Cusi to travel to the US for nuclear deal

Energy Secretary Alfonso G. Cusi will travel to the United States early part of March to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the American government for the targeted deployment of small modular reactors (SMRs) for the planned nuclear power installations in the Philippines.

The outgoing energy chief made the announcement Thursday, Feb. 25, during the Economic Briefing with US officials where he laid down the areas of investments that American companies can funnel their capitals into primarily in the renewable energy (RE) sector as well as in the revival of the country’s nuclear ambitions.

“From the start of the Duterte administration, I have actively advocated for the inclusion of nuclear for our country’s energy mix. And as the years went by, with the pandemic further revealing the vulnerability of our energy sources, it became more urgent for us to integrate nuclear into our energy mix as it would be highly beneficial for our country,” the energy chief said.

Cusi specified that “countries, like the US and Korea, were able to safely utilize this resource and emerge as economic powerhouses and leaders of the developed world.”

He thus stressed that “in the meantime, we continue our keen interest in nuclear technology, particularly, in small modular reactors or SMRs.” He further emphasized “I believe in the viability of SMRs’ use in the Philippines given their size and relative transportability; ability to provide non-intermittent power supply; low carbon footprint and predictable supply cost which would go a long way in developing our island-provinces.”

The Philippine government is targeting to integrate nuclear as added technology recourse in the country’s energy mix by year 2035, but based on energy planning re-adjustment of the department, they are calculating that SMR deployment could come as early as 2027-2028.

The energy secretary repeatedly indicated that “with the evolution of small modular reactors that are suitable for the off-grid or island-areas of the Philippines, the possibility of integrating nuclear power in the country might come as early as 2027.”

He stated though that the timeline of SMR deployment “would depend on the passage of necessary legislative policies on nuclear power, which are among the bills that have been certified as urgent.”

The installations of modular nuclear power facilities are being eyed 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.

The legislative bill being firmed up, for the nuclear renaissance goal of the country, serves as a follow-through measure to Executive Order No. 116 that was issued in 2020 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 of nuclear power” – 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.

Cusi is aware of the fact that nuclear power development takes long lead times, with him pointing out that “considering the potential of safely utilizing nuclear energy for the country’s power needs doesn’t mean that nuclear power plants will immediately come out of the woodwork.”

Notably, it is the World Nuclear Association (WNA) that has been emphasizing that SMRs are still in demonstration phases; and as explained, there are currently 40 to 60 different concepts and variants being experimented on when it comes to the deployment of these modular reactors.

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 $1.0 billion to $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.