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Argentina: Uncertainty about the nuclear future

Argentina has been one of the first countries worldwide to build up a nuclear infrastructure since the 1950s. But after Fukushima, and in the context of possible financial restrictions in the coming years, the ambitious nuclear expansion plan presented by the government in 2010 of at least two more 700+ MW reactors seems less likely to be executed.

Argentina has been one of the first countries worldwide to build up a nuclear infrastructure since the 1950s, focusing in the first years on R&D and different non-energy nuclear applications. Until the events in Fukushima, Japan on March 12th 2011, nuclear activities were not really in the centre of public debates, as they are seen, mainly by the political elite and some media, as a prestigious bridge to other high-tech-applications and essential part of scientific-technological progress - although Business sector is not deeply involved and military use or proliferation has never been a real issue. Nevertheless, Argentina’s three nuclear power plants only provide around 7 percent of the country’s national power production. After Fukushima, and in the context of possible financial restrictions in the coming years, the ambitious nuclear expansion plan presented by the government in 2010 of at least two more 700+ MW reactors seems less likely to be executed.

Nuclear activities have a long history in Argentina, starting with the creation of the CNEA, the Comisión Nacional de Energía Atómica (the National Commission on Atomic Energy), through a presidential order issued by Juan Domingo Perón in his first presidency in 1950. The creation of the CNEA was part of wider initiative in investing in R&D and education as part of creating strong and wide scientific and technological capacities and knowledge as a base for industrialization and import substitution.

In its first years, the CNEA concentrated the scientific nuclear activities of various universities and focused on the development of a series of research centers and several research reactors. Up to now, the CNEA operates five of these research reactors in different parts of the country, one of the most important being the Atomic Centre in Ezeiza near Buenos Aires. On the other hand, the CNEA has developed, in its 60 years of existence, different research areas for nuclear applications in medicine, agriculture, food-radiation and also a centre for nanotechnology. Today, it also supports an observatory in an international research project on cosmic radiation.

Mining and Uranium Resources

In the early stages, the CNEA was also in charge of exploring and mining the Argentinian uranium reserves, mainly in the provinces of Mendoza, Salta, Córdoba and the southern province of Chubut, with the subsequent contamination impacts on the territories. In the 1990s, due to the US-Dollar parity of the national Peso, general production costs in Argentina soared, which together with cheaper uranium imports from international markets caused the shutdown of all uranium mining activities in Argentina. Only in the last years since the recovery (and flanked by a devaluated peso) new plans developed to reopen uranium mining activities within Argentina for domestic use, possibly in joint public-private ventures, and there are already exploration activities under way. The total Uranium reserves in Argentina are estimated by the IAEA at 7,080 metric tons, being the biggest Cerro Solo, in the southern Chubut province, and other older and problematic ones in Mendoza and Cordoba, New mining projects, like for example in the northern Jujuy province are, however, being firmly resisted by local civil society.

Large-Scale Nuclear Energy Production

There are two large-scale nuclear power plants that have been operating in Argentina since 1974 and 1984, respectively: the 335 MW plant Atucha I near Buenos Aires, and the 648 MW plant Embalse, near Cordoba.

The construction of a third, 750 MW reactor called Atucha II started in 1981, but lack of financing halted production various times until it was abandoned indefinitely in 1994, though by that time nearly 80 percent of the plant had been completed. The same year, 1994, CNEA transferred its responsibility for large-scale nuclear energy production and the administration of the two plants to Nucleoeléctrica Argentina SA (NASA), a limited company. This was not a casual coincidence with the new strategic economic orientation of the Menem-Administration, which aimed to drastically cut public spending, privatize and open up markets for imports and thus freeze any ambitions in national high-tech industries subsidized by the state. Plans of selling the shares of NASA to private investors - within in the broader privatization process of the whole energy branch in Argentina - apparently failed because of serious doubts about profitability. Therefore, the company today is still owned directly by the national ministry of energy, i.e. by the state, with up to 20 percent of the shares in the hands of the CNEA.

It was only in 2006 under the new, post-crisis government of president Nestor Kirchner, that a multi-billion Dollar investment-plan in nuclear energy was announced, mainly aimed at completing Atucha II and extending the life-cycle of the first two plants, Atucha I and Embalse. Partly following the spectacular economic recovery and the resulting needs for more electricity, this renaissance of the nuclear sector in Argentina had also a lot to do with, once again, a new strategic orientation in Argentine economic policies, based on more public spending to support demand, a low and competitive exchange rate for its currency, fuelling exports and import-substitution. As this strategy was aimed at reindustrializing the country, it was apparently widely accepted for such a huge amount of money to be poured into two 30-year-old plants which provide less than 10 percent of Argentina’s electricity supply - particularly as it also signaled a restrengthening of the public R&D sector and its academic institutions. Therefore, the argument for nuclear expansion is not only focused on securing an energy supply, but also, and ideologically perhaps more viable, on the added value of being a high-tech-industrial country which provides highly qualified jobs, supports a vast academic-scientific-technological infrastructure and thus secures and broadens technological-scientific sovereignty, with some potentials for the development of other technologies. This has recently been underlined again and again by president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, whose government announced, in 2010, further investments in the nuclear sector and the development of at least two new plants in the coming years in addition to extending support to support the three existing plants.

Current outstanding projects in nuclear electricity production promoted by the CNEA include the development of an Argentine reactor type called CAREM, a smaller and simplified pressurized water reactor of 25 MW production, designed for research activities or focal power supply in remote, non-interconnected areas, and, as the CNEA claims, more adapted to the need of developing countries. There is no information available about the cost-balance under real market conditions, so even if there are plans for a scaling up to 100-300 MW, doubts on the profitability are not unjustified. The 25 MW first of a kind will be built in Atucha site, if ever. This reactor has inherent safety features and should be built with short lead times.

The CNEA also has subsidiary partner companies for fuel production, such as Cordoba-based DIOXITEK, which produces uranium dioxide for fuel assembly and cobalt 60 for medical applications. Fuel assembly is being done by CONUAR for Atucha I and Embalse, while other internal mechanical reactor elements are being built by FAE in the Atomic Centre of Ezeiza at the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

Waste Management

Waste management, although regulated by law, is definitely, as everywhere else, a weak point in Argentina. The CNEA is responsible for the control and supervision of the complete treatment of all nuclear waste in Argentina, and is also responsible for its final storage. The total costs will be covered by a national fund, into which the power plants (i.e. NASA) will have to pay from their revenues - that is, when the fund is finally set up.

So far, the high radiation waste from the two operative plants Atucha I and Embalse are being stored at each plant, in Atucha in a second pool and in Embalse, after some years in the fuel pool, in a dry containment system. All the rest of lower radiation waste from whatever origin in the country (including the research reactors) is treated and stored at the Atomic Centre in Ezeiza, near to the International airport and on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. According to national law the CNEA is theoretically responsible for the waste of the power plants at the end of their life-cycle. Questions about the efficiency and safety of this system seem appropriate, as the Ezeiza Atomic Centre is located in the most densely populated area of Argentina - the recent national census revealed that almost 15 out of 40 million Argentinians - more than one-third of the country’s population - live in the greater Buenos Aires region. Final decisions about mid and high-level radioactive waste disposals have, however, not been taken yet, so that this question is, as everywhere else, one of the more pressing problems.

Especially after a scandal in 2005 on high levels of water contamination with uranium in Ezeiza and Monte Grande, near the Atomic Centre, doubts have risen about the conditions of and safety procedures at the Atomic centre. The response from the CNEA and the Government to the obvious contamination did not help to calm citizens’ worries, as it was marked by obscuring and silencing the real impact. A few years later the provincial government was forced to acknowledge the contamination values measured by independent laboratories, although official reports stated, that there was no contamination from nuclear waste but just high radioactive background level.

The Impact of the Fukushima-Disaster

Even if there is a strong civil-society movement against nuclear energy, linked also to the protests against (uranium) mining, there has never been a broader debate on the future of nuclear energy in Argentina, unlike the debate in Germany. Although there have also been selected incidents with the existing plants as well as the aforementioned water contamination case in Ezeiza, and although polls from 2005 and 2006 show, that almost two-thirds of Argentinians have a critical view on nuclear energy it was not until March 12, 2011 and its aftermath that a broader public questioning, also in the media, of the nuclear sector began in Argentina - contrasting, for example, with the broad public debates on mining projects and their impacts or the debates after Chernobyl. Partly because of the wider and continuous press coverage - in contrast to the silent Chilean media, which support introduction of nuclear energy in this neighboring country - partly because of a sometimes self-critical view on their own society, Argentinians are increasingly worried about nuclear power plants. On Friday, March 25th, residents living near Atucha I organized the first public meetings to question safety issues and emergency plans.

In view of the upcoming presidential elections in October this year, it seems likely that Fukushima and the polls will have an impact on the government’s decision to go ahead with the additional plants announced last year, even if Atucha II, almost finished, becomes operational within the next 12 months. The shifting perspective in Argentina was made clear by the uncertainty about the inauguration act of Atucha II, which before the disaster in Japan was supposedly planned as a strongpoint in the presidential campaign. In recent days, within the government silence has been growing on this as well as on the Japan disaster in general, and it is also doubtful if any other announcements for new projects or plants are made, as new, Post-Fukushima polls on the nuclear issues are expected within the next weeks.

The most convincing argument, however, seems to be financial uncertainty: on the background of increasing budgetary pressure huge investments in the nuclear sector do not seem to likely within the next years - there are other priorities for public spending in Argentina. While this could be good news concerning at least the nuclear complex, the greater task still lies ahead: to define a much more efficient and sustainable energy matrix for Argentina, reducing emissions and reducing dependence on possible future fossile imports.