Being one of a handful of Southeast Asian countries planning to invest in nuclear power, the Philippines faces hurdles to taking a collective national position on whether the country really needs it.
The Philippines, with a population of more than 100 million people spread over 7,000 islands, aims to double its power generation capacity by 2030 to prevent major power failures experienced during the energy crisis in the 1990s.
But resorting to nuclear power to solve energy gap, according to Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI) Director Carlo Arcilla, remains a political issue.
Arcilla, a geoscientist and geotechnical engineering expert, was in Sochi, Russia to attend the 10th Atomexpo International Forum, a key exhibition event in Russian nuclear industry, organized by Russia’s State Nuclear Energy Corp. (Rosatom).
PNRI, which serves as the country's regulatory body for nuclear and radioactive materials, explained that most Filipinos are nuclear power skeptics due to several factors. Two of them are particularly significant — the immensely high capital investment required and the public wariness on the risks associated with nuclear power.
Public sentiment on nuclear power plants has soured since the meltdowns at Fukushima and Chernobyl nuclear power plants that released significant amounts of radioactivity into their surroundings.
The role of nuclear energy has returned to the center of political debate as President Rodrigo Duterte expressed interest to revive the mothballed Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) to preempt a supposed looming power crisis.
Nowhere to go but up
The country's electricity rates remain one of the highest in Southeast Asia. Latest available data from the Department of Energy show that the Philippines has the most expensive rates in the region, with P7.49 per kilowatt-hour (kWH) for commercial users and P8.90 kwH for households. High power rates in the Philippines can be largely attributed to the absence of government subsidies unlike Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, the DOE report read.
"In addition, taxes, fees, and other charges are also levied on the power industry sectors composed of the generation, transmission, and distribution levels which constitute a portion on electricity rates in the Philippines,” it added. High electricity prices are also driven by imported fossil fuels, an analyst said. The Philippines depends on imports for about 75 percent of its coal supply from neighboring countries such as Indonesia.
“The Philippines is heavily but needlessly over-dependent on coal, which is a losing gamble. The entire nation could be locked into two decades of paying for coal power it may end up not using,” said Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) energy finance analyst Sara Jane Ahmed. Despite the financial hazard, almost half (48 percent) of the country's installed electrical capacity is generated using imported fossil fuels in 2016. The Philippines' current energy policies "pass on the costs of coal risk to consumers who are forced to shoulder higher electricity bills as a result," according to the IEEFA repprt.
Nowhere to go but up
What will it take to convince people that nuclear is good?
The answer, according to PNRI chief Arcilla, lies in answering another important question — how safe is nuclear power?
To address this issue, Arcilla emphasized the need to put forward radioactive waste management for discussion.
"It's not like you're hiding something. The science is good. I know because I am deeply involved in it. And so I'm saying 'why are we not talking about it [nuclear waste disposal]'," Arcilla told reporters on the sidelines of the Atomexpo 2018. ”If we have a nuclear power program in the Philippines, I will recommend to the president that if you license the plant, also start licensing the beginnings of waste disposal at the same time,” he said. Part of the public opinion worldwide considers the waste generated from nuclear applications, which pose serious risks to health and the environment.Arcilla, a proven expert in the field of geology, has been involved in nuclear-related research, particularly in the study of nuclear waste disposal for more than a decade.