MEXICO: Villagers Complain of Health Risks from Nuclear Plant

  • by Emilio Godoy (vega de alatorre, mexico)
  • Inter Press Service

'It's very distressing and sad,' Georgina López, Brenda's sister who looks after her in the village of Emilio Carranza, told IPS. 'The illness gradually finishes a person off. I know it will kill her one day.'

Hers is one of 98 cases compiled in a health survey undertaken by the mayor's office of Vega de Alatorre, a rural municipality of 18,500 people in the state of Veracruz, 290 kilometres southeast of Mexico City and close to the Laguna Verde nuclear power plant.

The survey, commissioned by Mayor Leticia Rodríguez, found different types of cancer, quadriplegia and paraplegia, Down's syndrome and other disorders. The mayor, victims and activists blame the nuclear power plant, owned by the state Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) and in operation since 1990, for many of the illnesses.

'We are definitely concerned about this critical situation,' Rodríguez told IPS. 'They tell us the plant is working well, but people have their doubts. No one listens to us: we need more information from the authorities.'

The mayor, who belongs to the conservative National Action Party (PAN), the party of Mexican President Felipe Calderón, took office on Jan. 1.

Since 2008, 33 people in the area have died of various kinds of cancer, three of them this year. Approximately 60,000 people a year die of cancer in Mexico, making it the third cause of death in this Latin American country.

Laguna Verde has two boiling water reactors fuelled with enriched uranium, and an installed capacity of nearly 1,400 megawatts.

The power plant has not been free of controversy. An audit carried out in 1999 by the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) found there had been a high number of safe shutdowns of the reactor that weakened the operating systems, as well as inadequate personnel training, lack of proper management and organisation of the work, and obsolete equipment.

In 2009 the London-based WANO, founded in 1989 by the world's nuclear operators, carried out another evaluation, the results of which have not been disclosed by the CFE.

'We want an independent assessment,' Claudia Gutiérrez de Vivanco, one of the founders in 1987 of the Veracruz Mothers Anti-Nuclear Group, told IPS. 'They know that there is a health impact, but they refuse to monitor it.'

State and CFE authorities have dismissed any connection between health problems in the area and the Laguna Verde power plant, and have stated that the plant is working well, although they have not provided hard data like the number of incidents at the plant in 2010, or details of the days the reactors were shut down, and the reasons why.

But women like Georgina López and Guadalupe Hernández, a homemaker whose father was first diagnosed with brain cancer in 2003, would have greater peace of mind if they were not surrounded by radioactive risks.

'They say it has no effect, but who's to know?' Hernández remarked to IPS. 'We are afraid of the nuclear power plant. The authorities have never said that it does not affect our health. Only the people who work there really know.'

In spite of having no family history of cancer, 68-year-old Melesio Hernández, who had begun to suffer from headaches, was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He underwent surgery, but then suffered an embolism in 2009.

At least two local deaths have been linked to the nuclear power station. Félix Rafael Ortega, who worked in the plant's chemistry lab for 10 years, died in August 1996 of renal cancer, according to his medical records.

And José Luis López, an assistant radioactive waste operator at the plant, died of pulmonary fibrosis in 1997. The CFE has not admitted that his illness might have arisen from his work at the power station.

'An independent study is needed to determine whether radiation is harming health, as may be presumed,' Bernardo Salas, head of the Faculty of Sciences Laboratory for Radiological Analysis of Environmental Samples at the state National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), told IPS.

Salas was sacked from the CFE for reporting anomalies at Laguna Verde. Between 2007 and 2009, while conducting radiological analysis of samples from the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico and the southeastern state of Quintana Roo for a research project, he found traces of the radioactive elements Caesium-137 and Cobalt-60, indicating potential contamination, at three locations adjacent to the power station.

The number 2 reactor at Laguna Verde was out of control Feb. 8, 2006, because of an electrical fault, and was at risk of meltdown, according to Salas.

A nuclear accident could affect 80 percent of Mexican territory, according to a 2008 simulation study by the Inter-Agency Committee for Response to Nuclear Accidents, attached to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

'What sense of security can we have, when we see what's happening in Japan?' said Mayor Rodríguez. 'We have no idea what will happen tomorrow,' she said. The main activities in her municipality are growing maize, beans, chilli peppers and watermelons, and raising livestock.

Congress has asked the government for information about the operation of the power plant, and the contingency plans in case of accident. A group of senators is organising a visit to the plant on Apr. 6, which activists hope will not turn into a 'nuclear tour.'

'The government's decision will not give us peace of mind. A visit will not guarantee that the plant will operate well. A serious, in-depth study is needed,' said Gutiérrez de Vivanco.

'The nuclear plant is old. We have no information, and we are unprepared for a disaster,' complained Georgina López, whose sister takes three different medicines every eight hours to manage her illness.

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service