Laguna Verde nuclear power plant in Veracruz state, Mexico.
Nuclear Energy Reborn
By Diego Cevallos*
Argentina, Brazil and Mexico have announced construction of new atomic reactors for generating electricity. Environmentalists warn about safety risks.
MEXICO CITY, Oct 2 (Tierramérica).- Just 3.1 percent of Latin America's electricity comes from nuclear sources, but if expansion plans in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico succeed, that proportion could more than double in a decade -- much to the annoyance of environmentalists.
Carried by the global wave towards nuclear energy, pushed by high petroleum prices, Brazil is proposing construction of the country's third reactor, while Argentina and Mexico will go from two to four nuclear energy plants.
Brazil, one of the nine countries worldwide that enriches uranium -- the essential input for nuclear energy --, is trying to make expanded production viable. And Argentina is picking up enrichment efforts begun in the 1980s, but halted in 1992.
The nuclear plants in operation, with second-generation technology, had an estimated useful life of 15 to 20 years in the case of Mexico, and 30 to 40 years in Argentina and Brazil. But the plans imply prolonging their operation up to 60 years in some cases.
The criticisms from ecologists, led by the environmental watchdog Greenpeace, point to the danger of accidents, the inevitable accumulation of toxic waste, and the lack of transparency that usually surrounds any nuclear activity.
There is no effort to conceal, but "because it involves strategic industries with national security issues, there is information that is not appropriate to be made available to the public," Mexico's under-secretary for electricity, José Acevedo, said in an interview.
The Mexican government announced in early September a plan to build two reactors, which would begin operating in 2010, and opened bidding for expanding the capacity of the two that have been in operation since the 1990s, at the Laguna Verde plant, 290 kilometers northeast of the capital. Five percent of Mexico's electricity is supplied by those nuclear reactors.
In August, the Argentine government launched a similar plan, which includes completing construction of an unfinished nuclear power plant, studying the feasibility of opening a new one, and also producing enriched uranium.
The two plants in Argentina supply seven percent of that country's electrical consumption: Atucha I, 100 km from Buenos Aires, and Embalse, in the north-central province of Córdoba.
Built in 1974, Atucha I was the first nuclear-electrical plant in Latin America. Its productive life was originally set at 32 years, but government authorities plan to extend it to 42.
Embalse began production 1984 and its operating license expires in 2014. The government's plan is to invest 600 million dollars to complete Atucha II, on which construction began in 1981 but was abandoned in the 1990s.
Brazil, with the sixth largest reserve of uranium in the world, wants to become a major producer of this strategic nuclear fuel.
Two nuclear reactors operate in Brazil, on the beach of Itaorna, in Angra dos Reis, 130 km west of Rio de Janeiro. Angra I, inaugurated in 1985, and Angra II, in 2000. Together they provide about four percent of the electricity consumed in Brazil. Equipment for Angra III has already been purchased.
The nuclear power plants are second generation, with an original useful life of 40 years, but new studies have prolonged it to 60 years. They are safer than the world's first nuclear reactors, and will be surpassed by the third generation, which the United State will begin building in the next few years, says Aquilino Senra, nuclear engineering professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
Nuclear scientist Juan Luis Francois, of the Autonomous National University of Mexico, sees this as good news.
"There are currently 435 reactors in the world functioning safely and efficiently, despite statements like those from Greenpeace, a group that handles information in a way that is quite tendentious and not very clean," commented the expert.
But Guilherme Leonardi, coordinator of Greenpeace-Brazil's climate and energy campaign, maintains that faults and accidents are "inherent to nuclear technology."
Embalse and Atucha I in Argentina have suffered imperfections and accidents over the years. Mexico's Laguna Verde plant has seen administrative and security mistakes, as well as some fissures in the plant itself, according to reports from the World Association of Nuclear Operators, cited by Greenpeace.
But the government says they were minor observations and have already been corrected.
The waste from nuclear power plants will always be a problem, with the risk of accidents or theft, which in Leonardi's opinion defines the industry as "dirty, dangerous, and surpassed by alternative sources like wind and solar," and furthermore, "very expensive".
In the three Latin American countries, the waste is accumulating in storage sites at the plants themselves, and their final disposal has yet to be determined, because the governments assure that they have the capacity for storage for several decades.
But the case of Laguna Verde in Mexico is one of "a very unsafe plant," where storage sites are full, says Arturo Moreno of Greenpeace-Mexico.
Mexico's electricity under-secretary Acevedo assured that "around the world the waste is kept in storage adjacent to the plants until a definitive policy is developed," which does not exist "anywhere in the world," he said.
Francois mentioned "very advanced" studies about transmuting the waste (reducing and even eliminating its radioactivity) with technologies that could be available in 15 to 20 years.
But that doesn't convince the environmentalists. Juan Casavelos, coordinator of Greenpeace-Argentina's energy campaign, maintains that "in the nuclear arena, everything is cause for worry."
There is a lack of transparency in official information, and the evidence of errors and accidents at the nuclear plants is hidden, he said.
Furthermore, say activists, in addition to the inevitable link with its use in weapons, nuclear development fell out of favor in 1986, when a reactor collapsed at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine, causing the worst accident in the industry's history, leaving thousands of victims and contaminating the water and soil across a broad area.
Since then, environmental activism closed ranks against atomic energy. But now, that movement itself has developed some fissures.
Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace, and the late Hugh Montefiore, who was trustee of the international network Friends of the Earth, spoke out in recent years in favor of nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels because it does not produce climate changing greenhouse gases.
The International Energy Agency, made up of wealthy countries and major petroleum consumers, will propose ending the virtual global suspension of nuclear development in its annual report in November, say sources close to that organization.
Several European countries and the United States have returned to nuclear energy in reaction to the high costs of fossil fuels and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, an argument also wielded in Latin America by Chile, whose President Michelle Bachelet called for studying the feasibility of nuclear power.
Worldwide, 16 percent of electricity comes from nuclear sources, while the six reactors operating in Latin America supply 3.1 percent for the region, according to the Latin American Energy Organization.
In the opinion of Francisco Carlos Rey, vice-president of Argentina's National Atomic Energy Commission, the negative responses are the result of myths, fueled in part by the Chernobyl incident.
The degree of safety at nuclear power plants today is 100 percent, he said.
* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent. Additional reporting by Maricel Drazer in Argentina and Mario Osava in Brazil. This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS - Inter Press Service and IFEJ - International Federation