In Morong, Bataan, surrounded by the crashing waves of the West Philippine Sea and the ghostly outline of Mount Mariveles, the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant slumbers.
It has done so since its completion in 1984, dreaming of what it could have been, the catalyst meant to launch the Philippines into the nuclear age and economic prosperity.
Instead it sits idle, its heavy machinery and equipment—all state of the art in the 80s—have long been overtaken by the continuous march of technology. Its corridors and work spaces built to accommodate at least 400 workers lie quiet. It’s sweltering in here. The air is still and smells faintly metallic. Only the low hum of emergency lights can be heard throughout the plant, punctuated by the lonely footsteps of the occasional guard walking through the rooms to check that nothing disturbs the mausoleum-like stillness.
Outside the plant, the world rages. For over 30 years, the fate of the 369-hectare property has been hotly debated. Inquiries regarding the plant’s safety features, the advantages and risks of nuclear power, and the mark of late President Ferdinand Marcos’s corruption have stalled the plant’s future prospects. For now, the powers that be seem content enough to leave the sleeping giant alone.
Engineer Mauro Marcelo of the National Power Corporation (NPC) believes it is high time to talk about the BNPP again as we experience particularly high electricity prices and a looming energy crisis similar to 1991. Marcelo joined the NPC in 1978, hoping to be one of the country’s pioneers for nuclear energy. Today, he remains at the power plant as the assets preservation and department manager, briefing tourists and ensuring that the plant is in its best condition if and when the Philippine government decides to turn it on.
A year after Marcelo’s hiring, President Marcos suspended the BNPP’s construction because of the partial nuclear meltdown in Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania in the United States. The worst accident in US commercial power plant history threw a wrench in the BNPP’s construction because it shared the same design and equipment by Westinghouse Electric. Commissions to evaluate the BNPP’s safety and public hearings soon followed. The plant’s original design was updated and construction resumed in 1981. These upgrades, Marcelo informs, justifies the additional $369 million spent on the power plant. This is on top of the estimated $2.1 billion initial cost to build the BNPP.
“We sacrificed efficiency for safety,” Marcelo says as we walked along the plant’s labyrinthine insides. Complex coils of steel pipes and cables spread along the walls and ceilings of the plant, and huge machines sat side by side, each one properly tagged and labeled for preservation. “This plant’s location and design is safer than its sister plant in Busan (South Korea) and the one in Fukushima (Japan).”
Indeed, the numbers seem pretty impressive. The Fukushima power plant was built to withstand an intensity 7 earthquake, which it did. It was the subsequent tsunami that submerged the power plant’s sensitive equipment and disrupted operations. In contrast, the BNPP can withstand an intensity 8 quake. Located 18 meters above sea level, Marcelo is convinced that the BNPP is untouchable. “An intensity 9 earthquake can produce 10-meter high tsunamis. Kung may earthquake na makagawa ng mas mataas na tsunami, hindi na natin problema ang water damage sa reactor. Nalunod na tayong lahat,” he chuckles. That’s probably nuclear humor for you.
Even after the construction was completed and hot functional tests were conducted, the plant never got to show its full potential. The People Power Revolt in 1986 deposed Marcos and installed President Corazon Aquino, who was concerned that the catastrophic Chernobyl disaster could happen here. She mothballed the BNPP but issued an executive order to maintain and preserve the plant until such time that the Philippine government can decide what to do with it. Several presidents later, the BNPP remains slumbering, drinking up 40 million pesos in annual maintenance costs while never producing anything. In 2011, the government decided to turn the plant into a tourist attraction to earn revenue.
During the tour, we danced around the dangers of nuclear energy. The NPC recognizes the possible health risks posed by radiation and acknowledges the necessary precautions of disposing radioactive nuclear wastes. Marcelo explains that other sources of energy also pose similar risks. “Ang geothermal energy, naglalabas ng hydrogen sulfide. Isang singhot lang n’on, patay ka na. Sa nuclear, tatagal ka pa.” I refrain from pointing out that that is exactly why nuclear energy is so frightening.
The risks are minimal, Marcelo says, because before any nuclear plant can be approved for operations, it must first pass the stringent requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an independent body that not only requires stringent measures to safeguard against nuclear incidents but also continuously monitors operations in each power plant.
Marcelo ticks off the advantages of nuclear energy on his fingers. It is cheaper in the long run, he says, estimating a drop to only two pesos per kilowatt/hour of electricity, down from our current six. It produces less harmful greenhouse gasses than our current sources of energy—coal, oil, and natural gasses—all of which we import from other countries. It is more stable than renewable energy sources like hydroelectric, wind, or solar because water runs out in the hot season, wind isn’t always there, and the sun sets. Most importantly, says Marcelo, nuclear power plants can provide stable energy to become a base load plant, the foundation of the energy grid, a steady source of electricity.
There is much to be gained in nuclear power, but there is far too much at stake as well. The current administration has hinted its interests in nuclear energy but is on the fence about the BNPP, probably because its political history is near inseparable with the Aquino-Marcos tension. The local government of Bataan is allegedly fine with nuclear energy, as long as its operations are not in their jurisdiction. Everyone seems interested in reaping potential benefits, but no one wants to take the risk.
As things stand, it would take upwards of one billion dollars to upgrade the BNPP’s equipment and four years to train new operators to get the plant back on its feet. This is still preferable to building a new nuclear power plant, says Marcelo, estimating at least eight to ten billion and 10 years of construction. Before any of that, Marcelo says that what we truly need is a comprehensive National Nuclear Program. This will ensure legislative stability and discourage future governments from disrupting the nuclear program simply because they did not agree with the previous administration.
When the BNPP is in operation, Marcelo is confident that change will come to the Philippines, whether we are ready for such change or not. When all the machines start humming and the turbines start churning, this new, clean energy will displace our dependence on fossil fuels and force the country to industrialize. He is nearing retirement age now, but Engr. Marcelo’s belief in the BNPP’s potential remains steadfast. He smiles wistfully when asked if he thinks he will ever see the power plant in operation. “Maybe one day,” he says softly.
The Bataan Nuclear Power Plant occupies a 389-hectare property off the coast of the West Philippine Sea. It is considered to be among one of the most robustly-built power stations in the world. Its sister plants—nuclear energy plants that share the same designs—can be found in Brazil, Korea, and Slovenia. Among them, BNPP was the only one built with upgrades, which were included after the Three Mile incident in the US.