Philippines opens Bataan nuclear plant to tourists

Kate McGeown joins a tour of the unused Bataan reactor

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A few hours north of Manila, a large grey building with a cylindrical tower stands on a promontory overlooking the sea.

It is the Philippines' only nuclear power plant, and cost more than $2bn (£1.2bn) to build, yet it has never produced a watt of electricity.

Nearly three decades after the Bataan plant was built, it is being opened up again - as a tourist attraction.

Staff have started showing groups around the site to teach them about nuclear power and reinvigorate the debate on whether anyone should ever - finally - press the "on" button.

"We've started doing this so we can generate some funds to help maintain and secure the site," says Mauro Marcelo, the manager of the plant.

"But we also want to let more people know more about the nuclear plant and nuclear power generation."

Tour groups are taken around a building that seems stuck in a 1970s time warp; the control room would not look out of place in an episode of Star Trek.

Because there is no danger of radiation, participants are allowed right into the heart of the tower to see the reactor itself, with its control rods still wrapped in their plastic packaging.

Bad timing

The Bataan plant was mothballed before it was ever switched on because it was completed at exactly the wrong time.

Nuclear reactor Visitors are allowed into the heart of the tower to see the reactor itself

After many years of construction and alteration, national and international safety checks, it was finally deemed ready at the beginning of 1986.

But then the plant's main backer President Ferdinand Marcos was ousted in the country's first People Power Revolution.

His successor Corazon Aquino had her doubts about its safety - in particular, she questioned whether the many allegations of corruption against the previous regime could mean that parts of the plant were not built properly.

Compounding her concern was the fact that the Bataan plant is near several geological fault lines, so could be susceptible to earthquake and tsunami damage. It is also not far from Mount Natib, which seismologists describe as a "potentially active" volcano.

Then, a few months after she came into power, the Chernobyl disaster happened in the Ukraine, forcing the world to re-examine the safety of nuclear power.

Mrs Aquino decided the Philippines would put its nuclear energy plans on hold. The Bataan plant instantly became a colossal white elephant.

Power hungry

Even now - amid the ongoing crisis at Japan's Fukushima plant - some Filipinos still have not lost hope that, one day, the Bataan reactor will be up and running.

Control room Once state-of-the-art scientific equipment has been frozen in time

Mark Cojuangco, who was a congressman until last year and drafted a bill to get it recommissioned, is one of the plant's most high-profile advocates.

"We need nuclear power - and this plant has never seen any radiation, not even one neutron, so in effect it's still brand new," he says.

As he is quick to point out, the Philippines has the highest domestic electricity rates in the whole of Asia. As one of the region's poorest countries, this puts a huge strain on the economy.

While it is investing in hydroelectric and wind power, much of the Philippines' power currently comes from coal - which is imported and therefore expensive.

"Without affordable power, we have no chance to compete with other countries economically, and we will have to keep exporting our people to work abroad, rather than focusing on domestic economic development," says Mr Cojuangco.

Ultimately, though, advocates of the plant know they face an uphill battle.

Some locals are against it - citing fears of a disaster on their doorstep. Current President Benigno Aquino is Corazon's son, so he is unlikely to reverse one of his mother's first key decisions.

And there are renewed fears about the dangers of nuclear power in earthquake-prone areas, in the wake of Fukushima.

Rival tours

Plant manager Mauro Marcelo is not optimistic, saying he does not expect the plant to open during his working lifetime.

De LaSalle university students at the plant Staff have started showing groups around the site to teach them about nuclear power

But the university students visiting Bataan have definitely been won over.

"It was awesome," says one. "I think it should be switched on."

"I thought the tour was fun and I learnt a lot, but it seems a kind of a shame that the plant isn't actually being used," says another.

Mr Marcelo and the pro-nuclear lobby face one other challenge.

The vehemently anti-nuclear campaign group Greenpeace heard about the tourism plans, and decided to launch its own "ecotour", fitting in a visit to the reactor with a trip to a nearby turtle sanctuary and a World War II memorial.

"We agree with Napocor [the state-owned power firm] that it's important to discuss this issue, so we're doing the same tour, but with a very different slant," says Manila-based Greenpeace campaigner Francis Dela Cruz.

After 25 years of being abandoned, two very different groups are coming to visit the Bataan plant.

They will each get to examine their own views about nuclear power - but they will also get a rare glimpse of what was once state-of-the-art scientific equipment, frozen in time.

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