"Once seated, they went straight to the point, typical of a meeting with Americans", says José Luis Antúnez, President of NA-SA, Nucleoeléctrica Argentina S.A. "Between courtesies and exquisite diplomacy, Ann Ganzer said that it was a reserved visit, as a friendly nation and that she was concerned about the possibility of the country buying a Chinese reactor for its next high power nuclear plant".
The head of the State Department's diplomatic mission was at the Villa Martelli building, which houses the company that operates Argentina's largest nuclear power plants, on April 6. The tour, which lasted from April 4 to 8, included meetings at Casa Rosada with Juan Manzur, Jorge Taiana and Daniel Filmus. Meeting with the Secretary of Strategic Affairs, Gustavo Beliz. Other meetings at the Foreign Ministry and a visit to the Atucha site in Buenos Aires and Impsa, in Mendoza, to observe the development of the Carem, a prototype of a modular reactor developed by the National Atomic Energy Commission (CNEA). Before each host, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Non-Proliferation Policy repeated the same thing, in the company of a rare State Department intelligence expert, Dominic Casino, of whom she said: "I stole it from the FBI".
The passage of the mission left a storm in the Government. The Frente de Todos block in Congress summoned Gustavo Beliz because a procedure to activate the last stage of the agreement with China aimed at activating Atucha III has been delayed for more than one hundred days. Deputies and Senators are also on alert for the Carem. The country has been building the prototype since 2014. Paralyzed during the Macrismo administration, the work is scheduled to be completed in 2026 and competes with a similar development in the United States. Argentina is one of only three countries in the world with the model under construction, together with Korea and China. Completely made in the country, the design is intended for domestic supply but also for export, a strategic factor capable of producing one billion dollars in each batch and which places the country at the table of the world's owners. "If the Chinese enter Atucha, we want to enter Carem", the US embassy transmitted to the Foreign Ministry in a message that reached the ears of the Argentine scientific authorities.
Tea for three
Ganzer climbed the six floors of the Villa Martelli building to the boardroom. He watched the river horizon through the large windows. Coffee and cookies were served while the entire board of directors settled in to listen to her. They dispensed with a translator to speak directly in English. Ganzer took the floor, which he then shared with the ex-FBI, the only alternative interlocutor in the delegation.
He told us that what they were going to say did not imply undue interference in Argentina's internal affairs," Antúnez continued, "but he wanted us to know exactly what was going to happen to the country if it contracted the Chinese reactor. They said that this technology was still immature. That it would not be mature until around 2030 and that the reactors have suffered from many failures: fuel failures, machine failures, design failures".
Casino then took the floor and handed out confidential documents that he later withdrew, as in every meeting they held. They were satellite photos of an alleged spill in a Chinese nuclear power plant, an alert for possible theft of information from Argentina, papers and newspaper articles on security failures in the Asian giant.
"The dialogue was cordial even though it dealt with very sharp issues, especially in that statement and our response," continues Antúnez. "They argued that the Chinese Hualong reactor, which Argentina is about to buy, has almost no experience of use and has a design that would not pass the approval of a Western regulator. As a friendly country, they suggested not to buy it and replace it with Western technology. This gentleman continued showing newspaper clippings, technical things and that was the end of their part".
Antúnez thanked, said that he took note and that he had just listened to the presentation about the poor quality of the product that the country was about to acquire and the Western non-tolerability, but continued: "This selection of the Chinese product was made by us in 2014, eight years ago we made it to incorporate it to the fleet of reactors, we studied it very carefully, we studied its predecessors, the program, and for us it was the right machine when we chose it and it still is today".
He listed the Chinese development: 4 machines in operation, 6 under construction and 19 in planning: "It can hardly be an immature technology", he added.
- How can it be possible that the Chinese plants do not stand up to the analysis of a Western regulator, he asked, when a few days ago the British accepted the Hualong reactor, the same one selected by Argentina?
Ganzer is said to have been taken aback by the answer, and sought to get out of the way.
- That was because the British regulator didn't want to listen to us," he said.
- Or is it because it is an independent regulator? --replied the President of NA-SA.
Argentina has experience with Western suppliers. Atucha I, Atucha II and Embalse, its three electricity-producing nuclear reactors, were built with German and Canadian technology. "Irreproachable suppliers," added the host, "in spite of that, the three machines had problems, and serious ones.
The devil knows by old age
The American diplomat's move was commented on everywhere. Many of her remarks sounded racist and bananas. "Backyard", one of her interlocutors at the Rosada thought he understood. It was not the exact word, but that's what he understood. "We don't want China meddling in our backyard," she heard Ganzer say. The official went so far as to say at the table that if the Chinese purchase continued, the Zárate site could have an explosion. Manzur was startled, and not about the backyard, as he nodded his head.
On Friday, May 13, a group of senators led by Oscar Parrilli toured Atucha with the board of directors of NA-SA and CNEA. They left alarmed. They learned about the details of the tour, the dialogues and requests and the delay of the projects due to papers held up by the Government.
The US mission arrived in the context of a permanent working group between the United States and Argentina, called the Joint Committee on Nuclear Energy Cooperation (JSCNEC). With annual meetings between August and October, in one country or the other, and meetings suspended during pandemics, the table works with the agenda oriented to nuclear terrorism sought by the United States but outside Argentina. Local scientists accept the rules of the game although they dispute that it should become a central nuclear policy item for the country. That is why they criticized the local rush: the meeting was held "in an early and untimely manner", according to an internal document, despite the fact that the CNEA had asked to postpone it.
Why the rush? It was the first post-Macrism meeting and with Joe Biden's government just when the country was preparing to close the contract with China and while the works of Carem, directed by Adriana Serquis, were being relaunched.
The 2014 contract with China, from country to country, is framed in a law. The Macrism did not annul it although it did not move forward and Alberto Fernandez ordered last year to accelerate it. In December, NA-SA finished the technical-commercial project. And on February 1st it delivered the papers to the Government and since then only the last step is missing: to close the fine print of the financing and execute the work. "That is where our concern for the delay arose", says Antúnez, the same thing he told the senators. And he blamed Strategic Affairs, Economy and Foreign Ministry. "More than 100 days have passed from the 170-day deadline we set ourselves at the signing of the contract, and we still don't know anything. Prioritizing the project depends on the Secretariat of Strategic Affairs; proposing financial conditions to the Chinese corresponds to Economy at a time when more financing will be needed than in 2014 when Argentina was out of debt. It is up to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to initiate the approach within the treaty".
Regarding Carem and the US interest, there have been indications since March when the issue appeared in the first lines of the agenda. "What we see here is that the Carem project is at the center of the US delegation's interest," complained Diego Hurtado, vice-president of the CNEA. "They want to go and see the pressure vessel in Mendoza, they want to visit Atucha, and the truth is that Carem is gaining momentum, the CNEA managed to get it on track after the paralysis of the Macrismo government and now there is a policy of great effort to move it forward".
The United States is also developing that model but it is not the only interest: Ganzer told the press that they would like to partner with Argentina to do it.
What is that about? "A precedent to think about it is what happened with the Arsat III during the Macri government", says Diego Hurtado. "Argentina put Arsat I and II into orbit in 2014 and 2015, a goal conceived in 2006. Satellites. A dazzling success. Congress passed a law in 2015. In 2018, the Macri government abandoned the Satellite Industry Promotion Law and tried to create a company with 51 percent of the American company Hughes and 49 percent of the Argentine company for the development of Arsat III. Is something similar being sought now? Is that collaboration between states? Why should Argentina share a technology developed 100 percent by its nuclear sector? Why should we accept it if we can compete in the international high-tech market segment? A power reactor, to produce electricity, 100% national is the goal we need to reach. And we are not talking about soybeans.
The energy-supply-shaken world is playing for technological change by 2050, when coal and gas will have to be replaced by clean mechanisms for power generation. 2050 is only 28 years away, says Antúnez. And nuclear is a replacement energy, just as the United States seeks to disconnect China from Latin America.
Was all this a surprise? "Those of us who are older know that the U.S. has not been sympathetic to Argentina's nuclear program since the 1950s, not since yesterday," says Antúnez. "And in general all the official visits are aimed at us not going ahead with the nuclear program. So for me, no surprise. We didn't know the subject of the meeting, but we suspected that something was coming because there has been a lot published to the effect that Argentina should not buy the Chinese reactor."
"The PRC stole a Canadian nuclear secret to build a pirated copy of a Canadian research reactor, Canadian government sources say," the 2000 item notes. PRC is People's Republic of China. Stolen and pirated, the tone of repeated criticism at every encounter.