New nuclear power
THE EMPIRICIST STEPHEN CUUNJIENG
The Manila Times
IHAVE been reading a lot of articles recently on education, CEO skills, Vietnam as the major beneficiary of diversification of production and manufacturing outside China, tech companies hiring a lot of economists, and tell myself, why is our business news so abysmal in comparison? They are mostly — who is screwing or trying to screw who competitively, which business leaders are currying favor with the government (no change in headline there — everyone as has always been the case, the question always is who are succeeding), are new malls and real estate developments opening, and what are we importing and on what terms? This is without getting into the society pages masquerading as business news. Comparing those two sets of articles imply the need and desire for wholistic thinking and analysis for business and economic issues facing the Philippines. This is egregiously lacking in our one-dimensional approach to issues and searching for the one default answer when most issues and answers are complex and nuanced. By the way the original spelling is holistic, but many believe wholistic captures the meaning of what I am trying to describe better, and that spelling has been used at times since the 1930s. Wholistic thinking is also needed when analyzing nuclear power. I would like readers to check out the column of Farhad Manjoo — “Nuclear Power Still Doesn’t Make Much Sense” published by The New York Times on Sept. 16, 2022. Unlike cut and paste, I don’t quote arguments from the 1980s and 1990s as current or use unverified propaganda or industry front sources either. I try to respect my readers by reading and quoting only the verified and factual, plus engaging is some original thinking and analysis. I am not a clipping service so will not cut and paste but there are some salient facts and arguments I will highlight. I find this article especially relevant as unlike others that discuss nuclear power in general, this concentrates on constructing new nuclear power plants which is the situation we are contemplating. Bad rap The author is not a never nuclear advocate. In something closed-minded ideologues and fanatics would never consider, he went to the “World Nuclear Symposium” which was held in early September in London. It is an annual conference put up by the nuclear industry’s trade group, the World Nuclear Association. I quote, “I’ll give the pro-nuclear folks this: They do make a good case that nuclear has gotten a bad rap. Nuclear power is relatively safe, reliable and clean; compared to the planetary destruction wrought by fossil fuels, nuclear power looks like a panacea. Patrick Fragman, the CEO of the large American nuclear manufacturer Westinghouse, said his industry had to “unwind decades of brainwashing of public opinion in many countries” about the dangers of nuclear power.” Like the author, I see the point for now in continuing to run existing nuclear plants given the alternatives while building renewable capacity. It is cleaner than coal, and it is already there. Sometimes one has to be practical when transitioning. However, it is a completely different argument to build a new nuclear plant. Besides the safety issues, it is grossly expensive and takes a very long time to actually build. As Manjoo writes, “That’s because the nuclear industry has long been hobbled by two problems that its boosters can’t really wish away: Nuclear is far slower to build than most other forms of power, and it’s far more expensive, too. And now there is a third problem on the horizon, as battery technology improves and the price of electricity storage plummets, nuclear may be way too late, too — with much of its value eclipsed by cheaper, faster and more flexible renewable power technologies.” What are some of the data he helpfully provides? “The 63 nuclear reactors that went into service around the world between 2011 and 2020 took an average of around 10 years to build. By comparison, solar and wind farms can be built in months; in 2020 and 2021 alone, the world added 464 gigawatts of wind and solar power-generation capacity, which is more power than can be generated by all the nuclear plants operating in the world today.” Cost I know facts can be so inconvenient to ideologues and the closed-minded like the climate change deniers and Luddites. Not satisfied with how long it takes, see what happens with cost. He notes the only new nuclear plant construction ongoing in the US is the Westinghouse Plant Vogle power station in Georgia. It started in 2013, was supposed to be finished by 2017 with a budget of $14 billion. It is still not done, and they already spent over $28 billion. In 2017, two reactors in South Carolina were canceled midway through construction as the budgeted cost for both of $11.5 billion were revised to $25 billion. Then, when you get the “levelized” cost which all the nuclear lovers omit to understand and calculate versus merely quoting operating cost, it costs a minimum of $131 per megawatt hour, which is double natural gas and coal, and four times utility scale solar and wind power. That is just against the minimum cost of $131 in the US. That does not even factor in the additional financing, insurance and construction costs that will happen here. Think construction costs will be cheaper? We are not building high-rise apartments. This is very specialized construction requiring a very expert construction team and materials as well. He also notes two more points and explains them in some detail. One is the costs from a disaster cannot really be budgeted for and what may happen will just have to be faced and no insurance can cover it. The costs for dealing with the 2011 Fukushima disaster are still ongoing and expected to reach over $1 trillion. By the way, the total GDP of the Philippines as of the end of 2021 was $394 billion. Small-scale nuclear reactors and power plants are still novel and untested. His point is that before renewables became affordable that may have been a solution. But why settle for that when there are better and safer renewable options available? He notes other problems in the article. He does concede that in areas where high growth in power demand like in China cannot be met by renewables, nuclear power may have a role out of sheer necessity. That is not the case in the Philippines. We literally can’t afford nuclear power and don’t have the time it takes anyway. Unneeded If that is not enough, let us not forget what the largest factor behind our abysmal power situation is which led us to the following: having one of the most expensive power rates in the region, shortage of power in the late 1980s and early 1990s, added close to 10 percent to our national debt and all that contribution was nonperforming as well, and burdened us with paying it off for over 20 years. It was the Bataan Nuclear Plant or as we should now call it the Bataan Abandoned Complex. Many factors contributed to this monumental fiasco. An overpriced initial contract, a far from ideal location, cancellation of construction of other power-generating plants given the generating capacity of the nuclear plant, cancellation of the nuclear plant without replacing it with other generating plants, selling off the reactor for cents on the dollar, no repudiation of the debt associated with the plant despite the first Aquino administration’s insistence it was overpriced and corrupt (if it was the case then why did they honor the debt?), the Arroyo administration’s method of passing off the stranded costs of National Power Corp. (a lot of which were related to the Bataan nuclear plant) through the sale of old generating plants that should have been retired instead. I am not saying it was an easy decision economically or politically, but it helped ensure power rates would stay high longer, and we would continue to be handicapped from a competitive aspect. (This, as I have noted before, is because heavy manufacturing operating costs for 40 percent or more is power.) These are among the legacies of our last foray into nuclear power. If we had no choice I understand, but we do have better choices today as I hope I pointed out in this column. I do not claim to be an expert on nuclear power, and am happy to read and see other columns and arguments, but fact-based and reliable ones, please. In the meantime, as we face multiple problems many of which are not of our doing, are we going to face making the most of our weak position or shall we exacerbate it further with another unneeded move to nuclear power?