A look inside a sleeping giant: the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant

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Pictured above is the control room of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP). Attached to the controls are preservation tags by the inspectors from KEPCO, the sister plant of BNPP in South Korea. An estimate of $1 billion is needed to rehabilitate the plant. Photo by DON JAUCIAN

UPDATE: In April 2018, Russian Ambassador Igor Khovaev told CNN Philippines that the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) is beyond revival, calling it "absolutely outdated." In December 2018, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana supported a bid to revive the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant as it will benefit the country.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — 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-storey 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 back in May 2015. 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, we were guided by Mauro Marcelo, an engineer working for the National Power Corporation. Only a few lights illumine the floors and network of steel pipes that crawl throughout the walls and ceilings. A few guards roam around to ensure the area was secured, 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 South Korea’s KEPCO, BNPP’s sister plant (which 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 meter-thick concrete and 1.5 meters 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. No radioactive material exists in the site, according to Marcelo.

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 will be an administration brave and smart enough to create a nuclear energy policy for the country. A huge chunk of the energy we consume come 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.

It took the country over thirty years to repay the cost of its construction and still consumes up to ₱50 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. Today, as power prices surge, the mothballed giant is being reconsidered as an alternative option to our dependence on coal and oil, subject to national consensus.

The Bataan Nuclear Power Plant sits on a 389-hectare property off the coast of the West Philippine Sea. The plant is on preservation mode since it has been decommissioned in the 1980s, costing the government up to ₱50 million per year to maintain. Photo by DON JAUCIAN

Helmets stockpiled by the entrance to the nuclear power plant. Photo by DON JAUCIAN

The fuel storage of the power plant, where the uranium stores are supposed to be kept when the plant is in operation. Photo by DON JAUCIAN

A corridor at the second level of the power plant. Photo by DON JAUCIAN

The nuclear reactor, as viewed from above the power plant. The reactor has been dismantled since the plant has been decommissioned. It is said that no radioactive materials are stored in the building. Photo by DON JAUCIAN

Turbine BNPP The turbine at the top of the nuclear power plant. It is part of the pressurized reactor that produces power. Photo by DON JAUCIAN

A view of the West Philippine Sea from the nuclear power plant, which stands 18 meters above sea level. It is said that the structure can withstand up to an intensity 8 earthquake. Photo by DON JAUCIAN

The brutalist exterior of the facility. Photo by DON JAUCIAN

An earlier version of this article appeared on The Philippine Star in 2015.