ZARATE, Argentina (Reuters) - Argentina, whose pioneering nuclear energy program was sidelined for years, has embarked on an ambitious plan to build nuclear power plants again to ease reliance on dwindling fossil fuels.
Argentina opened the first nuclear power plant in Latin America in 1974. But the country stopped at two plants when the technology fell out of favor as accidents such as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster raised safety concerns worldwide.
President Cristina Fernandez’s government is finishing construction on the South American country’s long-stalled third nuclear power plant, and plans to build another two by 2025.
The goal is for 15 percent of Argentina’s power to come from nuclear sources by 2025, up from 6 percent currently, according to official estimates. This would reduce dependence on shrinking natural gas and crude oil reserves, which now account for about 60 percent of Argentina’s electrical power.
Argentina aims to resume mining uranium. It will also start a program to enrich the metal for energy use. This would put it in a small group of countries that includes the United States, Russia, China and Brazil, with access to the full nuclear energy production chain.
“Argentina has all it needs to close the entire nuclear circuit. It could make weapons but no one suspects it will use its nuclear technology for warmongering. It is one of very few countries that enjoys that trust,” said Daniel Montamat, a former energy secretary.
Critics say the government’s plan is too vague, and want more details such as which type of reactors will be used. But many experts believe Argentina is well-positioned to expand its nuclear power industry thanks to home-grown technology, a qualified workforce and a population that is more accepting of nuclear reactors than residents of some other countries.
Argentina aims to finish building its Atucha II power plant by September 2011 and will start work in late 2012 to extend the shelf-life of its Embalse plant, which came on line in 1984.
The time frame for building two additional nuclear power plants has not yet been set.
Rapid growth in Latin America’s No. 3 economy since 2003 has stoked energy demand while low electricity and natural gas rates have discouraged private investment, prompting a steady slide in fossil fuel reserves.
The government has had to ration supplies at times and boost costly fuel imports to avoid power shortages, stoking higher state spending on subsidies and reducing the trade surplus.
Argentina’s fuel imports jumped 69 percent from January through July from the same period of 2009, to total $2.75 billion. The country was expected to import 14 cargoes of liquefied natural gas this year to boost supplies.
“In the case of natural gas, about 10 percent is imported but this represents a third of the total cost. This is because gas imports cost four to five times more than what is paid to local producers,” said Alieto Guadagni, another former energy secretary.
Latin America is home to just five nuclear power plants. Mexico has one, and Brazil, like Argentina, has two and is building a third.
Argentina is resuscitating a uranium enrichment facility in Rio Negro province, which could start producing small amounts late next year. And it hopes to retap the Sierra Pintada uranium deposit, where legal troubles have halted work.
The country also plans to produce small-potency nuclear reactors that could be sold abroad. The National Atomic Energy Commission is about to start building a prototype for these reactors, which would produce 25 megawatts of power and could supply electricity to up to 100,000 people.
“The world is looking more closely at small reactors such as these. In mining, for example, they could be very useful,” said Norma Boero, the commission’s president, adding that Canada has already shown interest in this technology.
Argentina’s two operating nuclear power plants are run on natural uranium as opposed to enriched uranium, which can be used to make bombs. But Argentina plans to adapt as the world turns increasingly to enriched uranium.
“It’s very possible that enriched uranium will be used at our next power plant’s reactors. I think Argentina is very close to joining the ranks of countries that have both fuel cycles,” said Jose Luis Antunez, vice president of state-run Nucleoelectrica Argentina, which manages the production and sale of nuclear power.
The fact that no decision has been made on what reactors will be used, among other things, has sparked some criticism.
“The government hasn’t defined what it will do with uranium mining, it hasn’t defined whether it will use enriched or natural uranium for the plant it wants to build, and above all it has no financing lined up to carry out these endeavors,” said Jorge Lapena, a former state energy official.
“This is not a real plan,” he added.
Additional reporting by Juliana Castilla, Denise Luna in Rio de Janeiro and Robert Campell in Mexico City; Writing by Hilary Burke; Editing by David Gregorio