NUCLEAR PROTEST. Proposed nuclear waste site on Spanish-Portuguese border sparks protests

The ``for sale'' signs are going up on homes and businesses all over Aldead'avila de la Ribera and neighboring villages. But there are no buyers. For this neglected northwestern Spanish agricultural region has been chosen as the site of the country's first nuclear waste dump.

The decision has provoked violent protest in the area and also stirred a hornets' nest of opposition in neighboring Portugal.

Portugal itself has no nuclear power plants, and one major factor against them is that much of the country lies in an earthquake zone.

The Lisbon government, never totally trusting of its giant Iberian neighbor, is angered and dismayed because the dump will be about a half mile from the Portuguese border and on the banks of the Douro River. This major waterway, rising in Spain, irrigates most of the vineyards making Portugal's famous port wine. The Douro supplies water to the country's second largest city, Porto, and to about one-third of the nation's population living in the region.

``All it needs is for the dump to develop a radiation leak and seep into the water table, and we can say goodbye to the port wine industry, to fishing off the northern coast, and to the agricultural activities of tens of thousands of small farmers,'' a Lisbon environmental official said.

Lisbon, meanwhile, has launched a powerful lobby in Brussels to halt the dump project. European Community (EC) funding of the scheme has stalled following Portugal's protest, and moves are under way to involve the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

Portugal has invoked decisions by the Parliament and the Council of Europe that oblige member states to reach mutual agreement on the siting of any nuclear waste dump if it is closer than 60 miles to a joint border.

Raul Gurrido, mayor of Vilarinho dos Gallegos, about six miles from Aldead'avila, said his and all other towns in the region would become ``ghost towns'' if the government went ahead with its nuclear waste dump proposal. ``Property will devalue and no one will buy food produced here. Residents will have no choice but to move out,'' he said.

The locals vociferously oppose the plan. Antinuclear slogans and skulls and crossbones are smeared around towns and villages on both sides of the border.

The row started in December when Spain asked the EC nuclear energy committee for a $4.8 million loan to meet 45 percent of the cost of a proposed ``nuclear waste laboratory'' at Aldead'avila.

In mid-August, Spain's Industry Minister, Luis Carlos Crossier, said the ``laboratory'' would study the geological formation of the area. Earlier, another senior Spanish official, trying to calm aroused Portuguese public opinion, denied the site was a waste dump and asserted that the laboratory would be ``closed down by the turn of the century.''

On Sept. 12, mayors from 84 regional authorities on both sides of the border will meet in the Portuguese town of Mogadouro (some 10 miles from Aldead'avila) to coordinate joint actions against the plant.

Madrid's argument that the laboratory is a temporary installation and not a nuclear waste dump is viewed skeptically across the border.

Nuno Ribeiro da Silva, head of the Portuguese environment ministry's energy group, called the Spanish ``laboratory'' explanation fallacious.

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