By Michael S. Lerner
In February 2010, a massive earthquake struck Chile, shifting the Earth's distribution of mass and fractionally shortening the length of a day. This 8.8-magnitude mega-earthquake occurred right off the coast of central Chile and, along with the tsunami it created, caused enormous destruction. Over 500 people died and over 1.5 million people were initially displaced, leaving 200,000 homeless. Its location on the Pacific’s Ring of Fire subjects Chile to frequent and powerful earthquakes, including the biggest one ever recorded—a devastating 9.5 behemoth in 1960 that struck not far from the 2010 quake.
Yet even as post-quake reconstruction efforts were just getting started and other strong earthquakes periodically struck elsewhere in the country, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera continued to express strong interest in nuclear power generation. Piñera’s always-controversial interest in nuclear power continued even after the Fukushima disaster in 2011, which hit a nerve in Chile because it too had been caused by a massive 9.0 Ring of Fire earthquake and resulting tsunami. Many Chileans considered his plans reckless, bordering on insane. Chile’s government subsequently acceded to popular criticism and has sworn off nuclear power completely. “We will not build, we will not plan and we will not define anything relative to nuclear energy policy in Chile during this government,” affirmed Chilean Energy Minister Rodrigo Alvarez Zenteno in October 2011.
By contrast, the three Latin American countries that already had nuclear power plants—Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil—are sticking with them and will likely build more in the future. Meanwhile, all the other nations that pre-Fukushima had expressed strong interest in starting up their own nuclear power plants, or even signed deals with foreign countries for cooperative assistance in building them, have since abandoned and renounced nuclear power.
In Mexico, natural gas will continue to trump nuclear power in the foreseeable future. To help meet its expected near-doubling of domestic demand for electricity by 2026, the country had been considering four options to construct more nuclear power plants. The most ambitious of these had called for the construction of up to 10 additional nuclear reactors by 2028. Currently, Mexico has only two. Operational since 1989 and 1994, the plants are located in the Laguna Verde complex and generate about 5 percent of the country’s electricity. Although the site is in a seismically active area on the Pacific coast, after the Fukushima catastrophe, Mexico thoroughly inspected the plant’s safeguards and found it was safe to continue running. Though Mexico will not turn its back on nuclear energy, it has found additional alternatives.
Within the last year, Mexico has uncovered a bonanza of shale gas, estimated at 11 times its prior reserves. According to U.S. Energy Department estimates, Mexico has 680 trillion cubic feet of shale gas and ranks fourth in the world for largest potential reserves after China, the U.S., and Argentina. Last November, Mexico announced that it rejected all four possible nuclear power options and would instead construct six new fossil fuel power plants and reconfigure others to run on natural gas. Both the costs and building time associated with these natural gas plants will be much lower than those linked to the construction of nuclear reactors.
Still, despite the economics of the moment and the lingering post-Fukushima suspicion surrounding nuclear power, the government has expressed interest in the possibility of building two more reactors at Laguna Verde. While gas prices remain low, and more and more Mexican shale gas plants come online, additional nuclear reactors seem unlikely anytime soon. However, the national energy strategy Mexico unveiled on March 1st advocates a significant role for safe nuclear power in the country’s medium and long-term future. “It is time to put nuclear power on the table,” said Mexico’s Energy Minister Jordy Herrera.
Argentina and Brazil are the only other countries in Latin America with operational nuclear reactors. Fortunately, neither country is vulnerable to earthquakes or tsunamis. The Argentine and Brazilian nuclear programs date back to the 1970s and 80s, when the two neighboring countries—both then governed by right wing military dictatorships—were simultaneously cooperating partners (on combating leftist “subversives,” for example) and rivals. They engaged in civilian nuclear power electricity generation as well as covert nuclear weapons programs, which they thankfully renounced in the early 1990s in favor of peaceful cooperation and greater transparency.
In light of increasing demand and the need to diversify energy supplies, Argentina is continuing to slowly but steadily expand its number of nuclear power plants. Its first plant, Atucha I, came online in 1974, followed by Embalse in 1984. In September 2011, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner “inaugurated” Argentina’s third nuclear reactor, Atucha II. The plant had languished in an incomplete state for years until 2006 when its construction was revived under a new nuclear plan. The president said that Atucha II used to be a “symbol of postponement” and a site “full of owls and rats,” but now proudly demonstrated the recovery of “the most important bastion of Argentine technological development.” The plant may be more than 24 years behind schedule but is now confidently estimated to begin operations in late 2012. Once it comes online, nuclear power will account for 10 percent of the country’s electricity needs. Argentina is considering plans to build a fourth plant. Atucha III would become operational in 2016-17 while a smaller nuclear reactor called CAREM, initially designed for submarines, would concurrently be developed. Undeterred by Fukushima, and aiming to avoid an over-reliance on fossil fuels, Kirchner’s government hopes that by 2025, Argentina will get at least 15 percent of its electricity from nuclear power.
The future of nuclear power may be brightest in Brazil. Rapidly growing in terms of GDP and international clout, the country currently has two nuclear reactors, Angra I and Angra II. Together, they generate three percent of the country’s electricity. A third reactor, Angra III, is under construction, and if all goes to plan, it will begin operations in 2015. The Brazilian government views nuclear power as an essential component of its future energy supplies, predicting large increases in the country’s demand for electricity in the coming decades. "We're going to need more nuclear, coal, and thermal energy. Nuclear energy is going to come back into focus soon," says Leonam Guimaraes, a high-level Brazilian nuclear official.
Besides forecasting having reached the upper limit of its hydroelectricity potential by 2030 (from which Brazil currently gets 91 percent of its electricity), the country also wants to take advantage of its huge uranium deposits, which rank sixth in the world. Earlier this year, however, the government tactfully put its plans for four additional reactors on hold for 18 months to incorporate higher post-Fukushima safety considerations in its existing and future plants. Having achieved that, the government believes that the precise location for the four new plants will be determined by 2015. "The Fukushima accident doesn't systematically change the basic framework, or the context in which countries take decisions [about nuclear power]," attested Guimaraes.
Uruguay, a small country with limited power generating options, also submitted its exploratory plans for nuclear power to the IAEA in February 2011. However, nuclear power is actually banned by law in Uruguay, and the Fukushima crisis makes it all but certain that the ban will be not revoked in the near future, if ever.
Most dramatic was the case of Venezuela’s aborted attempt at developing nuclear power. Reveling in any chance to thumb his nose at the U.S., President Hugo Chávez signed a general agreement on nuclear power with Russia in 2008, and a nuclear cooperation agreement with Iran in 2009. Venezuela and its two long-standing allies all claimed these agreements were for strictly peaceful power generation purposes only. Regardless of any potential ulterior motives, these deals were largely symbolic, intended merely to establish a framework for future cooperation.
Things started to get serious only in October 2010, when Russia and Venezuela signed a landmark deal: The Russian state corporation Rosatom would build two nuclear reactors for Venezuela, in exchange for further privileged access to Venezuela’s plentiful supplies of oil, natural gas, and other resources. Unconvinced by Russia and Venezuela’s insistence that this nuclear power plant would be used exclusively for peaceful purposes, the U.S. and its allies were highly alarmed and strongly disapproved of the deal. Colombia immediately opened up the first Nuclear Security Center in South America and warned that its neighbor’s nuclear development posed a major threat to the region.
Meanwhile, Chávez was delighted by the media spotlight. He asserted that he was acting to diversify Venezuela’s energy sources in defiance of the U.S. “We are still too dependent on oil because the Yankee empire imposed this model on us,” he said, before proclaiming that “nothing will stop us” from developing nuclear power. Nothing, until Fukushima. Shortly after the disaster, Chávez cancelled the Russian plan to build a nuclear power plant in Venezuela, saying that nuclear power “is something extremely risky and dangerous for the whole world.”
Echoing the plans of its fellow anti-U.S. ally Venezuela, Bolivia had announced in October 2010 that it would, with the help of Iran, build a nuclear power plant strictly for peaceful purposes. Western and Israeli analysts feared that a secret reciprocal part of the deal would be to send Bolivian uranium to Iran for its nuclear weapons program. These rumors were strenuously denied by Iran and Bolivia. But in the aftermath of Fukushima, Bolivia, like Venezuela and Peru, canceled all plans involving possible investments in nuclear power.
Cuba has had a chronic energy crisis for decades, and to address these in the past it had signed an agreement with the Soviet Union to build two nuclear reactors. Construction began in 1983 but was halted in 1992, when the Soviet Union collapsed and its massive aid to Cuba dried up. Since then, all attempts at restarting the project have failed. In 2000, Russia and Cuba finally agreed to abandon their efforts. Now it seems that Fukushima will keep Cuba firmly away from nuclear power. “Nuclear plants should not be built, because they are very dangerous objects,” declared Fidel Castro on March 1st of this year.
After Fukushima, nuclear power has lost momentum in many parts of the world, including Latin America. All of the countries that were undecided or about to start their own programs have abandoned their plans. But Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina—the three largest economies in Latin America, and the ones who already had nuclear power plants—are moving forward with their nuclear ambitions. Overall, it is for the better that certain contenders dropped out—that way, the region at least avoids much higher potential risks of nuclear weapons proliferation or devastating earthquake damage to reactors.
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Michael S. Lerner is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of Flickr]