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Philippines: Bataan nuclear plant costs $155,000 a day but no power

NEARLY 30 years after work began on the Bataan nuclear power plant just north of Manila, Filipino taxpayers are still paying 155,000 dollars a day in interest on a structure that has never produced one watt of power.

Thelmo Cunanan, chief executive of state-run Philippine National Oil Co., said it had become the country's most outstanding white elephant.

"The fact that we are still paying interest on a project that is 30 years old and has not produced a watt of electricity should send at least one positive signal to the investment community," he told Agence France-Presse in a telephone interview.

The signal was that "If we enter an agreement at least we pay our bills. There were times when I thought: why should we? Why don't we simply turn our backs and walk away from it but that is not the way we Filipinos do business."

The Bataan nuclear power plant was a knee jerk reaction by former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos to the energy crisis of the early 1970s.

The oil embargo had put a heavy strain on the economy and Marcos saw nuclear power as the best way forward in terms of meeting the country's future power needs and lessening the nation's reliance on imported oil.

Construction began in 1976 and was completed in 1984 at a cost of 2.3 billion dollars.

The power station, 60 miles (97 kilometres) north of Manila, has been the centre of controversy from the day construction began.

When Marcos was overthrown by the so-called People Power Revolution in early 1986 a team of international inspectors visited the site and declared it unsafe and inoperable as it was built near major earthquake fault lines and near the Pinatubo volcano which at the time was dormant.

The first post-Marcos government of Corazon Aquino sealed the nuclear plant's fate for good when it banned the use of nuclear power and enshrined it into the Constitution.

Debt repayment on the plant is the country's biggest single obligation.

Successive governments have looked at ways of converting the plant into an oil, coal, or gas-fired power station.

According to Cunanan a South Korean company recently expressed an interest in taking over the nuclear power station and developing it as a commercial operation. But the provision in the constitution ruled it out.

Cunanan said it would be unfair to name the company but said the government has not ruled out converting the plant into a fossil fuel power station.

Some studies in the past have shown that converting the plant may be too expensive.

The plant itself has been maintained despite never having been commissioned.

A Westinghouse light water reactor, it was designed to produce some 621 megawatts of electricity.

Much of the technology used in the plant was early 1970s but modified following the Three Mile Island accident in the United States in 1979.

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