Philippines weighs starting dormant nuclear plant

President Rodrigo Duterte decided recently to explore the feasibility of using nuclear power by establishing a cross-ministerial organization. The move could lead to a full-scale debate over the issue, with the view of resolving the country’s chronic power shortage.

There is a nuclear power plant in the Philippines that has never come online since it was completed in 1985. Although the Manila government is considering using the long-dormant facility, the process of putting it back into action will face a mountain of challenges.

Speaking during an energy-related online conference at the end of July, Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi expressed his intention to move ahead with considering nuclear power use.

Cusi said at the time that although the existing facility, the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, was in a dormant state, the current economic situation was quite different from what it was when the plant was built. He also said that it was time to hold a public debate about the role of nuclear power in energy security.

The Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, located in Bataan Province to the west of the capital Manila, is the only such facility in Southeast Asia.

The decision to build the plant was made in 1976 by the authoritarian government of then President Ferdinand Marcos. With cooperation from the U.S., the facility was completed in 1985.

But with the collapse of the Marcos regime during the People Power Revolution in February 1986 and then the Chernobyl nuclear accident in April of the same year, the new administration of President Corazon Aquino decided, just before the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant was due to start commerical operations, that it should not open.

The plant’s reactor was made by U.S.-based Westinghouse Electric, which went bankrupt in 2017. The facility has a pressurized water reactor, or PWR — the same type as those used at the nuclear power plants of Japan’s Kansai Electric Power and Kyushu Electric Power. Its output capacity is 620,000 kilowatts, a relatively small capacity for a nuclear power plant.

The plant is now open to the public for field trips and other purposes. The building is showing visible signs of age and inside it, the reactor is laid bare. An old-fashioned telephone is still in the control room.

Officials in successive administrations have often discussed using the long-dormant nuclear plant, with the debate now reigited again, especially in the Department of Energy, since Duterte issued an executive order in late July.

He ordered the establishment of an inter-agency committee to examine the necessity and feasibility of incorporating a nuclear power plant in the country’s energy mix, as well as the challenges it faces. The committee is also tasked with compiling the first report by January 2021, after exploring the possibility of restarting the Bataan nuclear power plant.

The Philippines deregulated its electricity market in 2001. Although energy demand is expected to grow in the long run, private companies have shied away from the risk of making big investments in the sector, resulting in a shortage of power generation capacity.

Due to its unstable power supply, the country has one of the highest electricity charges in the region. The Department of Energy recently announced a plan to restart the idle nuclear power plant as early as in 2027, in an effort to diversify its power sources.
An old-fashioned telephone is left in the control room of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant. (Photo by Jun Endo)

The Philippine government has already called on other countries to provide expertise. In 2019 it consulted with South Korea’s Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power over preliminary investigations to explore the feasibility of small nuclear reactors. It also agreed with Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom to examine the possibility of constructing a nuclear power plant. A Rosatom executive reportedly proposed the introduction of offshore floating nuclear power plants. Discussions could extend further depending on the results in January of the committee’s examination.

Whatever their findings, there would still be a huge amount to be done if the plant was to reopen. The International Atomic Energy Agency in October 2019 submitted to the Philippine government a report on the country’s nuclear policy, stressing the need to obtain public understanding, create legal frameworks, nurture human resources and improve related infrastructure.

One IAEA executive said that although the agency can provide support, it is up to the Philippines to solve the problems and push the plan forward.

“The president instructed that the plan should be studied carefully and start from the ground up. I take that to mean that Bataan residents should first be consulted if we are in favor of reopening the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant,” presidential spokesperson Harry Roque told reporters on Oct. 1.

It is not certain whether Duterte himself is positive about the introduction of nuclear power plants. It could be that he wants to come up with solutions for the Bataan nuclear power plant — which is a negative legacy left behind by the Marcos administration — by the time his presidential term ends in June 2022.