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Nuclear Power in Argentina

(Updated 28 November 2014)

  • Argentina has three nuclear reactors generating about one-tenth of its electricity.
  • Its first commercial nuclear power reactor began operating in 1974.
  • Construction has started on a small locally-designed power reactor prototype, CAREM-25.

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 2012 was 135 TWh, comprising 73 TWh from gas, 30 TWh from hydro, 20 TWh from oil, 3 TWh from coal, 6.4 TWh from nuclear, and 7.5 TWh net import. In 2013, nuclear power provided 5.7 billion kWh of electricity – about 4.4% of total electricity generation, and less than in some previous years. Nuclear capacity increases by 74% with Atucha 2 on line from 2014. The government plans for 15-18% of electricity from nuclear power once intended capacity comes on line. It planned to invest $42 billion in nuclear power by 2013, but in mid-2013 had spent 15% of this.

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

Reactor Location Model Net MWe First power
Atucha 1/Peron 100 km NW of Buenos Aires PHWR (Siemens) 335 1974
Atucha 2/Kirchner   PHWR (Siemens) 692 June 2014
Embalse Córdoba PHWR (CANDU-6) 600 1983
Total (3)     1627 MWe  

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 357 MWe (gross) Atucha plant was built near Lima, 100 km northwest of Buenos Aires. It is now also known as Peron.

Atucha 1 entered commercial operation in 1974. It now uses slightly enriched (0.9%) uranium fuel which has doubled the burn-up from 6 to about 13 GWd/t or more and consequently reduced operating costs by 40%. Atucha 2 has followed suit. Each has a pressure vessel, unlike any other large heavy water reactor.

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.

The life of the Embalse CANDU-6 type plant will be extended by 25 years in partnership with Candu Energy Inc.c 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.

Atucha 2 / Kirchner

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)d 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 was loaded about late in 2013, after loading the 451 fuel assemblies, each 9.76 metres long, which commenced in December 2012. Local content is reported as about 90%. First criticality was achieved early in June 2014, and grid connection was later that month, with full power expected in October. The reactor is also now known as Kirchner.

Its commissioning will avoid the burning of $1.5 billion of oil annually for electricity.

Argentine nuclear power reactors under construction, planned and proposed

Reactor Location Model Gross MWe Construction
start
First power
Carem-25 100 km NW of Buenos Aires CAREM 27 Feb 2014 2018
Under
construction: 1
         
Atucha 3 100 km NW of Buenos Aires PHWR (EC6)? 740 ?   ?
Atucha 4 100 km NW of Buenos Aires PHWR (EC6)? 740 ?   ?
  Formosa CAREM 100-200?   ?
?   PWR or BWR 1000-1600   2023?

New nuclear capacity: fourth and subsequent reactors

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.

The government was talking also with reactor vendors from France, Russia, Japan, South Korea, China and the USA, indicating that subsequent reactors could be LWR type, with Atucha the most likely location. Russia was planning to offer two AES-2006 units, and China was offering 1000 MWe units. Areva said that its Atmea1 reactor is pre-qualified by NASA. A final decision on Atucha 3&4 was pending Atucha 2 completion and possibly Embalse refurbishing, but both of these seemed likely to be PHWR types, probably EC6. In October 2012 the government said that Areva, China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), Kepco, Rosatom and Westinghouse were pre-qualified for tendering in 2013, and in 2013 GE was apparently added to this list.

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 July 2014 a high-level and wide-ranging nuclear cooperation agreement was signed with Russia. This had special significance in the light of Rosatom’s proposal to help build Atucha 3, and an expressed intention to help fund that. Russia’s President Putin said that the new agreement "will become a strong foundation for close cooperation" with Argentina in nuclear power. Discussion with Rosatom was proceeding on units 4&5 at Atucha.

In June 2012 the government had 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. In February 2014 NASA and CNNC signed two agreements covering operations and technology. Under the first, NASA and CNNC will cooperate on issues related to reactor pressure tubes, including engineering, fabrication, operation and maintenance. It also covers the manufacture and storage of nuclear fuel, licensing, life extension and technological advances. This agreement is aimed at both operating and future nuclear power plant projects. The second agreement calls for the transfer of Chinese technology to Argentina. Under the accord, Argentina could act as a technology platform, supplying third countries with nuclear technology incorporating Chinese goods and services.

In July 2014 a high-level agreement was signed by Argentine and Chinese presidents towards construction of Atucha 3 as a PHWR unit, though with NASA to be designer, architect-engineer, builder and operator of it. CNNC will assist by providing most of the equipment and technical services under long-term financing (it operates two similar units at Qinshan). Candu Energy will be a subcontractor to CNNC. In September NASA signed a commercial framework contract with CNNC to progress this, with CNNC’s Qinshan Phase III units (678 MWe net) as reference design for a Candu 6 unit. It will have $3.8 billion in local input and $2 billion from China and elsewhere under a long-term financing arrangement. The framework contract also calls for the creation of five commissions – including one on funding – that will meet in Buenos Aires to develop around 12 specific contracts related to the new reactor. These should be signed during the first few months of 2015.

Another July 2014 agreement covered Chinese cooperation in PWR construction in Argentina, and CNNC claimed that NASA had issued a pre-qualification certificate for the ACP1000 design. However this might become Hualong One.

Possible sites mentioned but unconfirmed for further plants are in Monte Lindo, La Emilia, Riacho Riacho Tohué Pilagá – all on the Paraguay River.

After China secured the contract to build Atucha 3, Rusatom Overseas signed an agreement with Corporación América, an Argentinian holding company, for cooperation in future nuclear energy projects in Argentina. It includes the potential construction of new nuclear plants and cooperation in promoting floating nuclear plants in Argentina and other countries.

CAREM reactor

Another aspect of the 2006 plan was to build a 27 MWe prototype of the CAREM (Central ARgentina de Elementos Modulares) reactor, and construction is now under way at the Atucha site. Authorization for site use and construction was received by CNEA from ARN in September 2013, and first concrete was in February 2014. Some 70% of components will be local manufacture. The ARS 298 million ($64 million) contract for the 200-tonne reactor pressure vessel was signed with considerable fanfare in December 2013 with IMP SA, making it the first such large component to be made in the country. The unit is scheduled to begin cold testing in 2016 and receive its first fuel load in the second half of 2017. Cost is put at ARS 3.5 billion ($450 million).

Developed by CNEA with INVAPe 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. CAREM has its entire primary coolant system within the reactor pressure vessel (11m high, 3.5 m diameter), 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 (listed by IAEA as a research reactor) will be followed by a larger version, 100 MWe or possibly 200 MWe, in the northern Formosa province1by 2021. The site for this is reported as Colony Bouvier, 30 km south of Clorinda, and opposite the city of San Antonio on the Paraguay River, the national border. Paraguay has expressed concern about the project. This larger version is intended for export.

CAREM is under consideration for desalination in Saudi Arabia.

Uranium resources

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.

Fuel cycle

A 150 t/yr mill complex and refinery producing uranium dioxide operated by Dioxitek, a CNEA subsidiary, is at Córdoba. There are plans for Dioxitek to build another plant in the northern Formosa province next to the planned second CAREM reactor.

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 Combustibles Nucleares Argentinos (CONUAR) SA, also a CNEA subsidiary, located at the Ezeiza Centre near Buenos Aires. The fuel fabrication plant has a capacity of 160 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.

R&D

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 critical assembly, no longer operating.

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.

In November 2014 the Nuclear Regulatory Authority granted a construction licence for RA-10, which will be used to increase the country's production of radioisotopes to enable the country to meet 10% of world demand. Currently radioisotopes are produced at the RA-3 research reactor at the Ezeiza Atomic Centre in Buenos Aires province. RA-3, a 10 MWt pool type, began operations in 1967.

There are three other research reactors in operation: RA-1 Enrico Fermi (40 kWt, tank) at Constituyentes Atomic Centre, RA-0 at Cordoba University and RA-4 at Rosario University (both tiny). RA-2 critical assembly is decommissioned.

The IAEA lists CAREM-25 as a 100 MWt research reactor, with construction start in April 2013.

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.

Non proliferation

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 Treatyf since 1994.

In 1991, the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC) was set up. This led to the 1991 Quadripartite Agreement (INFCIRC 435) among Brazil, Argentina, ABACC and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which entered force in 1994 with full-scope safeguards under IAEA auspices.

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.


Further Information

Notes

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. Candu Energy is a subsidiary of SNC-Lavalin Group which took over Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd reactor division in 2011. [Back]

d. Nucleoelectrica Argentina S.A. comes under the Ministry of Economy. A 1996 law allowed for privatisation of NASA, but this has not occurred. [Back]

e. 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]

f. 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]

References

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]

General sources

Country Nuclear Power Profiles: Argentina, International Atomic Energy Agency

Datafile: Argentina, Nuclear Engineering International, August 1997