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Philippines: The 70s nuclear relic that may open at last

A cool breeze blows off the West Manila Bay into a grove of mango trees some 100km west of the Philippine capital.

In the sky above, a family of Pacific swallows are busy doing acrobatics. Sitting rather incongruously in this bucolic scene is the vast concrete hulk of the Bataan nuclear power plant.

This is South East Asia's first nuclear power plant, which was completed in 1986. Except it has never produced a kilowatt of electricity. It was never even put into operation.

Now, more than three decades after it was finished, there is growing support for opening it.

A rising energy bill and the ever-present threat of climate change is once again turning the tide in favour of nuclear power across the world. So why not in the Philippines, a developing economy where electricity is essential but expensive and often dirty?

But the real question is: how easy is it to start up a 38-year-old nuclear power plant that has never been used?

Ambitious or outlandish?

The early morning calm outside the Bataan nuclear power plant is broken by the whop-whop of an approaching helicopter.

Minutes later, Congressman Mark Cojuangco leads the way into the plant. Passing through a semi-lit machinery room, he points to the maze of piping and electrical conduits: "Look at the quality of that wiring. Look how neatly it is laid out."

He walks down a long corridor, and through an airlock into the main reactor building. The walls are 1.5m-thick concrete; the whole containment structure is lined by a 30mm-thick welded steel liner.

"Please feel the welds," he says, patting the walls. "I challenge you to find welding as nice as this anywhere in the Philippines. In the US they are required to do X-ray inspection of 20% of the welds [in a nuclear plant]. Here it was 100%, so arguably this building is better quality than in the United States."


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