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Opposition Stifles Mexico’s Nuclear Industry

September 13, 1988

XALAPA, Mexico (AP) _ An unlikely coalition of wealthy housewives and cattlemen is spearheading opposition to Mexico’s first nuclear power plant.

The plant, Laguna Verde, has been a pet project of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party for more than 20 years.

But the party, which lost ground to the opposition in the July 6 general election, announced soon afterward that it was delaying the plant’s startup.

″After July 6, nothing is the same,″ said Rebecca Labastida, a founder of the Mothers of Veracruz Anti-nuclear Committee, one of several groups that have been working to get the plant mothballed or converted to non-nuclear fuel.

The coalition of urban housewives and cattle ranchers fighting the project includes members of the governing party.

″A social consciousness is growing in Mexico. One point is nuclear energy,″ said regional planner Tomas Berlin, who just finished a book critical of Laguna Verde. ″In it you will see a new face of Mexico.″

Many residents in Xalapa, 140 miles east of Mexico City, oppose the plant, which is located 40 miles outside the city on a winding road dotted with roadside stands laden with local honey, cheese and fruit.

Thick stands of sugar cane carpet the steamy coastal plain where white power pylons march down to the Gulf of Mexico and the green lagoon that gave its name to Mexico’s first nuclear plant.

Inside the 13-story Unit One containment building, uranium fuel rods wait in a dry concrete pool next to 657-megawatt reactor from the United States.

The men who are building the plant say they are confident of its safety and are ready to turn on the first of two reactors.

″The first unit is ready. It’s a political decision now,″ project spokesman Hector Luna Lastra said recently.

Critics say the reactor, made by the U.S.-based General Electric Co., and its containment building are dangerous and obsolete.

The William H. Zimmer plant in Ohio, which had a reactor of the same design, is being converted to coal fuel. The owners sued, alleging the reactor design was flawed, and won an out-of-court settlement of more than $78 millon.

The Union of Concerned Scientists says all similar plants should be phased out because the containment building could leak radioactive materials.

″The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has concluded there is a 90 percent chance that it (the containment building) will break if there is a meltdown,″ Robert Pollard, a nuclear safety engineer, said from Washington.

Laguna Verde is all that is left of a grand plan for a nationwide network of 20 nuclear plants. The idea died when oil prices plunged, but Laguna Verde lived on, despite a price tag that rose from $263 million to $3.5 billion.

The project was announced in 1968. Construction began in 1973, and for years the project moved quietly along, providing thousands of jobs.

Opposition to Laguna Verde began in April 1986 after the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union, said Patricia Ortega, another founder of Mothers of Veracruz. The explosion and fire at the Soviet plant killed 31 people and sent a cloud of radiation around the world.

The Federal Electricity Commission countered criticism of Lagunda Verde with a public relations campaign, but the opposition kept growing.

Mothers of Veracruz turned a group of traditional Mexican housewives into a feisty band of activists that sent telegrams to public officials, organized phone banks and printed booklets about nuclear energy.

″Waking people up, waking people up. That’s been the hardest thing. To make them realize you can do something,″ Mrs. Labastida said.

Local cattlemen joined in, some even offering to help pay to turn Laguna Verde into a non-nuclear plant. Last year, cattlemen and housewives blocked traffic by linking arms across the road leading to the plant.

The plant has two reactors, one ready to be started up. The governing party didn’t say how long it would delay that procedure.

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