet the country’s climate change objectives.

Canada has already decommissioned all its coal plants, choosing renewables and the carbon-free nuclear route to sustain the needs of its grid. SMRs will therefore come in handy.

New tech

It is this same technology that is on the radar of private companies such as Aboitiz Power.

“What’s interesting [for us] is the BWRX 300 (a type of SMR), because the size matches our grid. It’s very interesting and they (Canada) will be the first one, and then we’ll have the opportunity to observe how they will perform in one or two years,” AboitizPower Thermal Power Generation Group chief operating officer Felino Bernardo told the Inquirer.

That will place the Philippines in the best position to learn things from a company—a veteran at that—and take a shot at new technology.

CAN’T DO OR CANDU? Canada developed a special type of nuclear reactor called Canada Deuterium Uranium (Candu), which uses fuel—natural uranium—that allows for cost-efficiencies. Photo by Ira Pedrasa

CAN’T DO OR CANDU? Canada developed a special type of nuclear reactor called Canada Deuterium Uranium (Candu), which uses fuel—natural uranium—that allows for cost-efficiencies. Photo by Ira Pedrasa

For Garin, it all depends on the interest and direction of investors.

“With a conventional reactor, it’s all about the economies of scale. The bigger it is, the cheaper it will be per kilowatt-hour. But if your goal is to make sure electrification in each and every corner of the Philippines, maybe SMR will be interesting in some areas,” she said.


But even before talk about the right technology is to be discussed, acceptance is paramount for all stakeholders involved. Various issues hounded the planned commissioning of the Bataan plant, but it was the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine in 1986 that eventually sealed its fate.

Nuclear acceptance has risen in recent years, reaching 70 percent per a previous survey with sketchy details.

Garin said the government is hoping for a new survey this year “but this will be more in depth.” “And hopefully they can survey the areas [where possible sites were named] … And I say it’s different, because when you ask ‘do you accept it or not,’ it’s a very simple question … but what if we put it next to your house? That will take a different turn,” she added.

She said education and transparency are key. “If you tell them nobody died in Chernobyl or whatever, I don’t think that’s the idea. You need to educate people. I think you need to start from schools, in the communities, tell them how it looks like,” she added.


Anecdotally, the “interest” is there, especially when it comes to the aspect of learning. Take, for example, the University of the Philippines’ plan to introduce nuclear science and technology to its master’s and doctorate courses possibly in 2025.

Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI) Vallerie Ann Samson said the growing acceptance worldwide and the media coverage of nuclear have made the subject become attractive to many Filipino students.

While deadly and disastrous when loosely handled, reactors are also responsible for creating isotopes that can be used in the treatment of cancer. At McMaster University, a 45-minute drive from downtown Toronto, researchers gather medical isotopes for medical use and source materials for neutron radiography, a service more effective than X-ray to photograph the interior structure of solid objects.

Samson has big dreams of a larger nuclear reactor for study and research in the Philippines like that of McMaster’s. But for now, she and a dozen others are making full use of the small facility inside PNRI that began operations just last year.

The Philippine Research Reactor-1 Subcritical Assembly for Training, Education and Research, which replaced an old facility that was shut down in 1988, is currently being used for the study of “neutron dynamics” or as Samson explained, “so you’ll know when to shut it down, how to move and increase or decrease neutrons … it’s simply the science behind any reactor.”

It’s a mouthful, but for Samson, it allows students to dream big. “It’s small, but it can still create science.”


Garin and Samson and many others have their work cut out for them. Garin herself presides over most of the meetings of the Nuclear Energy Program Inter-Agency Committee, which is chaired by the Department of Energy (DOE). The committee was created during former President Rodrigo Duterte’s time to look into nuclear power’s possible entry into the country’s energy mix.

Today, its goal is to have the Philippine National Nuclear Energy Safety Act passed into law. It will create the Philippine Atomic Energy Regulatory Authority (PhilATOM) that will have “sole and exclusive jurisdiction to exercise regulatory control for the peaceful, safe and secure uses of nuclear energy and radiation sources in the Philippines.”

It’s a tall order from President Marcos, who is looking at renewable and clean energy to address the country’s fossil fuel challenges.

Government officials are also well aware of criticisms that reviving the nuclear debate is just an attempt at tying the loose ends left by the noncommissioning of the Bataan plant, a project of Marcos’ father during his time as president.

“There is no consideration on the political side because this is beyond politics. The investments will be humongous and the logistics of it is really complicated,” Garin said.


For Crawford, “there is plenty of precedent internationally to show that the Philippines having its first nuclear plant by 2032 can be an achievable goal. Important building blocks to establishing a nuclear program are the early development of policies, legislation and regulations, plus fostering the development academic programs to develop future nuclear expertise for reactor operation and maintenance.”

With the Bataan plant aside, the country will have to look to other countries like Canada to establish its own nuclear journey.

“Other countries took quite a lot of time before they established … but the good thing is, since the regulation in other countries are already established, we can learn from them. So we don’t really have to start from scratch, we can get the applicable regulations and improve it considering our own situation and geography and topology,” Bernardo said.

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“I think with everybody working together, with the regulatory body getting formed this year, and then the DOE with its policies strong enough and policies in the private sector working together, it’s possible,” he added. INQ

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