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Manila nuclear plant is slowly dying

The plant, which was completed in 1984 at a cost of US$2.3 billion (Dh8.44bn), has never produced a kilowatt of electricity.
The former president of the Philippines, Fidel Ramos, left, meeting plant officials in 1996. The plant has never generated a single kilowatt.
The former president of the Philippines, Fidel Ramos, left, meeting plant officials in 1996. The plant has never generated a single kilowatt.
MANILA // On a windswept bluff overlooking the South China Sea, the Bataan nuclear power station stands as a reminder to the UAE and other nations of the Middle East as they pursue similar solutions to their own energy needs. The plant, which was completed in 1984 at a cost of US$2.3 billion (Dh8.44bn), has never produced a kilowatt of electricity.

As goats graze around the site 100km north west of Manila, the grey concrete reactor is seen as a testament to greed, corruption and the short-sightedness of successive Philippine governments. This in a country where people have learned to live with unexpected power cuts due to the chronic shortage of generating capacity. There is talk of reviving the Bataan plant, but officials express concern about having the trained personnel to run it. There also have been suggestions it could be turned into a tourist attraction.

Bataan has since become a symbol of corruption for dozens of groups who are vehemently opposed to nuclear power. Bataan and two smaller non-nuclear generating plants are all that the government still owns, and all three are up for sale. Westinghouse was contracted to build two 620kw nuclear reactors at Bataan at a cost of $1.1bn each. In the end, just a single reactor was completed. The debt was finally paid off in 2007, but the saga left many Filipinos bitter and angry.

The decision to go nuclear came in response to the 1973 world oil crisis. With the country dependant on fossil fuel for almost all its energy needs, the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos saw nuclear power as the best way of meeting those needs. Construction began in 1976, but was stopped after the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident in the US in 1979. "The problem was that Bataan was modelled on Three Mile Island which was also built by Westinghouse," Mauro Marcelo, a nuclear technician who joined the nuclear project at its inception in 1974, told The National.

Mr Marcelo, 57, is now the manager of the National Power Corporation's (NPC) asset preservation department, and one of its missions is to maintain the Bataan plant. "That accident set us back at least two years, he said. "The government ordered a lengthy inquiry where every aspect of the plant was examined ? even the claims it was built on a geological fault line. Recommendations were made and implemented. It was probably the safest plant of its type when completed."

"We were so close, so close," he said, shaking his head. "We had the rods from Australia and about to commission the plant when Cory [the former president Corazon Aquino] decided to pull the plug just after she came to power." Since then the plant has sat idle and is costing the taxpayers between 30m and 40m pesos (Dh2.4m and Dh3.2m) a year to maintain. "It's sad when you think of how much money was spent on building this plant," he said. "If it had come on stream we would not be suffering from the continuous blackouts we are suffering from today.

"At the time this was the state-of-the-art when it came to nuclear power plants and the Philippines was so far ahead of its South East Asian neighbours," he said. To rehabilitate the plant today would cost an estimated $1bn and take two to three years, according to the NPC's corporate communications director. Toshiba, which now owns Westinghouse, toured the site in June and said the plant could be commissioned and they would be willing to run it.

"When you look at a new coal or thermal plant at $3bn to $4bn and four to five years to build it sort of makes sense to take another look at Bataan," Mr Marcelo said. One of the major problems the Philippines faces is that it no longer has the talent pool it once had to run a nuclear power station. Most of the country's nuclear technicians and engineers left the country after Bataan was closed, but the government is now starting to send people overseas for nuclear training in countries such as Japan and South Korea.

The president Benigno Aquino, who is the former president's son, has said he is not opposed to nuclear power, but not in Bataan. Jose Almendras, the energy secretary, told The National: "Bataan is not an option.Socially it is unacceptable and there is the lingering issue of safety." The government is drafting its energy reform plans, and nuclear energy was one of the options being considered, he said.

"We are not closed to the idea of nuclear power and we are studying it," he said. "There have been significant technological breakthroughs since Bataan was built especially in the areas of safety. If we are to go down the nuclear path we have to know it is safe and socially acceptable." A number of South East Asian nations - Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam - have announced plans to build nuclear power stations.

In the Philippines, a number of local governments have expressed interest in nuclear power to ensure a continuous supply of electricity, Mr Almendras said. "Our role as a government is to determine whether the technology has achieved the level of safety and competence, which gives us comfort in saying 'Yes, it is now an acceptable technology'." "One question is, do we have enough Filipino engineers who understand and who can operate some of these facilities? And that's what we need to talk about.

"If we do not have them, then probably we should start developing such expertise because things like these do not happen overnight. "It takes some years to train these people," Mr Almendras said.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Published: August 3, 2010 04:00 AM

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