Philippines and US-based nuclear energy firm in talks for possible US$7 billion investment

Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos Jr met with NuScale Power Corporation during his official visit to the United States this week to explore the potential for nuclear power. But the technology will not guarantee cheaper electricity rates, say experts.

NuScale Marcos Jr
Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos, Jr holds a business meeting on 1 May with NuScale officials Clayton Scott, executive vice president for business and Cheryl Collins, director for sales. The NuScale officials were accompanied by Filipino businessman Enrique Razon, while Marcos Jr was joined by former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, trade secretary Alfredo Pascual, energy secretary Raphael Lotilla. Image: Presidential Communications Operations Office

Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos Jr met with a United States-based nuclear energy firm on Monday and disclosed that the firm is looking for a potential site for operations in the Southeast Asian country, according to a statement from the government’s communications department on Tuesday.

Marcos Jr is in on an official visit to the US from 1 to 4 May  to meet with his counterpart President Joe Biden for “greater economic engagement,” among other concerns to help advance the Philippines’ interests. 

NuScale Power Corporation, which just inked a small modular reactor (SMR) deal with Indonesia in March, is earmarking about US$6.5 billion to US$7.5 billion in investment for the Philippines project, hoping to deliver 430 megawatts (MW) of power to the archipelago by 2031, equivalent to powering more than six million homes. 

Given their smaller footprint, SMRs can be installed in locations not suitable for larger nuclear power plants, said the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an intergovernmental forum for scientific and technical cooperation which promotes the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Prefabricated units can be manufactured and then shipped and installed on site. 

Marcos Jr said the country has a “shortfall in power supply” and the support of NuScale would help address this issue.

“We need everything. We just have to have everything and this new technology is something,” he added.

Even before he was elected president, Marcos Jr has been vocal about pushing for nuclear energy as a solution to fossil-fuel challenges and mitigating the country’s energy supply, which is vulnerable to seasonal outages. 

He spoke of revisiting the shelved Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP), which was built during the presidency of his father, the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. In his first state of the nation address, he highlighted the technology as a means for cheaper electricity in the country.

“Premature” to say if nuclear energy will lower electricity costs

Although electricity consumption in the Philippines is among the lowest among Southeast Asian neighbours, its prices remain among the region’s highest as it continues to draw a significant amount of its power from coal plants. 

But a shift to nuclear energy will not guarantee lower electricity costs, Monalisa Dimalanta, chairperson of the Philippine Energy Regulatory Commission, told Eco-Business.

“We are not aware of the details yet, such as who the offtaker utility would be, which portion of project costs will be passed on to consumers and when the supply is expected to be commercially available, so it may be premature for us to determine the impact on rates at this point,” Dimalanta said.

Dr Carlo Arcilla, director of the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute, said the unit costs remain unknown because the SMRs will still take up to a decade to become operational.

“There are [still] no operating SMRs as compared to more than 430 traditional nuclear power plants existing. Within 10 years they will come but will have to be vetted operationally,” he said.

As the local electricity sector is privatised based on the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (EPIRA) law, it is difficult to prove that power generation for nuclear will be cheaper, said Khevin Yu, a campaigner for watchdog Greenpeace Philippines. The EPIRA law allows for generators and distributors to pass on costs to consumers. 

“The initial capital cost and safety measures needed to operate a nuclear plant could be charged to electricity consumers and if there is a nuclear incident, it will be the government who will pay using taxpayers’ money to respond for centuries which was evident during the Fukushima nuclear disaster,” Yu said. 

Yu cited research that solar energy avoided US$78 million in fuel costs last year despite only accounting for 1.7 per cent of energy generation in the country. 

“This should be the priority of the current government by expanding it [solar] further and ignoring the empty promises of nuclear energy,” he said.

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