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ARGENTINA: Nuclear Power Loaded with Question Marks

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Oct 24 2006 (IPS) - Argentina has begun hiring engineers, chemists, physicists, technicians and communications and environmental experts in its nuclear industry, which has been paralysed since the 1990s. But in the face of this enthusiasm, activists are wondering if there will be more safety and transparency this time around.

Although one of the arguments for resurrecting nuclear power in the country is the need to curb climate change, caused by burning fossil fuels, most environmentalists say nuclear energy is potentially hazardous, and creates a long-term latent threat in the form of radioactive waste.

But nuclear experts are convinced that atomic energy is the cleanest and safest source of energy in the world. And the Néstor Kirchner administration has chosen to listen to their view, announcing in August a plan to reactivate nuclear power stations and the start of production of its inputs: heavy water and enriched uranium.

Argentina was a pioneer in nuclear energy production in Latin America. In the mid-20th century, the state began to invest in research and development, and in 1974 the region’s first atomic power station, Atucha I, was brought on-line. It produces 357 megawatts, and is located in the eastern province of Buenos Aires.

In 1984 a second power station, Embalse, began to operate in the central province of Córdoba, generating 648 megawatts.

Construction of Atucha II, on the same site as Atucha I, began in 1981, but it was abandoned in 1994 because of lack of funds and political will on the part of the rightwing government of Carlos Menem (1989-1999).

Argentina had originally planned to build a total of six nuclear reactors, but the plan was not completed. During the 1980s, interest fell off because of the country’s abundant supply of natural gas, and in the 1990s the state decided not to proceed with an activity requiring such large investments.

In 1994, Menem removed the nuclear power stations from the aegis of their parent organisation, the National Atomic Energy Commission (CNEA), in order to put them up for public tender. The sale failed, and the power plants were left to the management of the Nucleoeléctrica company, financed by the state.

The paralysis of the industry had an impact on energy output. The share of electricity generated by nuclear energy in Argentina fell from 15 percent in the 1980s to eight percent today.

Now the centre-left Kirchner administration plans to finish building Atucha II, which will generate 745 megawatts, by 2010, and to prolong the useful lives of Atucha I and Embalse. It is also planning feasibility studies for a fourth nuclear power station, and has announced the re-launch of heavy water production and uranium enrichment.

In an interview with IPS, engineer Darío Jinchuk, spokesman for the CNEA, recognised that the plan is a great boost to the industry. “CNEA stopped hiring in the 1990s, and the average age of our staff is now 54. At the peak of our activities there were 5,000 people working here; now there are only 1,900,” he said.

Many of the people trained at CNEA on state scholarships went abroad or changed careers.

The 60 vacancies and 68 scholarships on offer have created a buzz in the sector. Nuclear engineers are wanted, but so are specialists in civil, chemical, industrial, environmental, electronic and mechanical engineering.

CNEA is also recruiting physics and chemistry graduates, accountants, experts in environmental safety, technicians to operate the power plants, advanced students in those areas, and lawyers specialised in the field, as well as public relations staff.

According to Jinchuk, restarting the nuclear power industry is consistent with the current international scenario and with local needs. Globally, he said, hydrocarbon reserves are beginning to run out, fossil fuel prices are rising steeply, and the regions where they are produced are unstable. He also mentioned their environmental effects in terms of global warming.

Within Argentina there are other factors which also make it good sense to revive nuclear power. “The economy is growing at eight percent a year, and energy demand is increasing at four or five percent a year,” the CNEA spokesman explained. “Private investment is very limited, so the state has decided to take it upon itself to do this.”

And not only by means of traditional nuclear power stations. Jinchuk hoped that at last there would be funding for a prototype of a small reactor that generates electricity.

Argentina manufactures and exports reactors to make radio-isotopes, but the CNEA is designing one for electricity generation that is still at the blueprint stage.

With regard to safety, he said that “technology has improved a great deal” since the 1980s.

“There are multiple independent safety systems, and several containment barriers. There are automatic systems that don’t need to be activated by operators,” he said.

Referring to the fears of activists who are critical of the government for not performing environmental impact studies before extending the life of the nuclear power stations that are ready to come off-line, Jinchuk said that this was normal practice.

“In the United States there are 102 nuclear power stations, and half of them will have their useful life extended,” he said.

But there are other questions which have still not been answered. Nuclear power stations appear to have a built-in dislike of public scrutiny, a characteristic that makes them considerably more frightening. IPS tried to talk to a member of the board of Nucleoeléctrica for a week, but was unable to get past the public relations officer.

The company’s website is “undergoing construction,” and gives no in-depth information. “For 12 years, Nucleoeléctrica has been generating clean, safe energy,” the welcome page reads, while playing soothing background music.

Jinchuk said the big bogey that plagues the industry is the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine, when it was still under the dominion of the now dismantled Soviet Union.

“Since then there hasn’t been any accident that serious, with leakage of radiation, and that reactor didn’t have proper safety measures,” he noted

Proof of the soundness of the industry, he said, was that there are 443 nuclear power stations worldwide, and another 33 under construction, without a single accident. “All human activity has an impact on the environment; that impact will be greater or less depending on how well the state oversees and controls it,” he acknowledged.

“The state must ensure that the industry operates within appropriate safety standards,” he remarked. In Argentina, the body responsible for supervising nuclear activity is the Nuclear Regulatory Authority, created in 1996.

Once Atucha II is completed, the proportion of energy generated by nuclear power could rise from eight to 12 percent, assuming energy from other sources remains the same – an unlikely event as the government has called on private companies to build new thermal generating stations and is investing in hydropower plants.

“Those of us who work in the nuclear industry would like to see our share reach 17 percent, which is the world average for nuclear power, and ideally 35 percent, which is the European average,” Jinchuk said. In France, nearly 80 percent of electricity is produced by atomic power stations.

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