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The Governments of the Philippines and the USA signed an “Agreement for Cooperation Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy” also known as a Section 123 Agreement, on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in San Francisco, California. The US insists that countries seeking to trade nuclear power goods and services must sign formal cooperation agreements. Such Section 123 Agreements relate to the relevant paragraph of the US 1954 Atomic Energy Act which requires them.

Philippines Department of Energy (PDOE) Secretary Raphael PM Lotilla signed the Agreement on behalf of the Philippines as Chair of the Philippine Nuclear Energy Programme Inter-Agency Committee (NEPIAC). US Secretary of State Antony J Blinken signed on behalf of the US. The ceremony was witnessed by Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

The 123 Agreement lays the legal framework for potential nuclear power projects with US providers. It aims to facilitate Philippine-US cooperation in the safe and secure use of nuclear energy taking into full account the standards and safeguards set by the International Atomic Energy Agency, as well as in accordance with respective national laws, international agreements, and regulations.

Introducing the signing ceremony, Ann Ganzer, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Department of State’s Bureau of International Security & Nonproliferation, said the agreement “marks the culmination of negotiations between our governments launched less than one year ago”. She added: “Once in force, this agreement will provide the legal basis and facilitate US exports of most nuclear equipment and materiel to the Philippines for peaceful uses.”

Blinken noted: “President Marcos has set an ambitious goal: cutting the Philippines greenhouse gas emissions by 75% by 2030 and increasing the production of clean energy so that 50% comes from renewable sources by the year 2040. The United States is committed to working with the Philippines so that it can meet those targets – using platforms like the very first US-Philippines Energy Policy Dialogue, which we hosted in Seattle back in August.”

He continued: “With the Philippines’ leadership, we’re also working together to develop a nuclear energy sector in their country to fuel a reliable, secure, and affordable clean energy future. As peak energy demands are expected to nearly quadruple in the Philippines by 2040, nuclear power can consistently produce enough energy to meet communities’ critical needs without emitting more greenhouse gases. In a nation of more than 7,000 islands, small modular reactors … can generate energy locally and conveniently. Nuclear energy will also create inclusive economic opportunities for American and Filipino businesses alike, and good-quality, high-paying jobs in both of our countries.”

The agreement will enable the US to share equipment and material with the Philippines, he added. “Already, we’ve organised workshops, we’ve hosted exchanges on these topics with American and Filipino researchers, officials, business leaders – to help train local experts and to share some of our best practices,” he said, adding “there’s a lot of work that remains ahead to turn this vision into concrete reality”.

In his address, Philippines Secretary Lotilla recalled that a decade after the first atomic bomb devastated Hiroshima, the Philippines in 1955 joined the US Atoms for Peace programme. Building on this foundation, the Philippine Atomic Energy Commission was established in 1958 and in 1963 a pre-investment study was initiated for a NPP in Luzon. A new Philippine-US agreement for civil nuclear cooperation was signed in 1968, replacing the 1955 agreement. This, for the first time, explicitly referred to the design, construction, and operation of power-producing reactors and research reactors. The Philippine congress then approve the Atomic Energy Regulatory & Liability Act.

In 1971, the National Power Corporation was authorised by law to establish and operate NPPs after which a NPP was built but never operated. “The Philippine decision was nevertheless followed by an orderly and safe cessation of activities. More importantly, the 1987 Philippine constitution remained open to all peaceful uses of nuclear energy,” he said.

President Marcos said he had earlier called for the re-evaluation of the possibility of safely developing nuclear energy in the Philippines, “recognising the enormous potential of nuclear energy given the new highly advanced technologies and standards of safety, security, and all the different safeguards that are now in place”. He added: “We see nuclear energy becoming a part of the Philippine energy mix by 2032, and we would be more than happy to pursue this path with the United States as one of our partners.

Under the Philippine Energy Plan, Manila plans to produce 1,200 MWe using nuclear power by 2032, which would increase to 2,400 MWe by 2040 and to 4,800 MWe by 2050. The effort to revive nuclear power in the Philippines was begun by Marcos’s predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who was in power from 2016 to 2022 and whose relations with the US were somewhat strained.

However, last year, Washington and Manila signed a memorandum of understanding on civil nuclear cooperation that included reviving the mothballed Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, a 620 MWe pressurised light water reactor built by the US Westinghouse in 1976. Although the plant was completed it was almost immediately mothballed in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster after questions were raised about its excessive cost and poor safety, including its location near a major fault and the Pinatubo volcano.

Separately from the 123 Agreement, Marcos Philippines electric company Meralco, which provides electricity in the Manila area, signed a deal during APEC with the US-based Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp (USNC) for a pre-feasibility study on Micro-Modular Reactors (MMRs). The agreement builds on the partnership between the two companies announced in August.

Meralco Chairman & CEO Manuel V Pangilinan said “USNC is changing the nuclear safety and national energy security conversations in the Philippines with the MMR. This cooperative agreement moves us forward with a partner who understands these important issues alongside the essential nature of the cost and reliability of the electricity supply.”

Under the agreement, USNC will conduct a four-month pre-feasibility study to familiarise Meralco with MMR systems and how these can be effectively utilised in the Philippines. Depending on the results, Meralco has the option to conduct a more detailed feasibility study with focus on the adoption and deployment of MMR energy systems.

USNC’s MMR Energy System features a high temperature helium-cooled micro reactor that can provide up to 45 MWt of high-quality heat, delivered into a centralized heat storage unit. One or more MMR nuclear batteries combine their heat in the heat storage unit, from where electric power or superheated steam can be extracted through conventional means to meet a wide range of power requirements. USNC has also developed and patented its Fully Ceramic Micro-encapsulated (FCM) fuel planned to be used in the MMR.

USNC in a pre-licensing process with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) through Global First Power (GFP), USNC’s joint venture with Ontario Power Generation, and with UK Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR). The news follows recent announcements including the establishment of a joint venture with Framatome Inc. to manufacture commercial quantities of advanced nuclear fuels, selecting a site for its MMR Assembly Plant, and the successful delivery of advanced TRISO fuel for NASA produced at USNC’s Pilot Fuel Manufacturing facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

“Meralco is demonstrating real leadership in advancing the energy security and sustainability roadmap for the Philippines,” said USNC founder & CEO Francesco Venneri. “Our MMR nuclear batteries can play a major role in delivering those benefits. The plans that will quickly follow this study place Meralco well on the way toward creating a reliable, low-carbon, equitable and secure future for Filipinos.”

Image: Philippines Department of Energy Secretary Raphael PM Lotilla (L) and US Secretary of State Antony J Blinken (R) sign the 123 Agreement (courtesy of @SecBlinken)

Date: Wednesday, 22 November 2023
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