In 1970, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco opened the Santa María de Garoña
nuclear power plant in the Tobalina Valley. On the 16 th December 2012, the plant
was decomissioned, remaining closed ever since.

In the last few years, rumours of its imminent reopening and its permanent closure
have simultaneously flown around. Garoña is used as a political weapon and Spain’s
big electric companies have pulled the strings from behind closed doors to satisfy
their own economic interests. Faced with a total lack of information, there’s a general
feeling of uncertainty amongst workers and also those living near the plant.

And just like in 1970, nobody is taking their opinions into account when making such
enormous decisions about the future of the region.

“Atómica” was operational for 42 years, and its influence has left an undeniable
footprint on the valley. Framed by natural, picturesque surroundings, its physical
presence is striking. However, it has also left a far more subtle, emotional footprint.
You can’t see it, but it’s there in the air, and nobody can ignore it. Only some people
talk about it, even though everybody knows it’s there.
46 years after it opened, Atómica is still posing ideological problems to those living in
the valley. There are issues of security and the economic profitability of the plant, but
at the same time it has become a taboo subject that hides in the shadows. It hides in
the fact that people want to talk about it but can’t, or mustn’t. Hides in the threats. In
the moral contradictions. In the divide and conquer. In the conspiracy theories. In the
fight, the supporters and the opponents.

Even spies.

 

People in the valley don’t think that the plant will become operational again. If, in the
end, it doesn’t, they’ll have to start dismantling the things which in themselves pose
as many risks inactive as they do when active. They’d also need an infrastructure in
place which doesn’t seem to be available at the moment.

Either way, there’s an entirely different problem that worries the valley’s people even
more. At the time of the plant’s opening back in 1970, the population of the valley
stood at 3,000 people. According to INE data, this had fallen to just 1,026 people by
2015.

Out of the 33 towns that make up the valley, only 8 of them have a population of over
20 people, and many of them are now completely abandoned. The aged population
means that the schools don’t have enough children and the access to services,
which was always limited, is now stretched even more. Without industry and with a
population who have largely dedicated themselves to the countryside, the valley is
facing its own demise.

It’s difficult to say precisely how much of an influence the plant has had on this city-
bound migration, but what is clear is that one of the biggest challenges that the
people of Tobalina face is how to attract people to the area, how to open it up to new
industry and tourism, something nobody has done (or been allowed to do) during all
these years despite knowing that the plan had an expiry date.

If this doesn’t happen, a few years from now the valley, with Atómica as a silent
witness, will become nothing more than a summer holiday spot, until the emotional
ties the new generations feel for the land fade away over time.