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Mexico’s Troubled Nuclear Plant

With Latin American countries still turned off to nuclear power two years after Japan’s monumental Fukushima meltdowns dispersed radioactive fallout across the ocean to them, events inside a similar facility in Mexico have fueled mounting skepticism over the potential for developing the energy technology.

Fissures, leaks, shutdowns, government secrecy, a failed upgrade, alleged bid-rigging and contract fraud at Mexico’s lone atomic power station, the state-run Laguna Verde Nuclear Plant, were vetted during the 9th Regional Congress on Radiation Protection and Safety held in Rio de Janeiro in April.

The audience of Latin American experts eager to share the information at the professional association forum starred scientists from Argentina and Brazil, which also have nuclear power plants, as well as from Venezuela, Chile and Cuba, which had made tentative moves toward establishing atomic energy stations before the Fukushima catastrophe stymied aspirations.

The irregularities at Laguna Verde came to light thanks to a courageous group of anonymous high-level employees inside the power plant and to the public information requests by their spokesperson, Mexico’s National Autonomous University Physics Professor Bernardo Salas Mar, a former plant employee and valiant whistleblower.

Some of Salas Mar’s most recent research was accepted at the International Radiation Protection Association congress in Brazil, but his university did not provide him with travel expenses to attend in person.

Salas faces high-level attempts to have him fired as a result of his persistent efforts to make public his discoveries of dangerous faults and cover-ups at the Laguna Verde plant. But Salas’ achievements speak for themselves. Were it not for his ceaseless hammering on the doors of the 10-year-old Federal Information Access Institute (IFAI), perhaps no one ever would have known about the latest incidents at Laguna Verde until it was too late.

Based on his freedom-of-information requests to the institute, Salas and Laguna Verde’s own technicians revealed in an April 19 letter to President Enrique Peña Nieto that Mexico has been defrauded to the tune of more than a half-billion dollars by the international companies that won the bid for the federal contract to uprate the two reactors at the plant located near the Caribbean port of Veracruz.

“Uprating” is industry jargon for boosting the capacity of nuclear reactors so they can generate more electricity.

The letter to the President alleges the Federal Electricity Commission purposely botched the bid letting by omitting the usual requirement for a contractor to abide by the Review Standard for Extended Power Uprates. Apparently the CFD did this to favor the Spanish company Iberdrola Ingenería and the French company Alstom Mexico, which lacked the capability to carry out the changes to the nuclear steam supply system according to standard specifications.

Employees in key positions at Laguna Verde had alerted the two previous presidential administrations to the issue as far back as 2006, communicating their “worry over the capacity-boosting work contemplated for this nuclear plant, considering it to be unreliable, risky and overpriced,” according to the letter. Still Iberdrola and Alstom got the $605-million contract to increase the plant’s power output by 20 percent.

Iberdrola announced the successful conclusion of the five-year, $605-million modernization project in February, noting that it overhauled equipment dating back to 1990, in the project that created more than 2,000 jobs.

The president of Alstom in Mexico, Cintia Angulo, was arrested a week after the announcement of the upgrade conclusion on charges of giving false testimony in an unrelated French case of non-payment.

However, the more spectacular fraud for both firms will prove to be the Mexican uprate contract, which not only failed to accomplish the goal of boosting Laguna Verde’s power output, but also left the reactors in worse condition than before, Salas and employees charge.

The Federal Electricity Commission responded to Salas’ inquiries, saying that Reactor Unit 2 would be operating at 100 percent of planned output in April and Unit 1 would be at 100 percent in May.

Nonetheless, after further information requests, Salas revealed that the National Nuclear Safety Commission has denied both reactors the licenses to operate at higher output in the aftermath of the contract, due precisely to the fact that the guidelines for the nuclear steam supply system were not followed.

Employees say the failure to follow the guidelines during the uprate cracked the jet pumps that inject the water to the core of the General Electric boiling water reactors, the same kind that melted down due to a generator system crash at Fukushima.

“The situation of the reactors is not serious yet, but operating with fissures could cause a major problem to the extent that it could endanger national security. (Remember Fukushima and Chernobyl.)” the letter to President Peña Nieto says. The employees consider it “risky and inacceptable for both reactors to continue operating with the fissures that have been encountered.”

Simultaneous suspension of operations at both reactors in September 2012 and related confusing news releases, some blaming the pump fissures, caused alarm in the communities around the installation.

Authorities first said a diesel generator breakdown was at fault for the interruption in service of one reactor, while fuel-cell restocking was the reason for a stoppage at the other.

The next day they said a clogged seawater intake was part of the reason for removing both reactors from service. An escape of hydrogen gas from a condenser was posited. And finally, officials stated to the public that the fissures in both reactors’ water pumps were to blame.

Government secrecy about details surrounding the event accentuated longstanding worries in the population near the plant. The fear of accidents and serious concerns over the ongoing situation was highlighted by an NGO’s court appeal arguing that people should be exempted from paying their light bills due to the fact that their civil rights had been violated by the lack of safety measures and accountability at Laguna Verde.

In response to Salas’ information requests, the Energy Secretariat, in charge of the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) and the National Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSNS), said it didn’t have the answers to his questions.

Its commissions presented incongruous replies. The vagueness of the answers provided by the Federal Electricity Commission prompted the researcher to appeal to the IFAI to require revised responses.

After his second round of questioning, he was able to deduce that the cooling water intake channel had indeed filled with sediment and it had been dredged, so it did not present a hazard and did not cause the reactor operations’ interruption.

He also then could determine that the hydrogen had been released from the ductwork into the cooling water of the main generator, during the month of August. While the amount of gas was unknown, the escape was not to the atmosphere, and neither presented a danger nor was cause for halting operations.

The CSNSNS responded that the diesel generator failed when a piston stuck due to lack of lubrication resulting from a bearing problem on Sept. 12. The event did not endanger life and limb, according to Salas.

Simultaneous reloading of fuel cells at both reactors was the most likely reason for the concurrent stalling, Salas concluded after the numerous freedom-of-information requests.

While the main present dangers appear to be the fractures in the cores’ water pumps, a Jan. 11, 2013 scram (emergency reactor shutdown) remains to be inspected under the looking glass of the IFAI.

The institute created by decree in 2002 has provided important tools for shedding light on the machinations of the nuclear plant, among other formerly opaque federal operations.

Yet, as this case underscores, IFAI should strengthen its own processes in order to avoid the kind of inconsistent and self-belying responses that ensnared this most recent of many investigations into the lack of security at Laguna Verde.

Even so, that won’t protect the population from the specter of accidents or deteriorating health and safety in the advent of air and water pollution from the facility, which is located on a part of the coast with only poorly maintained roads to offer escape routes.

If Peña Nieto and company are to be more responsive to community needs than their predecessors, one way to show good intentions would be to comply with demands for conducting an emergency public evacuation drill, something that never has been done in the history of the 17-year-old nuclear plant. Another would be to take the irresponsible parties to court to establish accountability.

TALLI NAUMAN is an environmental analyst for the Americas Program . She is a founder and co-director of the independent international media project Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness, initiated in 1994 with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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