Nuclear-Free Future

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5 November 1998

Raúl Montenegro

To learn something of Dr. Montenegro’s background, his work, his activism, the most fruitful place to first ask questions would be at the offices of his foes: South America’s pro-nuclear lobby – for, in all likelihood, no one on the continent has done more to cripple their plans.

Dr. Montenegro, 49, is the Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the National University of Cordoba (UNC), and Director of the Master on Environmental Management at the National University of San Luis. He is also a guest lecturer (“Master on Environmental Management of Cities”) at both the National University of Comahue and National University of Mar del Plata. Dr. Montenegro is not only an accomplished natural scientist, but also a gifted writer and speaker. His countless articles, radio talks, and television appearances make credible for the lay understanding the grave dangers uranium holds inherent. Recently, the National University of San Luis (UNSL) granted him a Doctor Honoris Causa, citing the honor “as recognition for achievements in the fields of environment, environmental education and free transfer of scientific background to groups of citizens.” Dr. Montenegro has chaired more than 130 national and international environmental campaigns, is the main founder and current president of FUNAM (Argentina’s Environmental Defense Foundation), and has helped charter numerous environmental NGOs throughout South America.

Dr. Montenegro’s achievements are legion. His scientific acumen and professional media know-how were responsible for detecting, analyzing and publicizing the accidents and regular radioactive releases attending “normal” operations at the Argentinean nuclear plants of Embalse and Atucha 1 (the Tritium-3-contamination of Embalse workers in 1996 is but one chapter of the chronique scandaleuse nucléaire). In 1995, Canada’s Ontario-Hydro submitted plans to erect a 450 MWe Candu 3 nuclear power plant in Guatemala, offering the technology free of charge. Dr. Montenegro rushed to Guatemala City, where, at press conferences, public meetings, and university lectures, he made public his independent environmental impact studies for those candidate regions bordering the proposed nuclear power facility.

“A lone tropical tree is much more complex than a nuclear power station, yet is purely incapable of fatal complication.”

Within a week Guatemala’s National Commission on Environment (CONAMA) rejected the Ontario-Hydro offer. Important also has been Dr. Montenegro’s fight against the implementation of diverse permanent waste disposal sites. One recent victory was the battle he waged, jointly with other NGOs and activists, against the Gastre-Project in Chubut Province, Patagonia.

We also have Dr. Montenegro to thank for bringing to the public’s attention the manner in which shipments of Plutonium-239 had so regularly imperiled South America’s western coastline – a story that captured world headlines.

Dr. Montenegro’s informed illuminations of the nuclear industry’s dark and juggled figures have so turned the tide of Argentinean public opinion that, currently, it is indeed “heavy water” in which the pro-nuclear lobby must swim. His scientific views are shaped by his love for the simple elegance of nature: “A lone tropical tree is much more complex than a nuclear power station, yet is purely incapable of fatal complication.”

Dr. Montenegro has also run up a score of triumphs within another arena-one which natural scientists more regularly shun: the courtroom. In December of 1997 he lodged a complaint against the President of the Atomic Energy Agency of Argentina (CNEA), as well as the director of an experimental power plant. The two men were responsible for running a series of illegal tests at a 25-megawatt facility near the large city of Bariloche. Also, a permanent waste disposal site for low radioactive material in the vicinity of Salinas Grandes was stopped by public and legal action he initiated in 1993. In 1989, largely owing to Dr. Montenegro’s researches, legal actions, and publicity campaigns the uranium mining at Los Gigantes was shut down. During the lengthy public battle, Dr. Montenegro brought to the public’s attention the extent to which mining operation discharges had contaminated the nearby San Antonio River, thereby upsetting the San Roque basin biosphere. The milestone Los Gigantes ruling has proven to be a major stumbling block for the uranium industry; their response: a bomb blew up an independent monitoring station, his car was wrecked, his family threatened. In Argentina, the name Dr. Raúl A. Montenegro has become a synonym for “giant courage in the face of giants.”

Those who wish to honor Dr. Montenegro’s activism and on-going achievement run into an electrifying quandary: was his contribution to the stoppage of the nuclear recycling plant at Ezeiza in 1988 of more significance than the closing of the uranium dioxide plant of Cordoba, expected for 1999?

Was his authoring of environmental protection codes for the municipalities of Cordoba, Corrientes, Salta, and Tigre, of equal importance to his authoring of regulations to create nuclear-free zones (a standing so far adopted by twelve Argentinean cities)? Or, skipping over sundry further examples of Dr. Montenegro’s engagement, is it lastly his ability to mobilize students and followers in and outside of the scientific community into actively participating in making the future nuclear-free?

Ask his foes.

–Claus-Peter Lieckfeld

English version: Craig Reishus