Nuclear power is not a prevalent source of energy in Latin America. Currently, there are just seven nuclear power reactors in operation, producing just 2.2% of total energy consumption in Latin America: three in Argentina, two in Brazil and two in Mexico. However, it seems that nuclear power around the Western hemisphere is driven by a desire to find alternatives to low fossil fuel prices and CO2 emissions altogether. Are we talking about a nuclear revival? Lilian Sol Cueva takes a look.
Argentina and Brazil started their nuclear efforts in the 1970s and 1980s under right-wing military dictatorships that were supported by Canada and Germany, with whom they had signed nuclear agreements. In the early 1990s, after the fall of the military dictatorships, both countries engaged in peaceful nuclear power cooperation plans to generate electricity. Meanwhile, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mexico crystallized its nuclear efforts as an option to diversify its energy matrix.
In August 2006, Argentina’s government adopted a nuclear energy policy that encompassed the development of three new nuclear power plants and a USD 3.5 billion strategic nuclear plan. In 2012, the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) and Nucleoeléctrica Argentina signed a memorandum of understanding to develop a third and fourth nuclear plant at Atucha, Buenos Aires. In 2014, another memorandum of understanding was signed with Russia to explore the possibility of a fifth unit at another site of Buenos Aires. In 2015, negotiations ended with both China and Russia, and both memorandums became cooperation agreements to be implemented in the following years. Currently, Argentina may seek to double or triple existing nuclear capacity, which is 4.5% of the electricity produced.
Brazil, too, anticipates building new reactors in the next two decades. Electricity from nuclear sources currently accounts for 2.4% of the total electricity production. In 2006, the government announced plans to build four new nuclear reactors, starting with Angra 3. In 2010, at the same time that Angra 3 obtained its construction license, the company Eletronuclear (a subsidiary of the company Electrobrás) proposed the construction of eight new nuclear plants by 2030 (including some of the proposed in 2006) and a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. In 2015, the Angra 3 plant was already half completed. However, in mid-2016, the construction schedule was postponed to 2018, due to the corruption investigations involving Eletronuclear. Currently, the eight new nuclear units are still waiting Congress’ approval, despite Eletronuclear discussions on potential nuclear energy deals with foreign companies CNNC and ROSATOM (Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy corporation).
In 2014, Bolivia’s president Evo Morales surprised the world when he announced its interest in including nuclear power in its national energy mix. The National Nuclear Program includes three main projects: deploying a cyclotron (particle accelerator) and increasing the use of nuclear applications in medicine, agriculture and industry; building a small modular reactor (SMR) or small nuclear power reactor to foster scientific research and technology; and a nuclear power program for the long term. At the end of 2014, Bolivia’s government and France’s Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies Commission (CEA) signed letters of intent on nuclear technology. Later on, in October 2015, ROSATOM and the Bolivian Ministry of Energy signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperating to provide training and assistance, and possible construction of nuclear plants. In March 2016, it was decided that the USD 300 million nuclear plant to scientific research would be constructed by 2020 in El Alto with ROSATOM Support.
Several years ago, Uruguay, Chile and Cuba also started exploring the option of introducing nuclear power; however they have halted these plans partly due to the Fukushima incident in 2011. In Uruguay, nuclear power is still banned by law and in Chile, discussions are being held on whether nuclear energy is a viable option for the country or not. Cuba had signed an agreement with the Soviet Union to build two nuclear reactors, but the construction was halted in 1992, when the Soviet Union collapsed. In 2012, Fidel Castro declared that “nuclear plants should not be built, because they are very dangerous objects,” and all nuclear efforts in Cuba were abandoned.
Much like Uruguay and Cuba, Mexico has decided to stop the construction of 10 new nuclear plants. Mexico’s withdrawal from these plans for economic reasons, as the total cost of gas and oil combined-cycled is significantly cheaper than building new nuclear power plants. According to the US Energy Information Administration, the total overnight cost in 2015 of nuclear energy was USD 6,108, while it was only USD 1,080 for oil and gas combined-cycled energy. In Mexico just 4% of the electricity supplied is produced by nuclear power.
In conclusion, Latin America is no exception to a global trend that sees nuclear energy a clean option to save the climate. But just as in other places, new nuclear power plants will require political, financial and public support, which is not currently the case in many of the countries mentioned above. More work needs to be done to highlight the real costs associated with building a new nuclear power fleet, and the risks involved. Valuable alternatives, such as renewable energies, will have to be developed and seriously discussed further.
Lillian Sol Cueva is a Mexican citizen and holds a degree in International Relations from the National Autonomous University of Mexico and a master’s degree in Humanitarian Action from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Her professional experience includes work in public policy, human and womens rights, sustainable development, energy and climate change. She has gained professional experience as a researcher, project coordinator, volunteer and public official in several national and international NGOs, as well as the Mexican government.