Argentina launched on Wednesday the final start-up phase for the country's third nuclear plant, as it expands its reliance on nuclear power just as Europe starts to shy away from this technology.
Construction on the Atucha II plant began in the early 1980s but it was disrupted for years, raised by goverments policies and interest , special in Menem ´s times in 1989 , finnancial issues to assist the development
The plant will start producing energy in the second half of 2012 after a series of tests have been run, contributing 700 megawatts to the country's power grid. This will raise nuclear power generation to 10 percent of total capacity from 7 percent now.
"Our country nearly 40 years ago ... unveiled Atucha I, becoming the first Latin American country to operate a nuclear plant," President Cristina Fernandez said in a nationally televised speech on Wednesday.
Argentina's move is counter to action in Europe where countries such asGermany and Italy are moving away from nuclear power in part because of the tsunami damage to nuclear facilities in Japan.
Demand for energy has surged due to brisk economic growth since 2003, and the government has had to supplement local supplies with natural gas from Bolivia, diesel and fuel-oil imports and, increasingly, costly liquefied natural gas.
Energy shortages during the winter months often cool industrial production and economic activity and could prove an obstacle to longer-term growth, analysts say.
Work on Atucha II was revived in 2006 and the government has sunk $2.3 billion into the project, financed at least in part with money from the state pensions administrator, Anses.
Argentina aims to build a fourth nuclear plant, Atucha III, and construction on that would likely begin in late 2013,
- Argentina has two nuclear reactors generating nearly one-tenth of its electricity.
- Its first commercial nuclear power reactor began operating in 1974.
- Completion of the country's third reactor is expected by early 2012.
Electricity consumption in Argentina has grown strongly since 1990. Per capita consumption was just over 2000 kWh/yr in 2002 and rose to over 2600 kWh/yr in 2007. Gross electricity production in 2007 was 115 billion kWh, 54% of this from gas, 27% from hydro, 9.4% from oil, 2.2% from coal, and 6.3% (7.2 billion kWh) from nuclear. In 2008, nuclear power provided over 6.8 billion kWh of electricity – about 6.2% of total electricity generation.
Argentina's electricity production is largely privatised, and is regulated by ENRE (Ente Nacional Regulador de la Electricidad). Installed capacity is about 35 GWe, about 11% of which is from autoproducers and private generators.
Another aspect of the 2006 plan was a move towards building a 27 MWe prototype of the CAREM reactor, and this is now reported to be at pre-construction stage in the northwestern Formosa province1. It is proposed that this prototype will be followed up with a 150 MWe version there.
Developed by CNEA and INVAP (Investigación Aplicada),d the CAREM nuclear reactor is a modular 100 MWt simplified pressurised water reactor with integral steam generators designed to be used for electricity generation (27 MWe net) or as a research reactor or for water desalination. Recent studies have explored scaling it up to 100 or 300 MWe. CAREM has its entire primary coolant system within the reactor pressure vessel, self-pressurised and relying entirely on convection. Fuel is standard 3.4% enriched PWR fuel, with burnable poison, and it is refuelled annually. It is a mature design which could be deployed within a decade.
Argentine uranium resources listed in the Red Book2 total only about 15,000 tU, though the CNEA estimates that there is some 55,000 tU as "exploration targets" in several different geological environments. Uranium exploration and a little mining was carried out from the mid-1950s, but the last mine closed in 1997 for economic reasons. Cumulative national production until then from open pit and heap leaching at seven mines was 2509 tU.
However, there are plans to reopen the CNEA Sierra Pintada mine in Mendoza in the central west, which closed in1997. It is also known as the San Rafael mine and mill. Reserves there and at Cerro Solo in the south total less than 8000 tU. A resumption of uranium mining was part of the 2006 plan, in order to make the country self-sufficient.
In 2007, CNEA reached agreement with the Salta provincial government in the north of the country to reopen the Don Otto uranium mine, which operated intermittently from 1963 to 1981. Block leaching is envisaged.
Australian-based Cauldron Energy Ltd holds leases over 16 km of outcropping uranium-copper mineralisation at Rio Colorado, Catamarca province. This was worked by CNEA in 1950s and 1960s, and Cauldron's exploration target is 6400 tU.
A 150 t/yr mill complex and refinery producing uranium dioxide operated by Dioxitek, a CNEA subsidiary, is at Córdoba.
CNEA has a small conversion plant at Pilcaniyeu, near Bariloche, Rio Negro, with 60 t/yr capacity.
Enrichment services are currently imported from the USA. Over 1983-89, INVAP operated a small (20,000 SWU/yr) diffusion enrichment plant for CNEA at Pilcaniyeu, in the Rio Negro province. This was unreliable and produced very little low-enriched uranium. In August 2006, CNEA said it that it wanted to recommission the enrichment plant, using its own Sigma advanced diffusion enrichment technology which is said to be competitive. The main reason given was to keep Argentina within the circle of countries recognised as having the right to operate enrichment plants, and thereby support INVAP's commercial prospects internationally. It was proposed to restart enrichment on a pilot scale in 2007 and work up to 3 million SWU/yr in three years but, as of 2010, it appears that commissioning will not begin until late 2011.
Production of fuel cladding is undertaken by CNEA subsidiaries. Fuel assemblies are supplied by CONAUR SA, also a CNEA subsidiary, located at the Ezeiza Centre near Buenos Aires. The fuel fabrication plant has a capacity of 150 t/yr for Atucha-type fuel and Candu fuel bundles.
Heavy water is produced by ENSI SE (Empresa Neuquina de Servicios de Ingeniería), which is jointly owned by CNEA and the Province of Neuquén where the 200 t/yr plant is located (at Arroyito). This was scaled to produce enough for Atucha 2 and the three following reactors, and so now has capacity for export.
There are no plans for reprocessing used fuel, though an experimental facility was run around in the early 1970s at Ezeiza.
Regulation and safety
In 1994, the Nuclear Regulatory Authority (Autoridad Regulatoria Nuclear, ARN) was formed and took over all regulatory functions from the National Board on Nuclear Regulation (Ente Nacional Regulador Nuclear, ENREN) and CNEA. As well as radiation protection, it is responsible for safety, licensing and safeguards. It reports to the President.
Argentina is a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) since 1995 as a non-nuclear weapons state, and has been a party to the Tlatelolco Treatye since 1994. However, full-scope safeguards have operated since 1991 in conjunction with the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for the Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC) under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Argentina has not signed the Additional Protocol in relation to its safeguards agreements with the IAEA. The country is a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
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.
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.