Nuclear Power in Argentina

Briefing Paper # 96

August 2007



Electricity consumption in Argentina has grown strongly since 1990. Per capita consumption is 2007 kWh/yr (in 2002). Nuclear energy provides 8.6% of the country's electricity - about 7 billion kWh per year, and about one third of production comes from hydro.

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% is from autoproducers and private generators.

Nuclear industry development

The country's Atomic Energy Commission (CNEA*) was set up in 1950 and resulted in a spate of activity centred on nuclear R&D, including construction of several research reactors including a 5 MW unit commissioned in 1968. Today five research reactors are operated by CNEA and others.

* Comision Nacional de Energia Atomica

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 Siemens-KWU AG - with 100% financing - was accepted.

That plant - 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 in the Cordoba 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. This Embalse plant entered commercial operation in 1984, running on natural uranium fuel.

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 Kraftwerk Union (KWU). However, work proceeded slowly due to lack of funds and was suspended in 1994 with the plant 81% complete.

In 1994 Nucleoelectrica Argentina SA (NASA) was set up to take over the nuclear power plants from CNEA and oversee construction of Atucha-2. It comes under the Ministry of Economy. A 1996 law allowed for privatisation of NASA, but this has not occurred.

Operating Argentine power reactors
ReactorsLocationModelNet MWe First power
Atucha 1 Buenos Aries PHWR - Siemens 335 1974
Embalse Cordoba PHWR - Candu 6 600 1983
Total (2) 935 MWe

In 2003 plans for completing the 692 MWe Atucha-2 reactor were presented to the government. 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 for some US$ 400 million.

The state-owned company Investigacion Aplicada (INVAP 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 new 20 MW OPAL research reactor and is a significant export earner.

CNEA and INVAP have developed the promising CAREM nuclear reactor. It is a modular 100 MWt/27 MWe simplified pressurised water reactor with integral steam generators designed to be used for electricity generation (27 MWe or up to 100 MWe) 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. It is a mature design which could be deployed within a decade.

In August 2006 the government announced a US$ 3.5 billion strategic plan for the country's nuclear power sector. This involves completing Atucha-2 and extending the life of Atucha-1 and Embalse. Extending the life of the Embalse CANDU-6 type plant by 25 years in partnership with Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd (AECL) is expected to cost $400 million. Completing Atucha-2 by 2010 is expected to cost US$ 600 million, including 600 tonnes of heavy water: $400 million.

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 will be undertaken, to start construction after 2010, and US$ 2 billion has been projected for this. In July 2007 Nuclearelectrica signed an agreement with AECL to establish contract and project terms for construction of one and possibly two 740 MWe CANDU-6 reactors, as well as completing Atucha-2. A government decision on this project is expected in April 2008.

Another aspect of the 2006 plan is to move towards building a prototype of the CAREM reactor.

Fuel cycle

Argentine uranium resources listed in the Red Book total only about 15,000 tU, though the CNEA estimates that there is some 55,000 tU as "exploration targets". Uranium exploration and a little mining was carried out from the mid 1950s, but the CNEA Sierra Pintada mine in Mendoza 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 Sierra Pintada mine in the central west. Reserves there and at Cerro Solo in the south total less than 8000 tU. A resumption of uranium mining is 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.

A 150 t/yr mill complex and refinery producing uranium dioxide operated by Dioxitek, a CNEA subsidiary, is at Cordoba.

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.

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.

Over 1983-89, INVAP operated a small (20,000 SWU/yr) diffusion enrichment plant for CNEA at Pilcaniyeu. 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. It is proposed to restart enrichment on a pilot scale in 2007. 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.

Heavy water is produced by Empresa Neuquina de Servicios de Ingeneria (ENSI SE) which is jointly owned by CNEA and the Province of Neuquen where the 200 t/yr plant is located (at Arroyito). This was scaled to produce enough for Atucha-2 and the three following reactors, and so now has capacity for export. It will nevertheless need $200 million expansion to supply 600 tonnes of heavy water to Atucha-2 by end of 2009.

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 federal Radioactive Waste Management Act 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 spent fuel from research reactors is handled at CNEA's Ezeiza facility. Spent 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.

Regulation and safety

In 1994 the Nuclear Regulatory Authority (ARN - Autoridad Regulatoria Nuclear) was formed and took over all regulatory functions from the national Nuclear Regulatory Board 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 Treaty 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 IAEA auspices. It is a member of the Nuclear Suppliers' Group. Argentina has not signed the Additional Protocol in relation to its safeguards agreements with the IAEA.


Main References:
IAEA 2003, Country Nuclear Power Profiles
Nuclear Engineering International August 1997, Datafile: Argentina.
Nuclear Engineering International Nov 2006, Atucha 2: nearly there.


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