NEAR a small village on the Bataan peninsula west of Manila sits a concrete relic of the tumultuous Marcos years: the 650 megawatt Bataan Nuclear Power Plant. Only a barbed wire fence separates this concrete sarcophagus from the poor villagers of Bataan. Though it cost US$2.3 billion to build - and still costs the Philippines US$300,000-a-day in interest payments - the country's biggest white elephant has not generated one kilowatt of electricity. Last Tuesday, an American jury handed Filipinos a rude reminder of what the legacy of former president Ferdinand Marcos, who had commissioned the plant, was costing them. After an eight-week trial, involving 40 witnesses and 600 documents, a New Jersey jury concluded that there was not enough evidence to convict the manufacturer, Westinghouse Electric Corpn, and a New Jersey engineering company of paying bribes to then-president Ferdinand Marcos to win the contract. The case apparently ranks as one of the world's costliest law suits: local newspapers report the cash-strapped Philippines spent US$35 million on lawyers' fees alone. If this is the case, the bill comes out to about US$8 million more than the Philippines' damages claim. Blame can be spread everywhere: Westinghouse appeared to have gone over the top in pushing the plant. The banks suspected the deal was ill-advised but made the loans anyway. Marcos allegedly rigged the deal to make money; former President Aquino repeatedly waffled on the issue and decided to mothball the plant for political reasons (and never dealt with the loss of power capacity). The Philippine Government delayed by several years the filing of charges, spent a fortune on litigation and gave up several opportunities to salvage the whole thing by settling out of court. Now the plant sits idle, crumbling, and impotent. To many Filipinos, the New Jersey decision represents the second time the Philippines has been rebuffed in an American courtroom. The first was in July 1990 when former first lady Imelda Marcos was acquitted of criminal charges that she embezzled money from state coffers. ''The New Jersey verdict shows that the Filipino can never find satisfaction through the justice system of another country,'' the influential Manila Chronicle said in an editorial on Thursday. Few level-headed people believed, however, that the Philippines could ever win the case. An all-American jury, oblivious to the slick ways of the Marcoses, was to decide whether, as the Philippines alleged, Westinghouse paid US$17.2 million in commissionto Marcos crony Herminio Disini. For one thing, Mr Marcos excelled at covering up his misdeeds. ''From the very start it was a difficult case to win,'' said University of the Philippines political scientist Alex Magno. ''We were, in effect, prosecuting a brilliant lawyer. Marcos was not the type of guy to leave evidence around. Trying to convince a jury, which knew nothing about the inter-connections and operations during the Marcos years, that Disini's commission wasin fact a bribe for Marcos would be very difficult.'' From the start, the Philippines failed to present strong evidence and witnesses. For example, Jesus Vergara, a key witness for the Philippines because of his unique knowledge of the intricacies of the deal, was not invited to testify. Further weakening the case was the damaging testimony of three Filipinos summoned by the court. One of them, Perfecto Fernandez, a University of the Philippines law professor, reportedly said in an affidavit that because Marcos was a dictator at the timehe could do whatever he wanted. So why did Manila proceed with a case fraught with improbabilities? ''Basically pride, honour, and political inertia forced the hand of the Philippine Government,'' said Mr Magno. Mr Fernandez said the Government's action was driven by ''hatred and emotion.'' Manila charged that the Pittsburg-based firm and subcontractor Burns & Roe had obtained the contract through bribes and that the plant had a flawed design. Although safety was of paramount concern, Mrs Aquino's notorious hatred of anything to do with the Marcoses heavily influenced her decision to scrap the plant. Later, Manila would reject at least two potentially-lucrative settlement offers from Westinghouse - reportedly on the grounds that the packages were ''not beneficial to the Filipino people.'' The legal consensus at the time of the filing of the case was that the country had a weak case against Westinghouse. But Mrs Aquino's trusted inner circle - relatives, cause-oriented groups and human rights organisations - thought otherwise and pressuredher to seek redress through the courts. Experts agree Mr Marcos' decision in 1976 to build a plant that could deliver 620 megawatts of electricity was mostly technically-sound. Projections at the time correctly forecast that the country would be facing an electricity crunch by the late 80s unless drastic action was taken to install more generation capacity. ''At the time the oil crisis was foreseen and nuclear power was the flavour of the month,'' said a senior Manila-based executive with a foreign power firm. ''The plant made sense but it was not handled correctly.'' Another reason the Philippines took on the project was because of intense pressure from the US-based Export-Import Bank, which was desperately looking for Third World borrowers at the time, at ridiculously low interest rates, Mr Magno said. Except for US$256 million provided by a 30-bank syndicate led by Citibank, the Eximbank provided the bulk of the loans. In 1979, construction was temporarily halted after concerns arose from the Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident. A probe commissioned by Mr Marcos recommended changes in the design and construction was resumed about a year later. Workers were putting the final touches on the plant in 1986 when Mr Marcos was overthrown in the People Power revolution. Sources said the plant was 98 per cent completed: even the sensitive nuclear fuel rods were in place. The question now is whether the plant can be of any use to the Philippines, where daily brownouts of eight hours are playing havoc with the economy. A task force headed by energy secretary Delfin Lazaro is to report on June 30 on recommendations for non-nuclear use. Whatever option is chosen will be costly. Two independent studies in 1992 concluded that converting the plant into a coal-fired one would cost US$528 million and into a combined cycle, US$594 million. A senior official with the Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd, which has three reactors in South Korea, said if the plant were to be converted to non-nuclear use, as much as two-thirds of it would have to be scrapped. Even if it were politically feasible to use the plant's nuclear capability, it would take at least three years to rehabilitate the plant, check pipes and wiring and train staff. Experts say the design of the turbine and the possibility of huge reserves at the Malampaya and Camagao gas fields in the southern Philippines, make conversion to a natural gas-fed plant the most likely scenario.