Argentina is pushing ahead with plans to build two new nuclear power plants – one with Chinese Hualong technology and another with a Candu reactor combining national knowhow and Canadian support, Buenos Aires Times reported on 21 August.
The two projects are of strategic importance for geopolitical relations, while carrying the potential to translate into thousands of jobs, new knowhow and a doubling energy output for the next 15 years, the paper said.
??Since the Frente de Todos government came to power in December 2019, nuclear policy has again become important for development and in April contacts with China were resumed to restart negotiations to build a new NPP with a light water reactor. The idea is to reactivate plans which had stagnated during the previous Mauricio Macri administration, noted the paper, part of the respected independent Perfil news organisation.
Argentina’s nuclear utility Nucleoeléctrica Argentina SA (NA-SA) resumed work to develop the nuclear power sector in April 2020. NA-SA, which is majority state owned, operates Argentina’s three NPPs – Atucha 1 (367MWe), Atucha 2 (745MWe) and Embalse (683MWe), all pressurised heavy water reactors, which generate some 5% of Argentina's electricity.
"When we came to power, we began to plan our future with a short-term programme and a strategic plan because nuclear projects are long-term,” Nucleoeléctrica president José Luis Antúnez told Perfil. “In that framework we will first start constructing a power plant of 1,100MWe with Hualong technology, and for that we need to conclude the negotiations to formalise the contract and commence construction during the second half of next year.”
According to Antúnez, it will take eight years for Argentina’s fourth power plant to be constructed, from the conclusion of agreements and the necessary paperwork in order to unlock Chinese funding. The negotiations will have two stages – the first for Nucleoeléctrica and the CNEA (Comisión Nacional de Energía Atómica), to agree with the China on a contract, which will include technology transfer for the local manufacture of the fuel for that power plant. “We estimate that the conversations will stretch until November or December,” said Antúnez.
The second stage seeks to place the project within the bilateral agreement signed in 2014. The Energy Secretariat will head the parallel negotiations linked to the “financial package” which must be put together again since “the deadlines have expired”, Antúnez explained. “Once we advance in that, the authorities of both countries will sign up and construction will start, something we hope will happen in mid-2022,” he estimated.
“We’ll be moving ahead with preparing the terrain with soil studies and paving the access routes”, as well as assembling the structures to store the energy and water and supplies “for the 5,000-plus workers who will come to Atucha where the power plant will be sited,” he said.
Nucleoeléctrica is already thinking of building a fifth NPP, which will be a “national” project supported by Canada, the country which transferred the technology which is to be used. In that way the bilateral energy relations, which began four decades ago with the construction of the Embalse NPP in Córdoba, will continue for at least 40 more years. The general lines of that project are already defined – it will be a plant with natural uranium and heavy water with a reactor based on Candu technology, which will have local funding and a programme “different from the usual”.
“We’ll do the engineering at Embalse where we have concentrated our experience in the construction, design and operation of such power plants. We will thus count on the technicians and professionals of the zone to produce the components, which will be a great deal and locally manufactured, concentrating the resources of our engineering and metal industries,” Antúnez said.
Although Argentina acquired the technology years ago, the knowhow has been updated as a result of the recent conclusion of a key process to extend the operating life of the Embalse plant. “We still haven’t chosen the site where we’re going to build. It could be along some waterway or near Atucha. We’ve left that for further down the road because we are going to be concentrating on manufacturing the components,” he added.
With the two new plants, Antúnez forecasts doubling Argentina’s installed energy potential during the next 15 years. “With the three power plants now running we have approximately 1,700MWe combined. When the Hualong and Candu reactors come on stream, we’ll be adding a similar quantity to the installed capacity of Nucleoeléctrica,” Antúnez maintained. In geopolitical terms, he said “it will signify long-term bilateral relations” and, in the case of China, “the start of some long-lasting scientific and commercial links, as happened to us with Canada at from Embalse.” He noted: “When we build the Candu power plant, while it will be a national project with our technology, there will be Canadian participation.”
Argentina is also moving to reactivate the heavy water plant at Arroyito in Neuquén, which was deactivated during the Cambiemos government with its workers laid off. That plant produced vital heavy water for the Atucha I and II and Embalse NPPs and it will also be required to run the Candu power plant. Currently heavy water is imported, which is more expensive but Perfil said the Energy Department is taking steps to resume the production of heavy water of national origin.” The three operating power plants consume only 25 tons of heavy water annually, but a new Candu plant would require a large amount as an initial load.
Photo: Atucha nuclear power plant in Argentina (credit: NASA)