Meralco opens door to nuclear power option

Published October 27, 2021, 4:14 PM

by Myrna M. Velasco

Power utility giant Manila Electric Company (Meralco) is the first private sector player in the country’s power industry to open its doors to nuclear power option – primarily the deployment of small modular reactors (SMRs) – as part of its long-term energy investment strategy.

“We start looking at nuclear as the next fuel source…it is something worth looking into but I don’t think we can get nuclear power generation plants up and running earlier than 10 years from now,” Meralco President and CEO Ray C. Espinosa said in a briefing with reporters.

He qualified that it will be the SMRs, which can have capacity of 300 megawatts or less – that can be best installed primarily in off-grid areas, given the archipelagic frame of the country’s energy market.

“In my view, nuclear, especially the advanced small modular reactors would be a good source of generation power that the country should be open to looking at. Actually, it fits the island or archipelagic nature of the Philippines because these are modular, so actually, you can construct nuclear plants in various regions of the country. To be a modular, you have to be at least not more than 300 megawatts,” the Meralco executive stressed.

He emphasized that SMRs could be the next technology recourse best integrated in long-term investment blueprints because “the world is already moving away from the conventional, monolithic class that we see, so the smaller modular reactors are now being developed.”

Espinosa, nevertheless, stated that for any company or country to embrace the ‘nuclear renaissance pathway’, they must first keep in mind the crafting and institutionalization of much-need policies, rules and regulations, so nuclear power can be viably and safely operated in an energy market.

Such scope of preparation then requires long gestation period for the deployment of nuclear power technologies – and that could be in the scale of 10 years or even longer before the SMRs could become commercially viable for installations as a power capacity source.

In fact, in the assessment of Energy Secretary Alfonso G. Cusi, who is an unapologetic defender of the revival of nuclear power development in the country, this technology alternative in the energy mix may only be concretized either by 2027 or at a later timeframe in 2035.

The energy chief noted “this would depend on the passage of necessary legislative policies on nuclear power, which are among the bills that have been certified as urgent, and must be passed by Congress.”

The installations of modular nuclear power facilities are being targeted in strategically chosen sites in various parts of the country in the next 6-7 years — and the pilot areas already identified have been in Sulu, Palawan and at the Cagayan Economic Zone Authority (CEZA) in Northern Luzon.

To date, the Department of Energy (DoE) is advancing a legislation that will pave the way for a rebirth of nuclear power in the country – and that shall serve as a follow-through measure to Executive Order No. 116 that was issued last year by President Rodrigo Duterte, broadly laying down a national policy to re-embrace nuclear as an option in the energy mix for the long-term.

And while legislative processes and deliberations are ongoing, Cusi is intensifying his appeal to the Filipino people “to open themselves to the idea” – an imperative social petition even at this early stage because public acceptance of nuclear power is often the toughest hurdle in the deployment of such controversial technology.

Beyond the targeted new builds, the country’s energy officials and other nuclear power advocates are also relentlessly pushing for the repowering of the idled 620-megawatt Bataan Nuclear Power Plant.

The biggest question, aside from social acceptance, however is the cost that will be incurred in reviving the nuclear facility and placing it on “operations mode” – as calculations had been placed at the range of US$1.0 billion to US$2.0 billion.

And since government-run National Power Corporation (NPC) can no longer own and operate new power plants, it remains a nagging question as to which entity will be legally acceptable and technically equipped to bring back the idled BNPP to operational state

 
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