Argentina seeks new nuclear power plant backed by China


Argentine President Alberto Fernández has decided to reactivate a project build a new nuclear power plant in Argentina. The new plant in the province of Buenos Aires will generate 1,200 MW and help meet the country’s energy needs, but is questioned for its high costs and potential risks.

The project was initially presented in 2015 by Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, president from 2007-2015. At the time, the goal was to build two power plants financed by China. One with Canadian CANDU technology, which factories in Argentina are now using, and the other with new Chinese Hualong technology.

Former President Mauricio Macri (2015-2019) then questioned the agreement and decided to go ahead with a single factory, the one with Chinese technology, to reduce costs. However, the project was not moving forward. Now Fernández is looking to start the Chinese nuclear power plant first, with the possibility of adding CANDU in the medium term.

“Argentina’s economy will continue to grow and therefore aims to slightly increase the share of nuclear energy in its matrix,” said José Luis Antunez, director of Nucleoeléctrica Argentina, the state-owned company that manages nuclear power plants. “We will start the project as soon as possible.”

Nuclear power generates about 7.5% Argentinian energy, with a mix based mainly on hydrocarbons, the production of which is subsidized. Unconventional renewable energies, particularly solar and wind turbines, have multiplied in recent years thanks to the RénovAR program.

The nuclear deal is in line with Argentina’s “comprehensive strategic alliance” with China, a high diplomatic status that China reserves for only a few countries. Fernández sees China as a strategic ally in multiple sectors beyond nuclear, and health cooperation during the Covid-19 pandemic has strengthened ties.

“These two nuclear projects will help organize Argentina’s energy sector,” explains Nicolás Malinovsky, director of the Energy, Science and Technology Observatory. “Nuclear power plants go hand in hand with the development of an industrial sector and are a central element of the energy transition.

Nuclear power in Argentina

Argentina was the first country in Latin America to adopt nuclear power, but despite an advanced industry, it has always imported nuclear reactor technologies. There are currently three nuclear power plants in operation, Atucha I and Atucha II in the district of Zárate and Embalse in the northern province of Cordoba.

After an interruption in the 1990s, the sector was revitalized in 2006 with a national nuclear plan, which led to the completion of the Atucha II project and the development of the Embalse life extension project. Although it is a form of energy more expensive than others, nuclear power is also used to develop Argentina’s scientific and technological sectors.

In 2020, the cost of electricity in Argentina according to the source was US $ 35.30 per megawatt hour (MWh) for conventional thermal, US $ 18.5 for hydropower, US $ 73 for renewable energies and 47 , US $ 3 for nuclear, according to figures obtained by Diálogo Chino following a request for access to public information.

“It is a contribution to the diversification of the matrix in a slightly cleaner direction. However, there are no economic or environmental feasibility studies to support new nuclear power plants, and that is a problem,” said Julián Rojo, energy economist at General Mosconi. Argentine Institute of Energy.

Nuclear power plants go hand in hand with the development of an industrial sector and are a central element of the energy transition

Nuclear power is one of the few carbon-free energy options that balances with varying sources such as wind and solar power. However, the risks of delisting and collapse are considerable concerns and have led to a lack of social authorization for expansion in Argentina.

Argentina is committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 19% under the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. This will require a energetic transition to clean energy sources and nuclear power is an option.

Nuclear power plants can operate at full capacity almost without interruption, providing a continuous and reliable supply of energy. Solar and wind power need back-up power during intermittences caused by sunset or falling wind levels.

In a 2018 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which brings together the world’s leading climate scientists, argued that nuclear power will need to increase in order to limit global temperature rise to less than 1, 5 ° C by the end of the century.

Argentina’s new nuclear power plant

As Argentina debates the future role of nuclear power in its energy matrix, China has emerged as a champion of nuclear power in recent years, driven by air pollution, climate change and issues of energy security at home.

In the past, China relied on imported technology, but recently started producing its own reactors, including the Hualong reactor. According to the government Plan made in China 2025, the Asian country aims to make more use of domestic technology and become a world leader in the nuclear industry.

The agreement with Argentina is one of the first successes of the Chinese nuclear industry abroad. In 2014, China’s Hualong reactor has successfully passed the International Atomic Energy Agency safety examination. It runs on enriched uranium, unlike CANDU which runs on natural uranium.

The Chinese nuclear power plant is a turnkey project, that is, it will design, build and equip the plant. But it will use around 40% local components, like Atucha I, when Argentina was only just beginning to develop nuclear power. The government is banking on the capacity to manufacture the enriched uranium that will be necessary for the operation of the plant.

All new projects must be economically competitive and must comply with the country’s mitigation commitments

“The local engineering and construction workforce and the rest of the professionals managing the project will have a lot of work to do, but the national metallurgy, electrical and chemical industry is the one participating in the project. less to a new project, with a technology that has not yet been used and lacks an industrial base, ”Antunez said.

At a cost of around US $ 8 billion, Argentina will contract a loan from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) to finance 85% of the project. The rest will be funded by the government. Antunez expects the contract to be finalized by mid-2022, when construction in the province of Buenos Aires is expected to begin immediately.

A group of former Argentinian energy secretaries criticized the project, saying it would have been cheaper to develop solar and wind power instead. They also called for a broader discussion on the future of the country’s energy matrix.

Jorge Lapeña, one of the former officials, said: “Any future energy project must be part of a long-term national energy plan, which does not exist today. All new projects must be economically competitive and must comply with the country’s mitigation measures. commitments. ”

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