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Revisiting the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant

It’s been 25 years since I last set foot inside the mammoth power-generating plant in Morong, Bataan that was mothballed after the ouster of strongman Ferdinand Marcos. In 1986, on orders of then newly-elected President Corazon Aquino, the controversial project was scrapped to fulfill her campaign promise during the snap polls. The move was also a response to the insistence of activists that the monster plant was not safe. Last June 11, the local chapter of Greenpeace sponsored an eco-tourism tour of the controversial structure, one of the remnants from the Marcos regime. The group consisted of Greenpeace volunteers, photographers, and some outdoor enthusiasts. With Greenpeace at the helm of a worldwide campaign to rid the planet of nuclear power plants, it seemed intriguing to join a plant tour organized by the environmental group. The trip was also an opportunity for me to pay a sentimental visit to this familiar place that had once been my place of work. For five long years in the 1980s, I had documented the construction of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) – then considered a promising career for a young photographer. My work included taking pictures of the daily life of the people working inside the plant, as well as the social impact of the project among the villagers near the complex.

Perched on the steel containment vessel's narrow ledge, the author documents the construction progress inside the BNPP's reactor building in 1981. Melchor Abubo
Upon arriving at the site, my first impression was that the National Power Corporation (NPC) had done a good job in maintaining and preserving the BNPP’s Unit 1. Originally, the 365-hectare site was designed to accommodate two nuclear reactor units, but only one was built. Construction of the facility began in 1975, when earth-moving was rushed to pave the way for heavy lift and cold hydro up to the time the plant was completed for the turnkey. It was built by 15,000 skilled Filipino workers, engineers and hundreds of expatriates. The landscape has changed since I left in 1985. What was once a huge and dusty depository of construction materials and equipment is now into a carpeted landscape, its surrounding greenery neatly trimmed. The most prominent structure in the 620 megawatt-BNPP complex is still the containment dome that seems to jut out of the earth. Located on the western part of Napot Point in Bataan, the BNPP complex sits 18 meters above sea level facing the South China Sea. It has survived scores of super typhoons, the devastating 1990 earthquake in Luzon, and the catastrophic destruction caused by the massive Pinatubo eruption in 1991. The transformation of the once virgin Napot Point into one of the most ambitious engineering feats that the late President Marcos envisioned was once considered a construction marvel. The visit to BNPP brought back vivid memories. I met my future wife in this typhoon-battered place in 1980, when we were both working for the US energy giant Westinghouse International Projects Co. The company was the primary contractor of what was supposed to be the first nuclear power plant in the Philippines.
Months before start-up operations in 1984, the author stands next to the reactor fuel rod assembly inside the BNPP reactor building. Melchor Abubo
During a briefing conducted by plant manager Engr. Raul Marcelo, our group watched a slide show about the current status of the nuclear plant. To my surprise, the NPC has made a 360-degree turn from its past practice, when it was very cautious in giving out information to the public. In his presentation, Marcelo explained that the BNPP has fully paid its $2.2 billion debt to several foreign banks. The crates of Uranium 235 pellets that were intended to fuel the reactor have been sold, sources say, to Sweden twenty years ago. The tour inside the BNPP’s reactor, turbine, and auxiliary buildings showed that the NPC had managed to preserve the facility from the elements. Nothing had changed inside the main control room since I last entered it in 1985. The giant turbine generator still looks functional and the reactor vessel, all covered in plastic, seems operational. When we left the BNPP complex after the plant tour, I heard mixed reactions from the group. Some said they did not know the real issues behind the BNPP controversy until the visit. Some agreed with the NPC, while others remained unconvinced about its usefulness. Recently, the possible revival of the BNPP was back in the news, triggering old enmities. There was support and opposition from various sectors, among them the Catholic Church and Greenpeace. Coming on the heels of the continuing Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan, the fate of the BNPP is still under much speculation. Decades ago, I had my share of conflicting arguments on how to understand and approach the subject of nuclear energy. So many events have transpired since 1986, and the coming days will be a tough time for those who want to bring the BNPP back to life. — YA/TJD, GMA News