The Wooly Mammoth: The Bataan Nuclear Power Plant

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Anyone who’s watched enough movies would tell you that walking through the insides of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant feels much like a tour of a horror film set. Its dark hallways, abandoned rooms, and crumbling equipment echo an atmosphere of dread—a similar kind of terror that cloaked the country when the plant was supposed to start operating in 1986 amid many questions about its safety. At the time, the plant had been in construction for a decade (although it was briefly halted in 1979 to check for defects brought about by the issues in the Three Mile Island incident in the United States), and it cost the government around $2 billion. Built as a response to the 1973 oil shock, it was envisioned as an alternative to the petroleum dependence of the country. Today, in the midst of the looming energy crisis, the mothballed giant remains as a symbol of wasted potential.

Looking at the vast expanse of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, all 389 hectares of it, it’s astonishing to see that there are only about 13 people left to look after its slumbering shell. On a bright, though sweltering, afternoon, the site is something to behold: tended landscapes, manicured greenery, and the coastline make for a stunning background to the plant’s grey behemoth. A small, two-story office sits outside the main building, where I, along with a writer, photographer, and his assistant, set up camp for a shoot we were producing for Rogue. A brief overview was given before the tour inside the plant. The advantages of nuclear power were outlined as well as a general description of how the plant was supposed to be working, if only it wasn’t shut down by President Corazon Aquino, following the panic triggered by the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986.

Inside, only a few lights illuminate the floors and network of steel pipes that crawl throughout the walls and ceilings. A few guards roam around to secure the area, and just in case someone was stupid enough to nick a few things here and there. Hulking machinery and equipment — all of which were supposed to be state-of-the-art in the 80s — are unused, obscured by the superior technology that now exists. Tags mark knobs and handles, preservation labels left by inspectors from BNPP’s South Korean sister plant (meaning they both share the same schematics and features), who studied the plant for recommissioning, in the event the government decides to get the plant up and running, a move that would cost around $1 billion.

At the heart of the plant is the massive nuclear reactor. Protected by a domed structure made of 1 m-thick concrete and 1.5 m of steel, it was supposed to provide 625-megawatts of clean energy. The reactor has since been dismantled, inoperable without the fuel, which has been sold to Siemens in 1997. According to our guide, no radioactive material exists in the site.

Nuclear energy hasn’t been the easiest alternative to sell to the people. It is a topic weighed on by years of fears, accidents, and bad examples that give it a bad name to this day. NAPOCOR has been keeping the plant on its wings, with some advocates hoping that there would be an administration brave and smart enough to create a nuclear energy policy for the country. A huge chunk of the energy we consume comes from plants powered by coal, a resource that we still import from other countries. We are one of the countries with the most expensive power rates in Asia, higher than Japan which has used nuclear energy — and survived despite the Fukushima meltdown in 2011.

A tangled web of bureaucracy and politicking has also kept the plant from running. It still stands as a Marcos legacy (which is why President Noynoy Aquino wouldn’t even touch it), an expensive mistake to some that should have never been built in the first place. It took the country over 30 years to repay the cost of construction and still consumes P40 million in annual maintenance funds. And all that we have to show for it is a grey giant, dormant on a lonely hill overlooking the sea, occasionally wakened by group tours, turning the plant into an attraction.

Read the full story on the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant in Rogue’s June 2015 issue now on newsstands and zinio.com/rogue.

Author: donjaucian

25 year-old film nut.

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