The Bataan Nuclear Power Plant was dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ response to the oil crisis of the early 1970s. It was completed in 1984 but never put into operation. (Martin San Diego for The Washington Post) (For The Washington Post)

President Marcos sees his father’s project, once dogged by scandal and security concerns, as a solution to the challenges of fossil fuels.

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BATAAN, Philippines — They had grown old together, the nuclear plant and its caretaker.

Willie Torres had been there from the start in the 1970s, when the plant was still under construction, a $2.3 billion project aimed at becoming Asia’s first nuclear power company. He stayed on as a technician when the plant was beset by scandal. And he remained one of the few employees when, after the Chernobyl disaster, the government ordered his suspension.

With skyrocketing energy prices and the global push to curb climate change by moving away from fossil fuels, interest in nuclear power has resurfaced in the Philippines and abroad. President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. announced weeks after taking office last year that “it’s time” to revisit nuclear power and openly reflected on the revival of the decades-old Bataan nuclear plant.

The plant started in the mid-1970s by the president’s father, dictator Ferdinand Marcos, was plagued by construction delays, cost overruns and allegations that the Marcos family had taken waste from contractors. When an independent commission concluded that the plant had “inadequate protections and could be a potential hazard”, opposition to the project grew. It was put away in 1986 and its reactor was never turned on..

“It was a missed opportunity,” said Torres, 61. “Not just for me, but for the whole country.”

The plant, located in forested hills three hours from Manila, became a monument to the excesses of the Marcos era. Swallows moved in their cavernous chambers, their gurgles echoing against the concrete walls. For decades, Torres held out hope that one day the plant would be reopened, and now, with Marcos, he could. Activists who once marched against the plant over its alleged security lapses are mobilizing their communities to fight back.

But the battlefield has changed.

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The site of dozens of weather-related disasters each year, the Philippines is one of the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Its coal-based energy sector represents half of its greenhouse gas emissions, placing the nation under increasing pressure to find new sources of energy. In the country’s legislature and on the world stage, nuclear power has found influential champions who argue that it is the only energy source that will allow the Philippines to green its grid without slowing down growth.

Some energy experts aren’t sure nuclear power makes sense for the Philippines, but their voices are getting more and more drowned out. On social media, the controversial history of the Bataan nuclear plant is being rewritten, said Veronica Cabe, an organizer with the Bataan Coal/Nuclear Free Movement.

“Every day we see it,” Cabe said. “They are changing the narrative.”

Governments around the world are “rediscovering” the merits of nuclear power, said Henri Paillere, head of planning for the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Germany in October extended life of nuclear plants after once promising to eliminate them. France is building new reactors even though its existing nuclear infrastructure has been teetering on the brink of collapse. Japan recently said it would start “maximizing” its atomic fleet, which had been reduced after the Fukushima power plant disaster in 2011, when a powerful tsunami triggered the release of radioactive material.

“We cannot achieve a clean energy transition without nuclear power,” Paillere said, noting that last year the IAEA hosted its first pavilion at the UN Climate Change Conference. “But that doesn’t mean that all countries need nuclear power.”

At least 30 countries, most of them emerging economies, are exploring how to add nuclear power to their energy mix, Paillere said. Yet few were faced with as pressing a decision as the Philippines.

Filipinos pay some of the highest electricity rates in Asia, largely because half of the country’s power comes from imported coal, which has become increasingly expensive. With power needs set to double in the next two decades, nuclear power is the country’s best alternative because it can reliably supply a large amount of power, said Carlo A. Arcilla, director of the Philippine Institute of Nuclear Research. Solar and wind power, on the other hand, are “intermittent” based on what nature provides.

But Sara Jane Ahmed, an energy finance analyst who advises the Vulnerable Twenty Group, or V20, a coalition of countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, said nuclear plants are inflexible in their operation. They can’t adapt to fluctuations in power needs caused by factors like changes in the weather, she said, and they can’t “step up and down” to work with renewable energy.

It’s also expensive to ensure that nuclear plants operate safely in the Philippines, which, like Japan, lies in a notoriously active seismic zone called the Ring of Fire. And when nuclear plants go offline, say due to a typhoon, the power grid can be crippled and cause blackouts, said Bert Dalusung, an analyst at the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities. Instead of a few large power plants, the Philippines needs a “distributed energy infrastructure” built on its ample supplies of solar, wind and geothermal resources, he said.

In a paper-filled office in Manila, the tired-looking, white-bearded Clay shook his head at these arguments. The institute’s director said she supports more renewable energy but that alone would not be enough. The case against nuclear power is irrational, she said, shaped too much by the Bataan plant story.

“Out of ignorance,” added Clay. “And politics.”

When Ferdinand Marcos Sr. decided to build the Bataan nuclear plant in 1973, the world was in the midst of an energy crisis brought on by the Middle East oil embargo. Marcos had just declared martial law, extending his rule beyond the constitutional limit and granting himself broad powers that he used to loot the coffers of the country. A massive “People Power” movement eventually rose to oust Marcos, and when he fled the Philippines in 1986, his nuclear plant was left in limbo.

The subsequent administration of President Corazon “Cory” Aquino was evaluating what to do with it when, in a small Ukrainian town in the Soviet Union, a nuclear reactor exploded. “If there were still cobwebs of doubt”, Minister of Budget, Alberto Rómulo told reporters at the time, “Chernobyl certainly sealed the fate of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant.”

It took until 2007 for the Philippines to finish paying for the installation. Since then, there have been fleeting attempts to restart discussions of the plant, but none, until now, has aroused such intense interest from the country’s leaders.

“This is the first big opportunity we’ve had in decades,” said Mark Cojuangco, a member of the House of Representatives and son of the late Danding Cojuangco, a billionaire close to the Marcos family.

Over the past 15 years, Cojuangco has twice tried to pass laws to revive Bataan, funded a pro-nuclear power nonprofit group, and hosted various foreign nuclear advocates in the Philippines, often paying for their plane tickets personally. Following Marcos’s election last year, Cojuangco was named chairman of a new special committee for nuclear power.

Vice President Harris announced in November that Washington had begun negotiations with the Philippines on a civil nuclear cooperation agreement — the first step in allowing American companies to sell nuclear technology to the country. It was a welcome move, Cojuangco said, but in December he held meetings with officials from China and South Korea, neither of which require government agreements to sell nuclear technology.

“Everyone,” Cojuangco said with a smile, “wants to help us.”

Everyone, it seems, except the politicians representing Bataan, who have repeatedly said their constituents don’t support a revival.

Cojuangco’s expression changed. “Bombastic politicians,” he snapped, like those of the 80s.

In the run-up to the 2022 election, the Marcos family sought whitewash your story, crafting campaigns on TikTok and YouTube that portrayed their late patriarch as a leader who brought wealth and infrastructure, rather than debt and repression. A similar effort is now underway to remake Bataan’s image, said Cabe, the anti-nuclear activist.

Nuclear power advocates have focused on younger Filipinos, he said, vowing that reviving the plant would create jobs and investment. They have presented the plant as a gateway to an industry of the future and denigrated the popular movement that once resisted it. On Facebook, pro-Marcos political groups have repeatedly shared a video from 2019 that has been viewed more than a million times: “$2.3 billion project wasted by Cory Aquino to demonize Marcos.”

Dante Ilaya, 68, has viewed these efforts with disbelief. When he was a young lawyer in the 1980s, he marched against the plant over its safety risks, not politics. those risks they have not disappeared and could be said to have multiplied, he said. The idea that the government would look beyond them to rehabilitate a dictator is, she added, “abhorrent.”

In 2008, the IAEA said that the plant would have to be “thoroughly evaluated” to be reset. A more recent study concluded that it would cost approximately $1 billion to bring online. How, Ilaya asked, could people trust that the process would not be subject to mismanagement again?

Ilaya and other community leaders, including some local priests, are trying to revive opposition to the plant. But they are not sure if they will have the influence that they did four decades ago.

Since the plant was protected, four coal projects have been built on Bataan, almost all against the wishes of local residents. Villages were displaced and waterways destroyed in the name of generating power for the country, Cabe said. Driving through a community that had been divided by a coal plant, he looked out the window.

“Hasn’t that been enough?” she asked.

An hour away, Torres was ending his day at the nuclear plant. He was 18 years old when he first got there and now he had wrinkles and gray hair. He had dreamed of seeing the reactor turned on for years, but in the midst of the most recent debate, he wasn’t always sure what to think.

Torres was walking through a room full of metal containers and pipes intended to keep the reactor cool, and now rusty from lack of use. All this equipment would have to be replaced, he knew, and at cost.

Still, perhaps the plant deserved a second chance. Perhaps, Torres said, he would live long enough to see it happen.

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