Political Risk Latin America Blog @PolRiskLatam

Is Chile Next? The Effect of Japan’s Earthquake on Nuclear Energy Ambitions in South America

Posted in News and Articles, Political Risk by politicalrisklatam on March 21, 2011

by Mauricio Cardenas for The Brookings Institution, March 21st, 2011.

While Argentina, Brazil and Mexico are currently the only nuclear energy producers in Latin America, other countries in the region have considered the idea of building nuclear power plants. Recently, Chile has been perusing the nuclear market with energy on its mind. Last month, the Chilean government signed a treaty with France on uranium development and this week Chile was poised to sign a major agreement on nuclear energy cooperation with the United States to coincide with President Obama’s visit to Santiago. However, the nuclear momentum has been interrupted by the tragic events unfolding on the other side of the Pacific.

Chileans are paying careful attention to the nuclear crisis in Japan, as it rings close to home. Both Chile and Japan are located on the infamous Pacific Ring of Fire that concentrates the most violent seismic activity of the world. Japan’s recent 9.0 magnitude earthquake came almost exactly a year after Chile’s 8.8 magnitude earthquake. Both countries experienced tsunamis in the immediate aftermath. If Chile were to build a nuclear power plant, would it be safe? Or could it be vulnerable to a nuclear meltdown similar to what is happening in Japan?

Nuclear power plant accidents are rare but catastrophic. Improved plant designs and careful location selection should reduce this threat considerably. There are a few design options available between light (Pressurized Water Reactor-PWR and Boiling Water Reactor-BWR) and heavy water reactors (Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor-PHWR) with distinct advantages and disadvantages regarding efficiency and costs along the fuel cycle. Brazil, Mexico and Japan have all adopted variants of the light water reactor (the breached Japanese power plant is BWR); Argentina has embraced the heavy water design (PHWR). However, when considering a topography with a higher than normal probability of experiencing cataclysmic natural disasters (like Japan and Chile), selecting the location of the plant is of the utmost importance. (continue reading… )

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