Nuclear Power in Argentina
(Updated May 2013)
- Argentina has two nuclear reactors generating nearly one-tenth of its electricity, and another reactor finishing construction.
- Its first commercial nuclear power reactor began operating in 1974.
- Operation of the country's third reactor is expected in mid 2013.
Electricity consumption in Argentina has grown strongly since 1990. Per capita consumption was just over 2000 kWh/yr in 2002 and rose to over 2600 kWh/yr in 2007. Gross electricity production in 2007 was 115 billion kWh, 54% of this from gas, 27% from hydro, 9.4% from oil, 2.2% from coal, and 6.3% (7.2 billion kWh) from nuclear. In 2008, nuclear power provided over 6.8 billion kWh of electricity – about 6.2% of total electricity generation.
Argentina's electricity production is largely privatised, and is regulated by ENRE (Ente Nacional Regulador de la Electricidad). Installed capacity is about 35 GWe, about 11% of which is from autoproducers and private generators.
Operating Argentine nuclear power reactors
||Lima, near Buenos Aires
Argentine nuclear power reactors under construction, planned and proposed
||Lima, near Buenos Aires
||745 (692 net)
||Lima, near Buenos Aires
||Lima, near Buenos Aires
||33 (27 net)
Nuclear industry development
The country's Atomic Energy Commission (Comisión Nacional de Energía Atómica, CNEA) was set up in 1950 and resulted in a spate of activity centred on nuclear R&D, including construction of several research reactors. Today, five research reactors are operated by CNEA and others. Another is planned, similar to the Opal reactor built in Australia by Argentina's INVAP.
In 1964, attention turned to nuclear power, and following a feasibility study for a 300-500 MWe unit for the Buenos Aires region, bids were invited. With the country's policy firmly based on using heavy water reactors fuelled by natural uranium, Canadian and German offers for heavy water designs were most attractive, and that from Kraftwerk Union (KWU)a – with 100% financing – was accepted. That Atucha plant was built at Lima, 115 km northwest of Buenos Aires.
Atucha 1 entered commercial operation in 1974. It has a pressure vessel, unlike any other extant heavy water reactor, and it now uses slightly enriched (0.85%) uranium fuel which has doubled the burn-up and consequently reduced operating costs by 40%.
In 1967, a second feasibility study was undertaken for a larger plant at Embalse in the Córdoba region, 500 km inland. In this case a CANDU-6 reactor from Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd (AECL) was selected, partly due to the accompanying technology transfer agreement, and was constructed with the Italian company Italimpianti. The Embalse plant entered commercial operation in 1984, running on natural uranium fuelb. In 2010, an agreement was signed to refurbish the plant to extend its operating life by 25 years and increase its power by about 7%. It is currently running at about 80% capacity to limit neutron damage to pressure tubes.
In 1979, a third plant – Atucha 2 – was ordered following a government decision to have four more units coming into operation 1987-97. It was a Siemens design, a larger version of unit 1, and construction started in 1981 by a joint venture of CNEA and Siemens-KWU. However, work proceeded slowly due to lack of funds and was suspended in 1994 with the plant 81% complete.
In 1994, Nucleoeléctrica Argentina SA (NASA)c was set up to take over the nuclear power plants from CNEA and oversee construction of Atucha 2.
The Siemens design of the Atucha PHWR units is unique to Argentina, and NASA was seeking expertise from Germany, Spain and Brazil to complete the unit. In 2003, plans for completing the 692 MWe Atucha 2 reactor (745 MWe gross) were presented to the government.
In August 2006, the government announced a US$ 3.5 billion strategic plan for the country's nuclear power sector. This involved completing Atucha 2 and extending the operating lifetimes of Atucha 1 and Embalse.
Completing Atucha 2 was expected to cost US$ 600 million, including $400 million for heavy water. Effective completion of Atucha 2 construction was in September 2011. The Neuquen heavy water plant completed production of 600 tonnes of heavy water in June 2012, and this will be loaded about April 2013, after loading the 451 fuel assemblies, each 9.76 metres long, which commenced in December 2012. Local content is reported as about 90%. Grid connection is expected in 2013.
The life of the Embalse CANDU-6 type plant will be extended by 25 years in partnership with Candu Energy Inc. Contracts for $440 million were signed in August 2011, the main work will commence in November 2013, to replace the pressure tubes, install new steam generators and new control systems, and increase the power by 35 MWe to around 635 MWe net in the process. The reactor is due to be offline for about 20 months then, though the whole project will take five years. Total cost is put at $1.37 billion. A $240 million loan towards the work was announced in March 2013.
* Candu Energy is a subsidiary of SNC-Lavalin Group which took over Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd reactor division in 2011.
The goal is for nuclear power to be part of an expansion in generating capacity to meet rising demand. Meanwhile, a feasibility study on a fourth reactor was undertaken, to start construction after 2010, and US$ 2 billion was projected for this. In July 2007, NASA signed an agreement with AECL to establish contract and project terms for construction of a 740 MWe gross Enhanced CANDU 6 reactor, as well as completing Atucha 2. A further 740 MWe Enhanced CANDU 6 unit was proposed. A local supply chain for PHWRs exists.
However, the government has been talking also with reactor vendors from France, Russia, Japan, South Korea, China and the USA, indicating that its fourth and fifth reactors could be LWR type, with Atucha the most likely location. Russia is planning to offer two AES-2006 units, and China is offering 1000 MWe units. A reva says that its Atmea1 reactor is pre-qualified by NASA. A final decision on Atucha 3 & 4 is pending Atucha-2 completion and possibly Embalse refurbishing. In October 2012 the government said that Areva, China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), Kepco, Rosatom and Westinghouse were pre-qualified for tendering in 2013.
In February 2010, the government signed an agreement with Russia's Rosatom to share technical information related to the construction of nuclear power plants and look at possibly using Russian technology in the country. In April 2010, a nuclear cooperation agreement was signed with Russia, and in September 2010, another was signed with South Korea. In May 2011 Rosatom and the Argentine planning & investments minister said they were discussing the possibility of joint development and construction of a 640 MWe reactor of unspecified type. In June 2012 the government signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with China, involving studies for a fourth nuclear power plant, financed by China, and a transfer of fuel fabrication and other technology. The government said that it could open the way for CNNC to be involved in building new plants.
Another aspect of the 2006 plan was to build a 27 MWe prototype of the CAREM reactor, and this is now at pre-construction stage, next to Atucha, for completion at the end of 2016. Civil works next to the Atucha site started in 2012, the electromechanical installation was due in the first half of 2013 and fuel loading then grid connection in 2016. This schedule appears unlikely. INVAP is building it. Some 70% of components will be local manufacture.
Developed by CNEA with INVAPd and others since 1984, the CAREM-25 nuclear reactor is a modular 100 MWt simplified pressurised water reactor with integral steam generators, designed to be used for electricity generation (27 MWe gross, 25 MWe net) or as a research reactor or for water desalination. Recent studies have explored scaling it up to 300 MWe. CAREM has its entire primary coolant system within the reactor pressure vessel, self-pressurised and relying entirely on convection. Fuel is standard 3.4% enriched PWR fuel, with burnable poison, and it is refuelled annually. The prototype will be followed by a larger version, possibly 200 MWe, in the northwestern Formosa province1 by 2021.
CAREM is under consideration for desalination in Saudi Arabia.
Argentine uranium resources listed in the Red Book2 total only about 15,000 tU, though the CNEA estimates that there is some 55,000 tU as "exploration targets" in several different geological environments. Uranium exploration and a little mining was carried out from the mid-1950s, but the last mine closed in 1997 for economic reasons. Cumulative national production until then from open pit and heap leaching at seven mines was 2509 tU.
However, there are plans to reopen the CNEA Sierra Pintada mine in Mendoza in the central west, which closed in1997. It is also known as the San Rafael mine and mill. Reserves there and at Cerro Solo in the south total less than 8000 tU. A resumption of uranium mining was part of the 2006 plan, in order to make the country self-sufficient.
In 2007, CNEA reached agreement with the Salta provincial government in the north of the country to reopen the Don Otto uranium mine, which operated intermittently from 1963 to 1981. Block leaching is envisaged.
Australian-based Cauldron Energy Ltd holds leases over 16 km of outcropping uranium-copper mineralisation at Rio Colorado, Catamarca province. This was worked by CNEA in 1950s and 1960s, and Cauldron's exploration target is 6400 tU.
A 150 t/yr mill complex and refinery producing uranium dioxide operated by Dioxitek, a CNEA subsidiary, is at Córdoba.
CNEA has a small conversion plant at Pilcaniyeu, near Bariloche, Rio Negro, with 60 t/yr capacity.
Enrichment services are currently imported from the USA. Over 1983-89, INVAP operated a small (20,000 SWU/yr) diffusion enrichment plant for CNEA at Pilcaniyeu, in the Rio Negro province. This was unreliable and produced very little low-enriched uranium. In August 2006, CNEA said it that it wanted to recommission the enrichment plant, using its own Sigma advanced diffusion enrichment technology which is said to be competitive. The main reason given was to keep Argentina within the circle of countries recognised as having the right to operate enrichment plants, and thereby support INVAP's commercial prospects internationally. It was proposed to restart enrichment on a pilot scale in 2007 and work up to 3 million SWU/yr in three years but, as of 2010, it appears that commissioning will not begin until late 2011.
Production of fuel cladding is undertaken by CNEA subsidiaries. Fuel assemblies are supplied by CONAUR SA, also a CNEA subsidiary, located at the Ezeiza Centre near Buenos Aires. The fuel fabrication plant has a capacity of 150 t/yr for Atucha-type fuel and Candu fuel bundles.
Heavy water is produced by ENSI SE (Empresa Neuquina de Servicios de Ingeniería), which is jointly owned by CNEA and the Province of Neuquén where the 200 t/yr plant is located (at Arroyito). It is operated by Neuquen Engineering services, majority owned by the provincial government. This was rebuilt and scaled to produce enough for Atucha 2 and the three following reactors at a cost of about $1 billion, and so now has capacity for export.
There are no plans for reprocessing used fuel, though an experimental facility was run around in the early 1970s at Ezeiza.
Radioactive waste management
The April 1997 National Law of Nuclear Activity assigns responsibility to CNEA for radioactive waste management, and creates a special fund for the purpose. Operating plants pay into this.
Low and intermediate-level wastes including used fuel from research reactors are handled at CNEA's Ezeiza facility. Used fuel is stored at each power plant. There is some dry storage at Embalse.
CNEA is also responsible for plant decommissioning, which must be funded progressively by each operating plant.
INVAP has built several research reactors for CNEA and international customers in Egypt (ETRR-2), Algeria (NUR), Peru (RP-0 & RP-10) and Australia (OPAL).
Its first was RA-6, a 0.5 MWt open-pool multi-purpose research reactor designed by CNEA and inaugurated in 1982. It is located in San Carlos de Bariloche, Rio Negro, on the premises of the Centro Atómico Bariloche (CAB) belonging to CNEA. It is principally for training, and uses 20%-enriched fuel.
RA-8 followed it and operated 1997-2001 in Pilcaniyeu, Río Negro, testing fuel enriched up to 3.4% and control rods for CAREM. It was an open-pool zero power unit.
In May 2013 INVAP was awarded contracts to build the RA-10 research reactor in Argentina and the Brazil Multipurpose Reactor (RMB) there, with Australia’s OPAL reactor being the reference design for both. The two reactors will be used for the production of medical radioisotopes, as well as irradiation tests of advanced nuclear fuel and materials, and neutron beam research. Between them, they will provide the capacity to supply some 40% of global radioisotope demand. The location and schedule of the RA-10 unit has not been announced. The research reactor project is part of the growing bilateral cooperation in nuclear energy between Argentina and Brazil.
Regulation and safety
In 1994, the Nuclear Regulatory Authority (Autoridad Regulatoria Nuclear, ARN) was formed and took over all regulatory functions from the National Board on Nuclear Regulation (Ente Nacional Regulador Nuclear, ENREN) and CNEA. As well as radiation protection, it is responsible for safety, licensing and safeguards. It reports to the President.
Argentina is a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) since 1995 as a non-nuclear weapons state, and has been a party to the Tlatelolco Treatye since 1994. However, full-scope safeguards have operated since 1991 in conjunction with the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for the Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC) under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Argentina has not signed the Additional Protocol in relation to its safeguards agreements with the IAEA. The country is a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
a. In 1969, Siemens and AEG merged their nuclear activities, forming Kraftwerk Union (KWU). In 1977 AEG sold all its shares in KWU to Siemens. In 1987, Siemens-KWU was integrated into Siemens' Power Generation Group and, in 2001, Siemens merged its nuclear activities with Framatome to form Framatome ANP, which was later rebranded as Areva NP. In 2009, Siemens announced its intention to sell its 34% interest in the joint venture to Areva. [Back]
b. The Embalse nuclear power plant also produces the cobalt-60 isotope, which has several medical and industrial uses. [Back]
c. Nucleoelectrica Argentina S.A. comes under the Ministry of Economy. A 1996 law allowed for privatisation of NASA, but this has not occurred. [Back]
d. The state-owned company INVAP (Investigación Aplicada) SE formed in 1976 undertakes applied research, engineering development and services to both domestic and foreign customers. It has been responsible for designing and building research reactors overseas, including Australia's 20 MW OPAL research reactor, and is a significant export earner. See its website at www.invap.net [Back]
e. The 1967 Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean, known as the Treaty of Tlatelolco, was signed by all Latin American countries other than Argentina and Cuba in 1967. [Back]
1. CAREM small reactor set for Formosa province, World Nuclear News, (1 December 2009) [Back]
2. Uranium 2007: Resources, Production and Demand, OECD and International Atomic Energy Agency, published by OECD Publishing, ISBN: 9789264047662 (June 2008) [Back]
Country Nuclear Power Profiles: Argentina, International Atomic Energy Agency
Datafile: Argentina, Nuclear Engineering International, August 1997