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Philippines seeks to relaunch nuclear power ambitions

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Via Financial Times

The Philippines plans to revive its long-discontinued nuclear energy programme to combat the threat of a future power supply crunch — a prospect likely to raise safety concerns in a country prone to typhoons and earthquakes.

The country is working with the International Atomic Energy Agency to meet the UN watchdog’s safety and other requirements, and investigating potential suppliers from Russia, South Korea, China and the US, said Alfonso Cusi, the energy secretary.

“Nuclear would be one of the things we would like to have in our energy mix,” Mr Cusi told the Financial Times in an interview. “We need a stable, secure and affordable power source, and nuclear will help achieve that.” 

The Philippines built a nuclear plant on the Bataan peninsula near Manila during the rule of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, but it faced public opposition and the project was shelved when successor Corazon Aquino took power in 1986. 

Any nuclear plant would probably face popular opposition. Critics say the Bataan plant sits on an active volcano in a region prone to earthquakes, a notion that the government, which has played down safety concerns, rejects. 

“Wherever you build nuclear plants, it is doubly risky. You could have the danger of nuclear contamination which could be worsened by the geological conditions of the country,” said Lea Guerrero, country director for Greenpeace.

“We are in the Ring of Fire,” he added, referring to the circle of active volcanoes and frequent earthquakes in the Pacific Ocean.

In a sign of its renewed interest, the country’s president Rodrigo Duterte signed a letter of intent with Russia’s state nuclear company to co-operate on reactor technology during a trip to Moscow in October.

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Mr Cusi said the Philippines was also considering rehabilitating the Bataan plant with South Korean help. Westinghouse, which has its headquarters in the US, built the original plant, which was completed but never put into operation, and could also build a new facility, he said, but there was “nothing definite” on this front. 

The Malampaya offshore gasfield provides the main energy source for the Philippines, but analysts expect it to begin running out of the commodity within a decade. 

The South China Sea west of the Philippines is believed to have abundant oil and gas reserves, but the Philippines’ ability to exploit it has been vetoed by China, which lays claim to the area. The two countries have formed an intergovernmental committee on oil and gas exploration, but have not agreed on any projects. 

“Why are we looking at nuclear energy?” Mr Cusi said. “We need that to secure the energy supply in the future.” 

The IAEA sent a mission to the country last year that concluded the Philippines had a “strong commitment” to setting its nuclear power strategy and addressing safety and other issues.

Mr Cusi said that getting a nuclear plant running would take seven to eight years from the time all the relevant laws were passed, adding that the country was also looking at other sources of power, including oil, coal, gas and renewable energy. 

Some analysts voiced scepticism over the Philippines’ ability to execute a nuclear project because of the cost, as well as delays other big infrastructure projects have faced. 

“The Philippines struggles to get far less technically complicated and far less politically controversial infrastructure projects through its bureaucracy and completed,” said Jon Morales of the Singapore-based Vriens & Partners consultancy. “Seven years to nuclear power is overly optimistic.” 

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Andrew Harwood, Asia-Pacific research director for the consultancy Wood Mackenzie, said the Bataan plant required “quite a bit of investment to restart”, and that coal and renewables were the cheapest available option. 

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