Argentina’s nuclear industry: Atoms for underdevelopment

by , under All categories, Enrique

Comment:  Of all the opinion pieces I published when I worked for the Buenos Aires Herald during 1987-88, this one on Argentina’s nuclear industry in the 1980s stands out.   

About 24 years later after the opinion piece was published, Atucha II will come online next year 


By Enrique Tessieri

Of all the public enterprises in this country, the National Atomic Energy Commission (CNEA), the most unconstrained and least known of these.

Although Argentines have first-hand experience of how outrageously inefficient their public firms work, few if any of them know how effectively the CNEA functions behind closed doors.

This shouldn’t come to any surprise, however, considering that the CNEA – which answers directly to the presidency as well as controls and sets standards by itself – attributes its growth to past despotic de facto governments.

However, in present-day Argentina, it is no longer the pro or almost nonexistent anti-nuke forces that will decide on this country’s nuclear future, but by multi-billion-dollar figures that are nowhere in sight.

To cite only one example of how expensive Argentina’s nuclear programme is, Atucha II (728 MW PWHR), the country’s third, which is five to six years behind schedule because of financial difficulties, will end up costing 4.5 billion dollars if completed by the beginning of next decade.

Considering that even for European countries the cost of Atucha II would be considered ungodly, it is absurd that Argentines should pay such a high price for that medium-sized reactor’s construction only so the CNEA won’t lose face internationally and to cover up the government’s blatant inefficiency for not building the plant on time – in 1987 – which would have lowered the final cost of Atucha II to roughly 1.5 billion dollars.

Also, one can ask if it’s morally right for the government to go ahead with an expensive nuclear programme when public hospitals and schools are understaffed and poorly equipped, malnutrition is on the alarming rise and poverty has become increasingly paramount within Argentine society.

Because the CNEA was considered a Navy-run sector in the past, it is understandable that its development has been very much like the Armed Forces, they are expensive institutions that have thrived in the past thanks to national ignorance of the issues, misinformation and myopic nationalism.

Increasingly enough, in recent months the CNEA has shown an interest in “debating” the nuclear issue with its countrymen. Although dialogue has been carried out on a very low-keyed and humble level, one could ask why an autocratic organization has suddenly manifested such an interest.

Does the CNEA need public support to pressure the Radical administration for needed funds? Has the return of democracy forced that organization to give an illusion that it wants to talk seriously with the public about nuclear issues? Have all these years of tight-lipped silence given the CNEA staff a moral guilty complex?

Taking a close look at the arguments the CNEA uses to support its expensive nuclear programme, it isn’t a dualistic issue – being in favor or against – because Argentina has prodigious hydropower and natural gas resources. Never mind the enormous potential of wind power and the scandalous amount of energy we waste thanks to inefficient transmission lines, the long distances we have to transport electricity. Some sources say that as much as 25 percent of all gas extracted is lost although 18 percent would be a more realistic figure.

And then there is the question of the competency of national energy figures who speak of the need for more power plants but do not know much electricity is generated, let alone the overall prices of how much a kilowatt-hour costs.

To add to this boisterous inefficiency, the energy secretariat published a couple of years ago a National Energy Plan 1986-2000 (PEN) which that very government entity has admitted contains “mistakes.”

As mentioned above, it not a question of being against nuclear energy, but how competent are public energy officials to decide in favor of an energy source over another if they are by and large politicians as opposed to technicians.

Add to all this an apathetic public and a largely dormant national press on the salient issues and you’ve got a dangerous scenario brewing that spells irresponsible and reckless use of public funds and by unconvincing “safety” levels of Argentina’s nuclear plants that are run by underpaid operators.

As long as energy officials and the CNEA alike continue to misinform and project to their public a quixotical world view on nuclear energy, they will never build atoms for progress, but for underdevelopment.