A Latin nuclear revival?

26 January 2006

Nuclear power achieved early footholds in both Argentina and Brazil but then rapidly entered a blind alley. Both countries stopped their programmes after only two reactors, with the previous expansive plans put on hold or cancelled. Reactors remain uncompleted in both countries and fuel cycle developments have accordingly been constrained, despite well-educated technical staff and some promising national research developments. Both countries have suffered from political and economic problems which have clearly not helped, but there are now signs that these have been overcome. The economies of both Argentina and Brazil are now growing rapidly and electricity demand is rising sharply. There are substantial fears about shortages of generating capacity, so is a rebirth of nuclear very likely in these countries?

Other important features of both Argentina and Brazil include their desire to have full fuel cycles supporting their reactor programmes and not be dependent on supplies of nuclear fuel from overseas. Argentina’s uranium resources are comparatively poor, but Brazil’s are impressive in magnitude even if rather low in grade. Both have sought to develop these to at least satisfy their domestic reactor requirements and, in the case of Brazil, possibly to export too. Conversion, enrichment and fuel fabrication technology (and some facilities) have also been developed with enrichment (in the case of Brazil in early 2005) attracting non-proliferation concerns. Yet both Argentina and Brazil are parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and there has been an Argentine-Brazilian Agency for the Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC) set up with full-scope safeguards under IAEA auspices since 1994. Both are members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (Brazil assumed the chairmanship in January 2006) but have not yet signed the Additional Protocol in relation to their safeguards agreements with the IAEA.

Considering Argentina first, the two operating reactors Atucha 1 and Embalse satisfy about 9% of the country’s electricity requirements, which are now growing rapidly during the recovery from the economic ‘meltdown’ of 2001-2. About one third of the requirements come from hydro and the remainder from fossil fuel generating modes. Argentina decided at an early stage to go for heavy water reactors fuelled by natural uranium and invited bids from Canada and Germany in the mid-1960s. A Siemens KWU bid was accepted and Atucha 1 entered operation in 1974, located near Buenos Aires. It has a net capacity of 335MWe and is unusual amongst heavy water reactors in having a pressure vessel. It now uses slightly-enriched uranium fuel (0.85% U-235), which has doubled burnup and cut operating costs. The fuel is obtained by blending imported enriched uranium with natural uranium.

A second feasibility study in the late 1960s resulted in the selection of a Candu 6 reactor complete with technology transfer agreement from AECL for a second site at Cordoba, about 500km from Buenos Aires. This entered operation in 1984 with a net capacity of 600MWe and, like all other Candus (to date), runs on natural uranium fuel.

Beyond this, a government decision in 1979 planned four more units to come into operation in 1987-97. Only one of these was started, namely Atucha 2, a larger (690MWe) version of the first unit, under a joint venture between KWU and the Argentine Atomic Energy Commission (CNEA), which coordinates all nuclear activities there. Work unfortunately proceeded very slowly with this, largely owing to lack of funds, and was suspended in 1994 with the plant an estimated 80% complete. There have since been some plans to recommence construction, but both money and expertise (to complete a unique design) have been in short supply. Completion has always seemed ‘five years away’ and that remains the position today.

Beyond the constrained power reactor programme, Argentina’s main success has been in exporting research reactors, including Opal, the new Australian unit. There are five research reactors in Argentina – an indication of the high educational standards there. Uranium mining has produced only a cumulative 2500tU from open pit and heap leaching but Argentina has a uranium conversion company (Dioxitek) and fuel fabricator (Conuar), the latter of which has been successful in achieving export orders in non-nuclear metal finishing. There is also a heavy water plant which is more than sufficient for domestic needs and some experimentation with innovative gaseous diffusion enrichment technology.

Turning to Brazil, its position has many similarities. The economy is now growing well with electricity demand booming, while 90% comes from hydro resources, mainly located a long way from the major demand area around Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. This has worrying security of supply implications and is being addressed by plans for more fossil-fuelled plants. The two operating nuclear reactors, Angra 1 and 2, provide only about 4% of the nation’s requirements.

Westinghouse won the bid for the first reactor on a turnkey contract and Angra 1, a 626MWe PWR, opened in 1982 after a 10-year construction period. In 1975, the government signed an agreement with the former West Germany for the supply of eight 1300MWe PWRs over 15 years, with the first two to be built immediately with equipment from Siemens KWU and the remainder under a technology transfer agreement with 90% local content. Economic problems meant that construction of the first two units was severely interrupted, and Angra 2 didn’t come into operation until 2000. It has operated very well since then (in contrast to Angra 1, which had only a 25% load factor in its first 15 years of operation) but its twin, Angra 3, has barely been started, even though 70% of the equipment has been paid for and is onsite. It apparently costs $20 million per year to maintain this in good shape for future use, but plans to complete the reactor have been continuously shelved. It is estimated that it will take 5-7 years and cost around $2 billion to complete. Overseas partners are being sought for this.

Fuel cycle activities in Brazil are now all under the state-owned holding company Industrias Nucleares Brasileiras (INB). This has developed the Lagao Real heap leaching uranium operation with capacity of 400tU/year and there are plans to expand operations there and elsewhere, in order to capitalise on Brazil’s extensive reserves. Overseas partners (including the Chinese) have been sought, but even with the recent strong increase in world uranium prices, the economics may be marginal. Conversion and enrichment have been purchased from abroad but Brazil has developed its own centrifuge enrichment technology, apparently similar to Urenco’s, initially for naval reactors. This has now been reoriented to supplying the Angra reactors and it is believed that capacity will eventually be around 200,000 SWU per annum, sufficient for the two operating units. There is also a Siemens-designed fuel fabrication plant adequate for domestic needs.

Looking to the longer-term future, Brazil is involved in a wide range of nuclear R&D in five nuclear research centres, is a member of both the Generation IV International Forum and is involved in the Inpro programme.

What can we conclude about nuclear prospects in these countries? The key is clearly the completion of both Atucha 2 and Angra 3, which would kick-start the supply industries that have been starved of work in recent years. A decision to go ahead in one country is likely to be influential in the other, as politicians and industrialists in both countries watch each other very carefully and there is a good tradition of cross-border cooperation in nuclear matters. As such, the situation is rather similar to that in the Former Soviet Union, where the first task was to complete those reactors partially completed in 1990. This is gradually happening and both Russia and Ukraine are now looking forward to more expansive reactor-building plans, which contain a greater degree of realism than in the recent past.

One concern, however, is the decline in the number of experienced nuclear staff in both Argentina and Brazil. The reduction in nuclear education in the universities has, as elsewhere, led to a significant ageing in the nuclear workforce and assistance will be required from abroad. Nevertheless, the first stage is to get government support to complete the reactors – given their electricity supply problems and need to curb carbon emissions, this must remain the industry’s first target.

Development of the fuel cycle activities also depends on the reactor completions, as they are solely (at present) dedicated to satisfying domestic requirements. This is even if the costs will be higher than importing from abroad – security of supply is important in both countries as they have relatively weak domestic energy resources.

What is really needed, however, is a strong nuclear revival in Europe and North America. While these leading regions are not building reactors, there is no strong feeling in Latin America that nuclear is the way to go and it may be difficult to stimulate the completion of Atucha 2 and Angra 3. The longer they remain uncompleted, the more difficult it will be to find the right human resources. Elsewhere there has been some talk of a reactor programme in Chile, the most successful country in Latin America in an economic sense, but this too would need a kick-start from the existing major nuclear countries.

Author Info:

Steve Kidd is Head of Strategy & Research at the World Nuclear Association, where he has worked since 1995 (when it was the Uranium Institute). Any views expressed are not necessarily those of the World Nuclear Association and/or its members

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