Argentina – a possible return to new nuclear?

15 October 2013 by Steve Kidd

Despite its high level of nuclear expertise, Argentina's ambitious plans to build nuclear power plants and develop front-end fuel cycle facilities have so far been held back by economic factors. By Steve Kidd

In common with its South American neighbour Brazil (see here), Argentina was an early entrant into the nuclear game. Then, as in Brazil, the programme subsequently slowed dramatically before it got beyond two operating reactors. In contrast with Brazil, however, Argentina has not benefited from a strong economic performance in recent years, and has if anything cemented its reputation as a formerly relatively rich nation has that somehow lapsed into developing country status.

[Cartoon by Alexey Kovynev : "I was a child when they began to build this unit."]

Nevertheless, it's a huge country in area, with a population of 40 million, with a high degree of established nuclear expertise. It has always expressed great interest in a larger nuclear programme to satisfy the demand for reliable, affordable power, but still needs to demonstrate that it can solidly achieve this.

There are three interesting themes that run through Argentina's involvement in nuclear. Firstly, there is a fierce independence with a desire to be able to develop nuclear technology domestically, localise the production of components for nuclear facilities and not become too reliant on overseas partners. Secondly, rather like Brazil, Argentina has had interests in all areas of the fuel cycle (and still does to some extent) and has attempted to develop local facilities. These have, however, only achieved limited success and have not gone beyond supplying domestic needs. Thirdly (and more positively) Argentina has more recently cooperated closely in nuclear with other countries and achieved significant export sales. These comprise the production of heavy water, the production and sale of radioisotopes for medicine, agriculture and industry, and the export of research reactors.

By comparison with Brazil, power production in Argentina is actually well-diversified, with about 55% from gas, 30% from hydro, 8% from oil, 2% from coal and only 5% from nuclear. The nuclear share has fallen after the second nuclear reactor (Embalse) was commissioned as other sources of generation have grown to meet rising demand. One interesting feature of the energy sector in Argentina is that it underwent significant privatisation in the 1990s, rather in line with the earlier UK model. Apart from nuclear, the remainder of power production is in private hands, while there is a wholesale market for electricity together with a regulator, ENRE.

Institutionally, the Argentinian nuclear sector is certainly mature but could be criticised as having too heavy a hand from the state and not yet enough private dynamism. There are three important state-owned bodies and also some important supplier companies (where there is an element of private ownership).

The government nuclear body CNEA was established in 1950 and was in overall charge of Argentina's nuclear industry until 1994, when regulation passed to nuclear regulatory authority ARN and power generation to utility Nucleoelectrica Argentina SA (NASA). Its current focus is research and providing technical support to the industry, while it operates five research reactors at a number of large nuclear research centres. It retains a direct financial interest in several of the nuclear technology companies, is represented on the boards of others but is responsible for waste management, decommissioning and site remediation. CNEA also oversees research and development.

The regulator ARN was set up as an autonomous body reporting to the President, taking over the regulatory functions previously exercised by CNEA. In the 1950s and 1960s, Argentina was fiercely independent in nuclear affairs and highly suspicious of Brazil's parallel activities. It initially refused to join the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and went some way towards building its own nuclear weapons, including establishing an enrichment facility. It eventually acceded to the NPT in 1995. Relations with Brazil have now greatly improved in an era of close cooperation - an important part of ARN's role today is with the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for the Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC).

The power utility NASA was set up in 1994 to take over the nuclear power plants from CNEA and to oversee construction of Atucha 2. A 1996 law allowed its privatisation but this has not occurred and it is still state-owned. It is a fiercely nationalistic utility, seemingly with little interest in the world beyond Argentina (and indeed is focused very much in the regions where it supplies power).


Turning to the two operating reactors, the country's policy has always been centred on heavy water reactors and bids were invited in the mid-1960s for overseas assistance, principally from Canada and Germany. Atucha 1 (335 MWe) entered commercial operation in 1974 and was built under technology transfer agreements and financing via KWU (Siemens) of Germany. Two interesting features of Atucha 1 are that it has a design distinct from other heavy water reactors (it has a pressure vessel) and it is also now using slightly enriched (0.85%) uranium fuel. This has allowed a significant increase in the fuel burn-up and is claimed to have cut operating costs. The second reactor, Embalse, is a 600 MWe CANDU-6 reactor from Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd (AECL) which entered commercial operation in 1984. An important attraction was the technology transfer agreement with AECL and the provision for significant domestic sourcing of key components. The reactor is currently, however, only running at about 80% capacity, as there have been significant technical problems with plant ageing (particularly neutron damage to pressure tubes). Contracts have now been signed with Candu Energy Inc (the successor to AECL) to significantly refurbish Embalse, with the work due to start in late 2013. The programme is centred on replacing the pressure tubes, installing new steam generators and new control systems. The power will also be increased by 35 MWe to 635 MWe. The whole project is scheduled to last up to five years and will cost about $1.5 billion. It must be noted, however, that the various Candu refurbishment projects in Canada (Bruce, Pickering and New Brunswick) have tended to overrun on both time and budget.

Construction of a third plant, Atucha 2, began in 1981 but has been bedevilled by delays for financial and technical reasons. This is a much larger (690 MWe) version of Atucha 1 and construction was suspended in 1994 with the plant over 80% complete. The design of the Atucha PHWR units is unique to Argentina (although Germany built an early small unit, this was shut down in the 1960s), and so NASA has had to seek expertise from several other countries. In 2006, the government announced a new plan for Argentina's nuclear power sector, which included the completion of Atucha 2. This was set for September 2011 but the loading of the heavy water and the fuel assemblies was delayed until the end of 2012. The project has gone ahead with very limited input from overseas - indeed there is a common feeling (justified or not) in the Argentinian nuclear sector that they were effectively abandoned by both AECL and Siemens. Local content of the completion project is therefore reported as about 90%. The Planning Minister, Julio De Vido, told a nuclear conference in St. Petersburg at the end of June 2013 that Atucha 2 would be commissioned within two months.

There are now also plans to build two further units. There are a variety of vendors interested and it is likely that one reactor will use heavy water technology (possibly from Candu Energy) while the other is likely to be a light water reactor. The advantage of a PHWR is that a strong local supply chain exists, while Argentina has no active experience of LWR technology. One option clearly remains for go for two PHWRs but nuclear cooperation agreements have recently been signed with a number of countries (notably Russia, South Korea and China) which will allow them to bid. It is clear that the provision of financing will be an important element, given Argentina's continuing economic problems.

Fuel cycle

Uranium resources in Argentina are relatively poor and rated at only about 15,000 tU, although CNEA believes that there is considerably more if suitable exploration takes place. When the world uranium price rose sharply in 2006-2007, this encouraged a number of junior uranium companies to start exploring in Argentina, but no large finds have yet been reported. There was some uranium production in the 1960s to 1990s, but cumulative national production from open pit and heap leaching at seven mines was only just over 2500 tU by 1997 (when the last mine closed). There have been plans to reopen various mines, but these have so far come to nothing. There is a mill complex and refinery producing uranium dioxide operated by Dioxitek, a CNEA subsidiary, which is sufficient for current local needs. The limited current needs for enrichment services are imported but there was in the 1980s a small (and unreliable) diffusion enrichment plant. CNEA has said that it is still interested in establishing an enrichment plant using its own SIGMA advanced diffusion enrichment technology, which is said to be very economically competitive. There has been no recent news of this so it is assumed that plans are suspended for now. Fuel assemblies are supplied by CONAUR, which is mainly privately-owned and can supply the requirements for Argentina's reactors. It also has a growing export business in fuel fabrication and precision engineering components. Heavy water for the PHWRs is produced by a plant which has been rebuilt and scaled up to produce enough for Atucha 2 and up to three following PHWRs. It thus has capacity for export and has been successful at wining orders, notably for the four South Korean CANDU reactors (in competition with Canada).

The company INVAP is an offshoot of CNEA's Bariloche research centre and has built several research reactors for CNEA and international customers (for example in Egypt, Algeria, Peru and OPAL in Australia). It is a private company that is today increasingly focused on other sectors, including aerospace and space. It has recently been awarded contracts to build the RA-10 research reactor in Argentina and the Multipurpose Reactor (RMB) in Brazil. These two reactors will be used for the production of radioisotopes and various research activities and are said to have the capacity to supply some 40% of global radioisotope demand. Indeed, Argentina has been a significant exporter of radioisotopes (particularly to other South American countries) for many years. It is therefore very much a niche player in the international nuclear market, achieving exports in areas ignored by some of the better-publicised companies. Finally, the CAREM-25 nuclear reactor is a modular simplified PWR developed by CNEA and INVAP. It can be used for electricity generation (25 MWe net), as a research reactor or for water desalination and could conceivably be scaled up to something bigger. This is therefore one of the many planned Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) in fashion at present.

So Argentina has an established background in nuclear in reactors, the fuel cycle and in niche production areas too. It has a large number of very well-trained and experienced people within its nuclear sector, but their careers have been blighted by lack of opportunities, as the nuclear programme has continuously stalled. The country's poor economic performance has undoubtedly been a big factor behind this. On the other hand, there has rarely been the degree of public opposition to nuclear that has been encountered in Brazil, nor obviously big swings in government policy.

It can be argued, however, that somewhat nationalistic government policies in nuclear have hampered the development of the Argentinian industry. Although this has eased in more recent times, the insistence on involvement in every area of nuclear (and thus to achieve very high local content in programmes) can create a degree of misallocation of resources and some economic impediment. It is clear that funding of future reactor plans will be a big issue and the prospective vendors must clearly offer such assistance as part of their package. With a better domestic economic performance, the current plans for more reactors can certainly be achieved, but completion schedules in Argentina have always been rather flexible. ¦

Steve Kidd is an independent nuclear consultant and economist with 17 years of work in senior positions at the World Nuclear Association and its predecessor organisation, the Uranium Institute.




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