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Basque workers on nuclear plant replaced with foreign technicians

Basque workers are to be taken off Spain's nuclear power plant Lemoniz and replaced with foreign technicians.

This decision was taken after terrorists gunned down the plant's project director and employees refused to go back to work, thus halting work on the nearly finished plant.

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The plant's future was settled in a prolonged meeting involving Spain's largest private utility, Iberduero, which owns Lemoniz; the central Madrid government; and the regional Basque government, which controls the plant but does not have ownership.

Iberduero announced May 13 that all present contracts have been suspended and work will resume in about three months when new technicians, probably with foreign companies specializing in hardship conditions, can be contracted. Security measures will also be stepped up.

Several options were debated at the meeting. Iberduero favored simply shutting down Lemoniz while negotiating nationalization. The $1.5 billion plant, which represents half of Iberduero's assets, has been draining the company, with losses exceeding $400 million last year in addition to the $2 billion the company has sunk into the twin unit project.

On the morning of the meeting, terrorists belonging to Euzkadi ta Azkatasuna or ETA (Basque Homeland and Freedom) bombed the main Iberduero power installation, causing a blackout in half of the Basque city of San Sebastian. It affected more than 70,000 users. Damage was considerable and will take ''a while'' to repair.

Both the Madrid and Basque governments had refused to consider nationalization as an alternative because it would constitute a major victory for terrorism. Militarization of the area and personnel had also been considered but rejected.

The suspension of all construction on the 930-megawatt unit, which is 96 percent finished, will affect some 7,000 workers. Iberduero will reassign its own 700 employees to other projects and centers. Another 2,300 workers and technicians had been subcontracted exclusively for Lemoniz.

Some Spanish politicians and businessmen have voiced concern over the issue of transferring Iberduero employees to other projects. Although they understand the anxiety employees have felt, the action sets a dangerous precedent, they claim.

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For example, two telephone company delegates in the Basque region have been murdered by ETA gunmen, but employees have not abandoned their jobs nor have they asked for transfer. Businessmen argue that employees are free to quit. They question the legality of refusing to work while collecting full salary, which Lemoniz employees did for a year.

The Basque regional government had formally asked for a popular referendum on Lemoniz, claiming the vote would go in favor of the plant. This was rejected by Madrid and, as an alternative, the Basque government was granted public control of Lemoniz without ownership.

The Basque government has supported finishing Lemoniz. Once it was working at full capacity, the plant would meet more than 80 percent of the Basque electric energy demand. Extremely energy deficient, the Basque region produces barely 5 percent of the energy it consumes.

But completion of construction may not end the problems. Already people are asking, ''Then what?''

Lemoniz may be facing only the beginning of an endless battle. So far, pressure from the Madrid and Basque governments has prevented Iberduero from surrendering and closing down the plant indefinitely.

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