The nuclear debate in Chile

On March 13, 2011 more than 200 people from all around the Aysen region arrived in El Manzano, Chile to show solidarity in the fight against the Hydro Aysen project. Photo: International Rivers. License: Creative Commons. Original: flickr.

April 8, 2011
Michael Alvarez Kalverkamp
On the other side of the Andes, in quake- and tsunami-striken Chile, things have also turned different since March 12th. Chile, which so far doesn´t have any nuclear infrastructure besides two research reactors and a somewhat underfinanced nuclear commission, still depends heavily on gas-, coal- and petrol-fueled electricity production, which makes for almost 60 percent of the total. On the other hand, Hydroelectricity represents around 37 percent, including the big, small and medium hydro-power-generation. Besides, Chile was one of the very few countries in the past to adopt a couple of laws introducing renewables quota for new energy connected to the grid: up to 5 percent on 2010 and 10 percent in 2024.

Nevertheless, and in spite of the different cost-crisis related to gas and petrol in the last years, and in spite of the enormous potential of solar, wind, geothermal and hydro-electricity in this 5.000 km long country along the Andes, the share of renewable energies still lingers around 2,5 percent. This has to do with the only halfhearted attempt in introducing renewables: The laws, besides some other focal subsidies mainly for thermo solar equipment for private housing, basically implement a base-line or minimum of renewable electricity production which the big monopolies have to reach, otherwise having to pay –affordable- fines for not reaching this limit. So far, the idea was to introduce renewables without changing to much within the Chilean energy market structure, highly dominated by a couple of huge monopolies, who bet more on conventional electricity production, including big hydro-electricity. Hydro-power has caused serious concerns and campaigns with citizens specifically related to a huge project of five connected hydropower plants in the southern –patagonian- region of Aysén, which will flood almost 6.000 ha and produce up to 2750 MW.

Following the growing prices for commodities in the last years, mining, and specifically copper mining projects have spread all over the country, being this activity one of the pillars of the Chilean economy. These and possible future projects need high amounts of electricity, which the current energy matrix is supposedly not able to provide. Therefore one of the most active supporters of nuclear energy in Chile is the national mining council (Consejo Minero) the big mining companies association which includes the international ones as Anglo-Amercian, Barrick, BHBilliton and the government-owned chilean CODELCO. The country has experienced a continuous debate, sometimes more, sometimes less intensive, about the sense and needs for nuclear power generation, having reached a new intensity in the last year fuelled by campaign money from international nuclear sellers like French or Russian companies.

The former Concertación-Government, a coalition of Christ- and different Socialdemocratic parties ruling the country for 20 years since its return to democracy, had already given room to thoughts about introducing nuclear energy in Chile, reserving money for some feasibility-studies, nevertheless it did no advance in a more specific planning or an outright decision. Perhaps, as the debate seemed to conflictous, and also -and not to unimportant in frantically free-market-oriented Chile-, as the economics of nuclear power under real market conditions are at least doubtful (see Steve Thomas: in English/in German). The strategy therefore was more centered on kicking it fro to the next government. To the surprise of the Concertación, last year’s elections marked a historic change as they were not reelected, and a new conservative government took over under President Piñera, a business man and shareholder of many of the most important companies in the country. 

Piñera, who had been known also for some environment-friendly ideas –he owns a natural reserve in the south and seemed to be inclined to heavily promote renewables-, nevertheless did not cut down on the nuclear debate, as pressure from interest groups and the two main private media stood high. The argument, funnily enough, was then very much same as under the Concertación-Government: Let us talk and study the nuclear option, but be sure that this government will not introduce it.

A highly seismic country

The cause for introducing nuclear energy in Chile, one would assume, should be weak: A highly seismic country, not having neither an scientific-technological nor an specific institutional infrastructure or experience in nuclear civil protection, and not willing –out of strong ideological reasons- to invest in public affairs or to accept a stronger commitment or participation of the state in economic issues does not seem the most adequate candidate for the costly process of introducing a whole new complex nuclear power infrastructure from scratch.

Although historically, Chilean Society , since the French nuclear testing in the Muroroa Atoll in the Pacific have shown a risingly critical view on nuclear power, astonishing enough after the terrible experience with the Chilean earthquake and tsunami last year public awareness did not relate these events with higher risks for a possible nuclear power plant in this country, partly because of not having one yet and not having been affected directly by the Chernobyl-Accident (as Europe), partly because of a sound self-confidence of technology-friendly Chileans in their capacities.

But March 12th changed things quite radically: Even as on the very first weekend of the nuclear disaster the local media did silence the extent of the disaster in Fukushima in a shameful way by simply repeating in their headlines the calming messages of the Japanese government, Chileans, as they started to read the international press, got growingly concerned about the nuclear dimension in the Japan-disaster. The images of the tsunami in Japan refreshed the painful memory of the own disaster on February 27th in 2010, and the desperate containment attempts in the Fukushima plant as well as the frightening images of mass evacuation around the melted nuclear plants did have a strong impact on the awareness of Chileans – possibly because Japan, being also an seismic country in the pacific region, at the end is much nearer than Chernobyl.

For the government this was not the most appropriate moment for a real public debate on the nuclear future: On March 21first, US-President Obama was expected in Chile for an official visit, and both countries wanted to sign a long-planned cooperation-treaty for training and exchange in nuclear matters. On the weekend before Obamas arrival, environmental NGOs and some members of congress from different parties celebrated press conferences, rejecting the nuclear cooperation between the US and Chile, and some people even gathered for an antinuclear march through the centre of Santiago.

Although the treaty finally was signed, pressure mounts on the government and the interests group by the results of different polls, which show that after Fukushima 86 percent of Chileans are against nuclear power and even 60 percent would not accept it “under any circumstances”. The reasons: For 80 percent of those asked, nuclear power is to dangerous, 50 percent are against it because of the potential military use, 42 percent do believe it to be inappropriate in a seismic country, and interestingly enough, also a more self critical and realistic view came up: 28 percent believe their country is not prepared to respond adequately a disaster similar to that in Japan.

Thus, in Chile, the panorama has become a bit darker for the international nuclear industry and their national supporters, who apparently got the message: in the last days, the quantity of “independent” experts and analysis reclaiming –economically- sustainable solutions for the growing Chilean electricity-needs rose again, indicating that the battle is not over yet.

Mega hydro-electric projects

However, the debate will focus now much more on alternatives, but not necessarily on renewables: Coal-fired power plants, for which the government recently issued a new normative legislation regulating emissions, and of course, mega hydro-electric projects like Hydro-Aysén, which is supposed to have a capacity of 2.750 MW, almost the capacity of three nuclear power stations. Many more critical observers say that in fact this is the real deal – the whole debate on nuclear power in their view is just an attempt of distraction, or better, of paving the way for more acceptance for projects like the highly controversial Hydro-Aysén dams.

The really crucial questions, however, are much more difficult to discuss in the context of this highly concentrated market: First, the issue of energy efficiency – so far, efficiency or energy saving measures are still not seen with all their potential as a net “power producing element”, all the projections for the supposed rising needs in Chile are based on a relatively simple equation: x percent of economic growth = x percent more in electricity, based –more or less- on the consumption standards of past years. There is still not a convincing efficiency strategy in energy policy, concerning government programs which also appoint to subsidize equipment change or, let’s say, measures in energy efficiency in buildings and new constructions – one reason is the mighty principle of a non-interventional state. Another aspect in this context is, of course, the interests of those in the energy business of selling as much MW as possible at the biggest return as possible, as everywhere else in the world.

Secondly, the question of introducing any instrument like the feed-in tariff-systems in Germany to promote renewables seriously and thus opening up markets also for newcomers. Besides the reiterative argument of “technological neutrality” and “Non- Intervention” in the electric market the last point is essential to understand the resistance: The fear of having new, independent competitors playing on the –possibly much more decentralized- ground block the attempts of thinking seriously about new and innovative ways in solving the electricity needs of Chile. As a matter of fact, lack of competition makes Chile the most expensive country in the region in energy: heating a house with gas can easily cost up to 800,- Euro a month, the average price for 1 kwh lays between 0,15 Euro/0,20 US-Dollar and 0,17 Euro/0,24US-Dollar. Different European companies looking for investments in the solar business in the northern part of Chile, with one of the highest solar radiation factors worldwide, claim their price would not be too far from that, and certainly be much less compared to the 0,19 Euro/0,26US-Dollar the local Chilean Electricity company in the north is charging for its fossil-based electricity.

And finally: Energy policy, in this more bottom-down democracy model implemented in Chile after the Pinochet regime, has never been a policy field open to any participative experiments with citizens, besides the consulting activities of specialized NGO. Nevertheless, after the 2008 petrol-price-crisis as well as after the public revolts some months ago in the cold southern Magallanes region (following price increases for gas), and certainly after Fukushima, Chileans, like Germans or citizens in other countries might want to have a say or at least been taken into consideration in these crucial decisions, which will affect many aspects of their live. That will be a challenging exercise for the Chilean democracy, but maybe these are the times for meeting these challenges.