New agreement seeks to support Argentina’s CAREM SMR

1 November 2023

Argentina’s National Atomic Energy Commission (CNEA - Comisión Nacional de Energía Atómica) and Nucleoeléctrica Argentina SA (NA-SA) have signed a framework agreement for technical assistance to develop the CAREM small modular reactor (SMR) under construction in Argentina.

CAREM (Central ARgentina de Elementos Modulares) is Argentina's first domestically-designed and developed 32 MWe nuclear power unit. As well as relying on passive safety systems, Carem's entire primary coolant system is contained within the single self-pressurised vessel and uses free convection to circulate the coolant. This eliminates the need for devices such as pumps within the primary circuit and decreases the extent and complexity of the piping system required, as well as reduces the possibility of accidents involving a loss of coolant.

Before work was suspended, it was in line to be the world’s first operating SMR. The government licensed it as a prototype in 2009. Development started in 1980 by CNEA and technology company INVAP and it was first announced in 1984. Progress slowed in the early 2000s but a 2006 government decree made the Carem25 programme a national priority. A second executive order in 2008 made the project directly responsible to the President of Argentina.

Initially, Carem25 was expected to start up in 2017, but this was put back to 2020. Then, in 2019 contractor Techint Engineering & Construction stopped work alleging late payment from the government, design changes and late delivery of technical documentation. In April 2020, it was announced that construction was to resume. In mid-2020, a "transition" contract was signed, from which the work teams of the Carem Works Directorate Management (responsible for the integral direction of construction) and the Nuclear Project Management Unit of NA-SA began ordering and analysis of the technical documentation related to the building and the degree of progress reached with the previous contractor. This included a survey of materials and the state of the facilities, as well as the pending subcontracts and the employment situation of the workers who had been laid off and with whom the gradual reinstatement was agreed.

In mid-2021, a contract was signed whereby NA-SA resumed execution of construction, under the direction of CNEA. This contract established a duration of 36 months to complete the reactor building. Through this contractual relationship NA-SA reconstituted itself as a contractor for CNEA in the construction of the building, a role it had previously played from 2014 to 2017.

The new framework agreement was signed by CNEA President Adriana Serquis and NA-SA President José Luis Antúnez. “This agreement enhances the capabilities of the CAREM project, because it adds the capabilities of NA-SA. The state company will participate in the start-up, training of operators and many other aspects that are necessary for this project to become a reality. We are very happy to be able to count on the experience that NA-SA has for operating the Atucha I and II and Embalse nuclear power plants,” Serquis stressed.

The "Technical Assistance Framework Agreement between CNEA and NASA", which has a duration of two years, extendable by mutual agreement, provides the general framework to enable contracts directly between the two institutions for developments linked to CAREM.

Work that can be carried through this agreement include: studies, analysis and calculations for the development of the CAREM Plants; supervision in engineering specialties; writing and reviewing technical documentation, such as equipment specifications; setting up procedures; advice on control measures, good practices and lessons learned; risk and opportunity analysis; determine training needs and eventually provide them; and advice on licensing issues.

The main areas of impact will be instrumentation and control, mechanical engineering, electromechanical assembly, pre-commissioning and commissioning, programming, radiation protection, commissioning and operation, simulations, electrical system and thermohydraulics.

Antúnez and the Area Manager of the CAREM Project, Sol Pedre, immediately signed the first contract under this framework for the provision of "technical assistance services in engineering to support the forecasts of design, construction, commissioning operation, operation and maintenance of CAREM Nuclear Power Plants". This contract will be coordinated by engineer Ignacio de Arenaza, engineering manager of the CAREM project, and by engineer Martín Cotignola, from the NA-SA Nuclear Project Management Unit, who will serve as technical representatives.

The contract covers a wide range of tasks that CAREM will request in accordance with the evolution of the project. The aim is to make use of the experience that NA-SA has acquired both in operation and maintenance of Argentine NPPs, as well as in engineering during the completion and commissioning of the Atucha 2 plant and life extension of the Embalse plant.

"For our project, this is a very important advance," said Arenaza. "We are strengthening institutional links with a utility that has extensive experience in issues of operation and commissioning of nuclear power plants, which are some of the main axes on which it can transmit knowledge and technical assistance to us". The launch of CAREM is now scheduled for the end of 2027. The overall project is 62% complete (78% for the civil works building).

CAREM Project Manager Sol Pedre says the project has many advantages compared with other SMR schemes. "We are more advanced in manufacturing. One thing is the design on paper but it is quite another to actually align the entire supply chain. and be able to build something, get it up and running, and show that it's a reality." He adds: “The advantage we have today is that our project is the first to be built. A very important part in building a nuclear reactor is licensing. To start building a nuclear reactor, you need a design that passes a series of approvals from the regulator. And that mainly involves a completely detailed design report from a safety point of view and you have to obtain the corresponding licence for every step."

The tubes for the CAREM steam generators were manufactured by Combustibles Nucleares Argentinos (Conuar), a CNEA company, in partnership with the Perez Companc Group. Conuar has the largest furnace in Latin America. The tubes are 50 metres long and cannot have welds. Their certification has allowed them to be exported to other plants requiring the same type, for example in India and Canada.

"On the basis of the national development line, accompanied by the industry in our own plants, export markets are opening up. It is not that we export an entire plant, but we do export the steam generator tubes, the core stoppers, etc,” said Pedre. “In CAREM it is exactly the same. For example, the steam generators are helical in CAREM and it is the same in all SMRs. But for that, you have to have the first one up and running, in addition to all the necessary certifications", he explained.

Today about 1,400 people are working on the CAREM project, including CNEA staff and suppliers. There are 160 contracts in force, mostly with Argentine companies, both private and public, including NA-SA and Industrias Metalúrgicas Pescarmona SA (IMPSA), which produces the largest components. and which was nationalised in 2021.

Image: Aerial view of the pilot plant (courtesy of CNEA)

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