The case of the failure of Mexico’s Laguna Verde Nuclear Plant, nestled on the jagged Veracruz seacoast, reveals the need to nix nukes and fortify public right-to-know mechanisms.
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 unacceptable 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.
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Citing documents and interviews with several US officials, Kimberly Dozier of the Associated Press wire service reported on Jan. 17 that the US military’s Northern Command (Northcom) has a new special operations headquarters in Colorado, to be used “to teach Mexican security forces how to hunt drug cartels the same way special operations teams hunt al-Qaida.” A Dec. 31 memo signed by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta transformed the Northcom special operations group into the new command headquarters, which will be led by a general rather than a colonel. The staff will increase from 30 to 150.
According to Dozier, this is the latest effort by US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) head Adm. Bill McRaven “to migrate special operators from their decade of service in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan to new missions.” SOCOM “has already helped Mexican officials set up their own intelligence center in Mexico City to target criminal networks, patterned after similar centers in war zones built to target al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Dozier wrote. Mexican military, intelligence and law enforcement officers have reportedly visited SOCOM facilities at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and Mexican officials also visited a SOCOM targeting center at the Balad air base in Iraq before the US troop withdrawal in 2011, according to a former US official.
The Mexican government hasn’t expressed an opinion on Northcom’s plan to help with its “war on drugs,” but Agnes Gereben Schaefer of the California-based Rand Corporation intelligence group told Dozier that Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto would probably support the plan. “He has talked about setting up a paramilitary force…made up of former military and police forces, which he has described as more surgical” than the current effort, Schaefer said. At least 50,000 Mexicans have died in the wave of violence that followed the militarization of anti-narcotics efforts that former president Felipe Calderón Hinojosa started at the beginning of his 2006-2012 administration. (Miami Herald 1/17/13 from AP)
Weekly News Update on the Americas | December 11, 2012
On December 9th Mexican authorities released 56 of the 69 people who had been in detention for more than a week on suspicion of “attacking public peace” during protests in Mexico City against the inauguration of President Enrique Peña Nieto. A total of 106 people were reportedly arrested on a day which included violent confrontations between police and protesters and widespread destruction of property [see Update #1154], but 28 were quickly released. Judge María del Carmen Mora Brito of the Federal District (DF, Mexico City) court system ordered the December 9th releases after “analyzing videos, testimonies and expert witnesses’ reports,” the DF Superior Court of Justice announced in a communiqué. (Europa Press 12/10/12)
The judge’s action followed a week of demonstrations against police repression and charges that agents had repeatedly attacked, beaten and arrested peaceful protesters and bystanders while failing to arrest the people who had been engaged in vandalism. There were also accusations that agents provocateurs had infiltrated the protests. Complaints about the police seemed to be supported by videos that circulated widely on the internet. One, a compilation by the student video collective Imágenes En Rebeldía, appears to show unprovoked police attacks, arrests of nonviolent protesters, and men dressed in civilian clothes and armed with crowbars and chains standing and walking among uniformed federal police agents behind metal barriers around the Chamber of Deputies building.
On December 6th the DF Human Rights Commission (CDHDF) reported that the DF police had arrested at least 22 people arbitrarily and that four people showed signs of having been tortured. A total of 88 people claimed to have been arrested without justification, the governmental commission said; 15 youths were charged with taking part in vandalism on Juárez Avenue even though the vandalism occurred after the time of their arrests. Among the people arrested on December 1rst was Mircea Topolenau, a Romanian photographer covering the events for a magazine. CDHDF president Luis González Placencia noted that his organization was only reporting actions by the DF police and that it was up to the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) to investigate alleged abuses by the federal police. (La Jornada (Mexico) 12/7/12)
Two protesters were seriously injured during the December 1rst protests. Drama teacher Francisco Kuykendall Leal was hit by a tear gas canister and was hospitalized with cranial injuries. He is an active supporter of The Other Campaign, a political movement inspired by the rebel Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) [see Update #832]. Uriel Sandoval Díaz, a student at the Autonomous University of Mexico City (UACM), lost an eye and suffered fractures when he was hit by a rubber bullet. “This struggle won’t end until poverty ends,” Uriel said from a wheelchair as he was being released from the General Hospital on December 6th. “An eye is nothing [when] every day thousands of human beings have nothing to eat.” (Kaos en la Red 12/4/12 from Desinformémonos; Milenio (Mexico) 12/7/12)
In related news, an online petition has been started calling on Harvard University president Drew Gilpin Faust to withdraw the offer of a fellowship at the university’s John F. Kennedy School of Government to outgoing president Felipe Calderón Hinojosa (2006-2012). Tens of thousands of Mexicans have died in the militarized “war on drugs” Calderón initiated soon after he took office in December 2006. The petition is at http://www.change.org/petitions/harvard-university-president-faust-deny-outgoing-mexican-president-felipe-calderon-employment-at-harvard
- Mexico: Peña Nieto Takes Office as Youths Riot (alethonews.wordpress.com)
Protests against Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto during his inauguration on Dec. 1 quickly turned into violent confrontations between police and demonstrators that disrupted much of downtown Mexico City. The protests were called by the National Convention Against the Imposition, a coalition of groups holding that Peña Nieto’s election last July was manipulated, and #YoSoy132 (“I’m number 132”), a student movement that arose in the spring in response to the election campaign [see Update #1130]. But masked youths, many of them wearing black t-shirts with anarchist symbols, quickly became the center of attention at the Dec. 1 demonstration.
The confrontations began around 7 am near the San Lázaro subway and bus stations at the heavily guarded and barricaded Chamber of Deputies, where the inauguration was to take place about three hours later. Determined to break through the metal barriers, the masked youths threw rocks, metal pipes and Molotov cocktails at the federal police, who responded with exceptional violence, using tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons. The media reported that the agents also used rubber bullets; police spokespeople denied the reports. Many #YoSoy132 supporters moved away from the masked youths, as did the famously militant teachers from the southern state of Oaxaca, although both groups organized brigades to assist protesters who were wounded or were overwhelmed by the tear gas.
Dozens of protesters were injured. At around 10 am #YoSoy132 reported that a youth named Carlos Yahir Valdés had been killed by a tear gas canister or a rubber bullet; Adrián Ramírez, president of the Mexican League for the Defense of Human Rights (LIMEDDH), said the victim was named Carlos Valdivia and had been seriously wounded but not killed.
Eventually the youths in black moved west towards the Zócalo plaza and then on to the Palacio de Bellas Artes cultural center and the Alameda park. Along the way they smashed windows, streetlights, phone booths and ATMs; looted stores and gas stations; and battled the Mexico City police. At times passers-by supplied the protesters with bricks to throw at the police, while smiling tourists took pictures. At least one private car was destroyed and one motorcycle was set on fire. (La Jornada (Mexico) 12/2/12)
During his first day in office, President Peña Nieto announced “13 specific decisions” to improve the situation in Mexico, including a universal social security system, life insurance for heads of households, educational reforms, and revival of passenger railroads. He also promised to maintain a zero deficit in the budget while carrying out his programs. (LJ 12/2/12)
Outgoing president Felipe Calderón Hinojosa (2006-2012)–whose militarized fight against drug trafficking set off the violence in which 50,000 Mexicans died, according to critics—is planning to leave Mexico, at least temporarily. On Nov. 28 Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts, announced that Calderón will hold a one-year fellowship at the school starting in January. “This fellowship will be a tremendous opportunity for me to reflect upon my six years in office,” Calderón said in a statement.
Calderón received a master’s degree from the Kennedy school in 2000. The Reuters wire service noted that other recent students at the school include Bo Guagua, son of ousted Chinese politician Bo Xilai, and Paula Broadwell, co-author of a book about former US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director Gen. David Petraeus, who resigned after acknowledging that he’d had an affair with her. (Reuters 11/28/12) Another former student was the late Guatemalan general Héctor Alejandro Gramajo Morales. At his graduation in June 1991 human rights activists served Gramajo with court papers for a federal civil suit under the Alien Tort Claims Act; nine Guatemalans charged him with acts of torture, abduction and murder during counterinsurgency operations in western Guatemala in 1982, when he was army chief of staff. Gramajo lost that and another human rights suit later in the year by default [see Update #737].
- Photos: Protests as Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto takes office (photos.denverpost.com)
Against the sharply contrasting backdrop of violent conflicts in the streets and carefully staged official events, Enrique Peña Nieto took office yesterday. The general outlines of the plan for his six-year term, although still not detailed, reveal proposed changes not unlike the new president–mostly cosmetic and devoted to appearances on the surface.
After taking the oath of office in the Chamber of Deputies at San Lazaro and swearing in his cabinet, the newly inaugurated president appeared before guests at the National Palace in the central plaza to deliver his first speech as Chief Executive.
Peña Nieto began his speech with a rapid pass through Mexican history, citing pre-hispanic and Spanish culture, the liberal and revolutionary currents and “the recent past”. Without mentioning the PRI, he emphasized the orderly change of power since 1934 and “accelerating democracy”, ironically dating from 1968–the year his party massacred hundreds of students in Tlatelolco.
He concluded with what would be the tonic of the speech-that Mexico is “ready to take off” and “everyone agrees that we have an historic opportunity.” His speech centered on the “Mexican Moment”, the idea of a turning point when Mexico would finally enter into a period of peace, prosperity and global recognition.
He did mention the challenges along the way, stating that Mexico is a nation that “grows at two speeds, one of progress and development and the other in backwardness and poverty” and citing the lack of employment and educational opportunities. His speech included a number of specific if not detailed measures that provide fodder for analysis.
Peña Nieto began with the “five strategic points” of his new government:
1. Mexico at peace: Peña offered to “put the citizen at the center of security policy.” He referred to this as a “change in paradigm”, without mentioning the drug war by name or the 60 to 80,000 killed under this model during the Calderon administration. He promised greater coordination between agencies and an effort to combat impunity and concluded, “There can be no security as long as there is no justice.”
2. An inclusive Mexico: Peña Nieto promoted to build an “inclusive” Mexico and close the gap of inequality so all mothers and fathers can support their families. He said Mexico should become a fair, middle-class society.
3. Quality education for all: that educates students to be responsible and committed to their communities.
4. Economic growth: through greater competitiveness, more credit, more investment in infrastructure, strengthening the domestic market and expanding the global market so Mexico can take its place as an emerging economy.
5. Mexico as a responsible global actor: Participation in the world through modern diplomacy, so Mexico becomes a factor of stability in the world and a voice that defends liberty. He also used this point to thank the leaders from abroad present.
Behind the promises
The five points are formulated in vague terms, as is usually the case with presidential promises. However, we can use what was said to anticipate the challenges and possible contradictions they pose, and gauge the political will to carry them out over the next six years.
Security policy. Peña Nieto explicitly referred to “a change in paradigm”. This is notable, since it is what the peace movement and critical analysts (CIP Americas Program among them) have been calling for for years. But there is very little in the strategic point or the “13 decisions” listed afterward to back it up.
A real change in paradigm would require two measures that the Peña government has said it will not take: withdrawing the armed forces from counternarcotics efforts and renegotiating security cooperation with the U.S. government. Peña has proposed a “gendarmery”, which is a militarized police force, or a military force charged with police duties among civilian populations. This is what Mexico already has, as the lines between police and military have been blurred precisely by the drug war. Without a plan for reducing militarization, promises to “rethink” the drug war pale.
The U.S. government has actively promoted and supported the drug war model of enforcement and interdiction through the Merida Initiative and spearheaded the massive expansion of U.S. counternarcotics activities in the country. Although both the US and Mexican governments have privately (in Wikileaks cables) and publicly admitted that the strategy has not worked — they insist it’s just a matter of time–the response is to continue with no major adjustments or real evaluations.
U.S. defense, intelligence and security companies depend on the Mexican drug war to obtain multi-million dollar government contracts. The Pentagon and other U.S. agencies have achieved unprecedented freedom to act and even direct actions on Mexican soil as a result of the Merida Initiative. The hawks in government and the war industry will not give that up easily. Peña Nieto knows that and he also knows that his nation’s economy is highly dependent on its northern neighbor. U.S. politicians worried aloud that his government would attempt to negotiate deals with drug cartels, an option which is practically impossible now due to the changes in structures of organized crime. Peña Nieto has reassured the U.S. that his administration will continue the drug war. That means continued deaths, disappearances and social upheaval. There is no mention of redefining security or human security, although the concept of putting the citizen in the center, rather the state, could be construed as coming closer to that concept.
Referring to the need for justice and eliminating impunity is a politically correct but unsubstantiated move. Impunity underlies government institutions and the corruption of the justice system historically is a PRI construct. Impunity has to be attacked from above, because it has been condoned and even promoted from above for so long. The examples of what has happened to former PRI governors accused of serious crimes against the population such as Ulises Ruiz in Oaxaca and Mario Marín in Puebla and even Peña Nieto himself for his role in the murders and rapes in the community of Atenco are illustrative. Nothing at all has happened to them. The teflon coating of PRI politicians has been carefully preserved, with a few notable exceptions such as ex-governors Tomas Yarrington (charged and on the run) and Mario Villanueva (extradited to the U.S.), who have been prosecuted for drug war crimes at the behest of U.S. authorities.
Economic policy:Making Mexico truly “inclusive” would require some structural changes in economic policy that are not likely to come about in a Peña government. The goal of this strategy is largely contradicted by the formula for economic growth indicated in the fourth point and in other statements by the new president.
He has committed to deepening rather than fixing NAFTA, meaning the countryside will continue to be decimated by unfair competition with subsidized U.S. agricultural imports and the state is barred from basic measures such as favoring national industries in purchases and contracting or protecting vulnerable sectors from oblivion. Strengthening the internal market while expanding the global market sounds great, very balanced, but in reality they require different, and often contradictory, policies.
For example, building a strong domestic market requires supporting national production, which is logical and needed but prohibited under neoliberal trade rules, where Mexico is a world leader in signing draconian free trade agreements. It also requires having a population with purchasing power, while emphasizing foreign investment and being competitive on a global market rigged against workers requires suppressing salaries–something Mexican governments have been doing over the past three decades of PRI and PAN governments.
The laudable goal of investment in infrastructure begs the question of ‘investment for who?’ and leaves open how the administration will deal with controversial infrastructure projects that violate indigenous and human rights. More credit would be a good idea, but up to now what little has been available has gone overwhelmingly to large and powerful producers, further skewing the distribution of income.
Improving education: This requires two major moves–devoting more public resources to education and taking on the entrenched leadership of the corrupt teachers’ union. Several analysts have stated that the appointment of Emilio Chauyfett as Secretary of Education is a blow to Elba Esther Gordillo, the life-long leader of the teachers’ union (SNTE). I am not convinced.
Gordillo is a political operator who climbed to the top by wielding the power of an enormous machine for generating votes and political clientele. This machine was created and sustained by the PRI. Her capacity to exchange favors allows her to call the shots in the nation’s education system. To change that would require democratizing the union. The principle forces to democratize do, and must, come from below. The CNTE, organized to crack open the patronage and corruption of the union, is largely anti-PRI and opposed Peña Nieto. His administration is unlikely to do anything that would strengthen the grassroots union democracy (his party blocked the transparency in union matters part of the labor reform) or permanently alienate the SNTE leadership.
Global affairs: So little of substance was said here that it’s hard to know what the Peña administration will change. The written version speaks of restoring Mexico’s rightful place in the concert of nations” as a “country supportive and committed to the best causes of humanity”. It’s anyone’s guess what that refers to. Peña Nieto told Wolf Blitzer of CNN, who pointedly asked what relations with Castro and Hugo Chavez would be like, that he would be building relations in the south and north. This is a recognition that the PAN governments were early exclusively oriented northward to the U.S. and hostile to center-left governments of the South.
Mexico has at times acted as a U.S. proxy in the region, causing other countries to view it with certain suspicion. The U.S. government has actively used the Mexican government in this sense. As the Obama administration pushes divisions in the region with the Pathways to Prosperity program that allies only nations that agreed to sign free trade agreements with the US and increasing military presence of allied countries under the drug war strategy, it will not be easy for Peña Nieto to trace a neutral or balanced foreign policy within the hemisphere, if that is indeed the objective.
Opposition organizations have vowed to shift their efforts from challenges to the elections to challenges to policies they believe are harmful to the country. The center-left leader and former candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador refused to recognize the new president and is building a new party. The youth movement now is stunned and angered by the violent response of the police while also calling on its members to reject violent confrontation.
The most commonly heard phrase from analysts following Peña Nieto’s inaugural speech, is “the devil’s in the details”. Although Peña Nieto followed up on these five strategic points with 13 decisions that included more specific actions, he still left much room to speculate.
Political promises are often, if not usually, set aside when the real task of governing begins, and one is left to wonder if they were sincere and not practical, or designed to build an image, not a government. The PRI is well-practiced in the art of simulation, of developing a public discourse and a backroom practice.
In any case, the country and the rest of the world now have more clues as to what the return of the PRI will mean for Mexico, for the United States and for the region.
Laura Carlsen is Director of the CIP Americas Program in Mexico City http://www.cipamericas.org.