Bracing for dark days ahead

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

On February 9, 1976, the Philippine government through the National Power Corp. (NPC) entered into contract with Westinghouse Electric Corp. for the turn-key construction of a 620-megawatt (MW) nuclear plant in Morong, Bataan. In the aftermath of the 1986 People Power Revolution that toppled the late president Ferdinand E. Marcos Sr., the first ever attempt of the Philippines to put up its own nuclear-power plant got mothballed by his successor, the late president Corazon C. Aquino.

The Philippines lost the International Court of Arbitration case filed by Westinghouse as the vendor of the reactor procured by the National Power Corp.(NPC). It was ruled that it was the Philippine government’s decision to shut down the Bataan nuclear power plant (BNPP) and not because due to alleged “defective” reactor. Likewise, the Philippines lost its civil suit before the Newark federal court for $26 million in damages from Westinghouse for the alleged bribery paid to the late Marcos’ crony-businessman Herminio Disini.

From 1987 to 2007, the Philippines fully paid the $2.3 billion foreign loans incurred for this very costly political decision. Still, however, the government allocates more than P50 million almost yearly for the upkeep and maintenance of the BNPP facility under NPC’s budget.

Without replacement for the 620-MW of power supply, Filipinos paid dearly to the ensuing dire consequences of the BNPP shutdown. 

Its resulting impact to the entire Philippine economy was literally the darkest period in our country when our country suffered the longest hours of blackout and production lines interrupted. The acute power supply shortage inherited prompted the late president Fidel V. Ramos to embark on emergency power crisis mode.

The Ramos administration went on a binge of building expensive baseload power plants and massive rehabilitation of existing hydroelectric power plants. But they were done at great cost and all using imported coals and fossil fuels. Mostly passed on to us Filipino electricity consumers, we were more than willing to assume the extra cost if only to get a steady supply of electricity. 

Just to entice local and foreign investors to build new power plants in key strategic areas, a “take-or-pay” provision was added to the contracts. It is a government guarantee that the power contractor can charge to its customers certain amount equivalent to a certain volume of electricity even if it is not used or taken since electricity can’t be stored. 

With the advent of technology tapping electricity from renewable energy like solar and wind farms, the government lures power producers to come in with assured return of investments guaranteed through feed-in-tariff (FIT). This replaced the much-frowned upon government sovereign guarantee to private local power producers to secure foreign borrowings needed to put up needed power plants. The FIT, along with NPC loans passed on to us Filipino consumers through stranded costs, are among other charges we pay in our monthly electric bills. 

Decrying the same woes of high cost of power yet still unreliable electricity supply that still bedevil our country, Pangasinan Rep. Mark Cojuangco renewed his urgent calls to consider the peaceful use of nuclear energy for electricity generation. Cojuangco deplored the same, old narratives but have remained unproven on the supposed “defective” reactor of the BNPP.

Reviving the use of the BNPP he started more than 17 years ago, Rep. Cojuangco has been supporting businessmen’s organizations and advocacy groups like the Alpas Pinas in favor of tapping nuclear energy for new source of power in the Philippines, even reviving the use of BNPP facility. 

During our Kapihan sa Manila Bay news forum last week, Cojuangco joined forces with Dr. Cecilio K. Pedro, president of the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry Inc. (FFCCII) and Alpas Pinas lead convenor Gayle Certeza in voicing the call to build a new nuclear-powered plant if critics remain opposed to reviving the BNPP.

A grizzled businessman before he entered politics, Cojuangco argued that the country’s 1987 Constitution best guarantees that nuclear energy is not allowed to be used as weapon. Toward this goal, Cojuangco shepherded the approval at the 19th Congress the needed legislations of applicable laws to address the safety and efficiency on the use of nuclear energy to generate electricity at lesser costs and less harm to the Filipino people. 

As chairman of the House Special Committee on Nuclear Energy of the 19th Congress, he authored and sponsored the approval of House Bills (HB) 9293 and 9876. The Philippine National Energy Safety Act under HB 9293 was approved on third and final reading in November last year. Also approved on third and final reading just last March 4 was the Nuclear Liability bill under HB 9876. 

HB 9293 and 9876 have been transmitted for consolidation with its counterpart Senate Bills (SB) now being deliberated by the Senate committee on science and technology chaired by Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano. Currently undergoing the technical working group of Cayetano’s committee is SB 1194, seeking to create the Philippine Atomic Regulatory Act and SB 2545, or the Philippine Nuclear Liability Act, all filed in August 2022 by Sen. Francis Tolentino. 

As vice chairman of the Senate committee on energy, Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian earlier echoed the belief in my previous week’s Kapihan sa Manila Bay news forum that small modular reactors (SMR) will be “more acceptable” to the Filipinos. Gatchalian also filed his own SB to establish a regulator for nuclear-generated plants. For the immediate future, Gatchalian disclosed the “most feasible modular nuclear reactor will come online probably by 2027.”

Gatchalian cited there were already several proposed SMR projects that have been among the investment commitments gathered from the state and official visits of President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. (PBBM) from the United States, and elsewhere.

Locally, the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) has expressed support to the government’s plan of installing a 1,200-MW capacity generating plant using SMR technology by the year 2032.      

While the long dry spell period still seething all around the country, there is less use of hydropower plants. We cannot rely much on limited power storage of RE-generators. Must we brace for the return of dark days ahead?

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