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Mexico’s First Nuclear Plant Now in Operation

October 15, 1990

LAGUNA VERDE, Mexico (AP) _ The boxy, brick-red towers of Mexico’s first nuclear power plant jut into the moist tropical air from a sandy beach flanked by palm-fringed lagoons.

Not everyone is thrilled about Laguna Verde, a 654-megawatt plant in southeastern Mexico that started normal operations in August, 22 years after the project began and 14 years behind schedule.

The Federal Energy Commission says Laguna Verde, based on a General Electric boiling-water reactor, will help power Mexico when its petroleum begins to run out. Current consumption rates and proven reserves indicate oil and gas production will continue at least 53 years.

Energy Commission spokesman Mario Santoscoy said officials hope to begin two more nuclear plants by the year 2000.

Spindly transmission towers march through the lush foliage into the hills from Laguna Verde, in Veracruz state 190 miles east of Mexico City, only three miles from where Hernan Cortez landed to conquer Mexico.

Many opponents are beginning to feel the campaign against the plant is futile. Protests began in 1986, after the Chernobyl nuclear accident in the Soviet Union.

″There is no possibility whatever to stop it because the government proceeds without listening to anybody,″ said novelist Homero Aridjis, president of the environmentalist Group of 100.

Protests peaked in 1988, when tens of thousands of demonstrators repeatedly jammed the streets of Jalapa, capital of Veracruz. The navy was called in to end a nine-day blockade of the highway outside Laguna Verde, which means Green Lagoon.

A military post is still opposite the plant’s main gate, but anti-nuclear fervor has faded with time and frustration. Demonstrations now are fewer and smaller.

Most of the plant’s foes seem to oppose nuclear power in general, but many claim Laguna Verde is a badly built example of an obsolete U.S. design that is poisoning the Veracruz coastline with radiation.

Nearly every claim by either side is disputed, and bickering is more common than discussion.

″There are constant emissions of radioactive gases,″ environmentalist Roberto Helier said, quoting sources at the plant.

Vinicio Serment Cabrero, plant information director, asserted: ″We haven’t had discharges of radioactive materials, either liquid or gas.″

Critics pass out copies of official lab tests showing high levels of strontium 90 in shrimp caught nearby. The plant safety director, Sergio Zorrilla, has other documents citing later tests with low strontium 90 levels.

Opponents claim the plant was stopped 41 times during its test run, including several emergencies. Officials admit to 30 or so, but insist none was an emergency.

A recent official study by nine foreign experts found the plant had released only minute amounts of radiation. Critics accuse the experts of bias. Helier cited studies showing even small amounts of radiation can increase risks of cancer.

Spent fuel from Laguna Verde will remain radioactive for thousands of years.

Critics also claim the lengthy test period - four times longer than scheduled - indicates problems.

John Ahearn, a member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 1978 to 1983, said a long test ″can either indicate a lot of problems or it can indicate prudent caution.″

Former plant manager Augustin Perez Ruiz insisted it was the latter: ″We did everything with the rigor of a novice. We didn’t want anything to happen.″

Ahearn said a long test period might help train workers.

″The most critical element in nuclear power plants are the people,″ he said. ″If you’re in a country that has never built a plant before, its going to take them a longer time.″

According to critics, the plant workers are not well-trained. ″There’s always a factor of risk,″ said Aridjis, the novelist, and ″the most unpredictable of all is a human error.″

Up the road from Laguna Verde, many people in the town of Palma Sola have come to terms with the plant. A butcher shop has taken the name Carniceria Nuclear.

Hundreds of residents work at the plant, which helps replace income lost when tourists began to abandon local beaches and market vendors went elsewhere to buy fish.

″I was in the marches″ against the plant, said 30-year-old Agueda Grajales, who sat behind the cash register in a hardware store. ″Now I would not go.″

″At the beginning, we were afraid because they didn’t tell us anything,″ but now the plant ″is working and nothing is happening,″ she said.

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