Hydropower remains the most important source of energy in Latin America, with nuclear power contributing only three percent of the energy mix in Brazil and Mexico, and seven percent in Argentina. But both traditional civilian nuclear powers as well as nuclear newcomers are building, or planning to build, new nuclear power plants. Indeed, a civilian nuclear program can serve a multitude of purposes, from energy production to uses in medicine and agriculture.
Yet indigenous nuclear programs are not the norm in the region. The two nuclear reactor blocs in Mexico, the second biggest economy in Latin America, are both American-built. Only Brazil and Argentina have the knowledge and means required to finance such an expensive program on their own.
Brazil has steadily broadened the scope of its nuclear program in recent years. In 2009 the Lula Administration charged the state-owned company Eletronuclear with the construction of Brazil’s third reactor bloc in the state of Rio de Janeiro, which also contains a uranium enrichment facility. In the medium term, several more reactors are planned all over the country. Brazil is planning to use indigenous reactor technology in navy submarines, which will allow the vessels to function more efficiently and stay submerged for longer periods. Brazil mastered the complete nuclear fuel cycle in 2006, which freed it from the need to import processed uranium from abroad and opened the door to exports of low-enriched uranium to other parts of the world.
In Argentina, the Kirchner administrations reactivated the national nuclear infrastructure in 2006. A new research reactor was built in Bariloche, heavy water production commenced in Neuquén, and nuclear power plants in Formosa and a repository in Patagonia entered the planning stages. In the province of Buenos Aires, construction on a second reactor bloc has begun, as has planning for a third bloc with the help of France or Russia. Uranium enrichment will resume at the facility in Rio Negro province by the end of 2011.
Argentina must generate more electricity to satisfy rising demand – it already has a trade deficit in oil, while gas exports are also falling – and it plans to sell any electricity surpluses as well as its own reactor products abroad, having already exported small nuclear reactors to Algeria, Australia and Egypt.
The nuclear renaissance in Latin America today should not be regarded as a technological competition, but rather as an example of cooperation that is manifest in other policy areas as well. In this context, Brazil and Argentina deepened their nuclear cooperation by agreeing in 2008 to create a binational state-owned company for the enrichment of uranium, and in 2011 to jointly build two research reactors for medical purposes.
Of course, both countries have economic incentives to complete this expensive task, beyond their energy requirements. Argentina is promoting its own high-tech research base to establish a competitive export industry for nuclear as well as space technologies. Brazil is strengthening its technological foundation in the fields of aeronautics, shipbuilding, submarines, nuclear energy in order to assert its status as a regional power.
But while Argentina’s nuclear program has not aroused suspicions internationally, there are doubts in the West of the true nature of Brazil’s nuclear program, especially the miniaturization of its reactor technology for use in submarines (a decades-old Brazilian dream) and the secrecy surrounding its uranium enrichment technology.
It is true that nuclear activities can range from a complete atomic program with both civilian and military dimensions, to a less ambitious program for electricity generation and research. However, after Argentina and Brazil returned to democracy in 1983 and 1985, respectively, their nuclear military capabilities have been dismantled. In the context of Latin America, where a nuke-free zone was established in 1967 and a regional nuclear watchdog was created in 1991, civilian programs have received almost all the investment in nuclear technology. Many years have passed since nuclear weapons were regarded by national elites as a currency of power that would earn them a seat at the high tables of global governance.
Nuclear programs have many advantages beyond energy security. They virtually guarantee autarky and autonomy, export opportunities and international prestige – but they do not threaten the paradigm of cooperation that prevails in the region.After almost thirty years of confidence-building measures by the nuclear-capable states, regional cooperation and national interests can coexist. The rivals of yore have become partners.
Christian Rieck is a research fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA).
A longer version of the article, co-written with Mariana Carpes, is available for download here (in German). Another article on nuclear energy in Latin America was published on atlantic-community.org last week.