Recently, the Secretariat of Energy of the Nation announced the repair of the Atucha II power plant, after 10 months of inactivity due to an incident that was difficult to resolve. This achievement is a source of satisfaction for Argentina and, in particular, for its nuclear community, which shows an exceptional technical level and motivation.
The repair of the plant has been a demonstration of the value of the human capital - so difficult to build and so easy to squander - that houses the accumulated knowledge in the nuclear field. This asset must play a central role in one of the most important challenges facing our country: generating wealth to overcome the current critical situation.
The news comes at a time when nuclear energy in the world is at a turning point after decades of relative inertia.
First, because of the momentum being gained by the energy transition related to climate change.
Second, because the Russian invasion of Ukraine highlighted the vulnerability of fossil-based energy supply.
Third, because of the high expectations surrounding the increase in nuclear power generation based on technologies grouped under the Generation III and Generation IV designations. These technologies are receiving substantial financing from both private and public sources, especially in the area of small modular reactors (SMRs).
In Argentina, there is a debate on whether to continue using CANDU technology with natural uranium for power reactors or to replace it with enriched uranium plants, such as the Hualong-1 reactor, which would be purchased from China.
Some even suggest eliminating the nuclear option for future energy supply altogether. Overlapping this debate, the country is moving forward with the construction of CAREM, the first domestically produced SMR.
Argentina needs to increase electricity generation at competitive prices to boost industrial development. A critical reading of reality should assign a role to each generation technology according to the country's characteristics. In our opinion, Argentina does not need the State to invest in new nuclear power sources in the short term (~ 10 years) because:
The country has enough gas to extract and export as transitional energy in the next two to three decades, replacing liquid fuels and facilitating the expansion of the national generation park with combined cycle gas-fired power plants financed by private investors.
The electricity generated by the new nuclear sources under consideration would be several times more expensive than that obtained from gas. According to our estimates, over the approximately 12 years it would take to repay the Hualong-1 loan, the power generated would cost about 4.5 times more than the average for all generators in the country, resulting in an estimated loss of $1.3 billion per year. A similar factor would apply to power generated by a CANDU.
In a country that is on the verge of demonstrating that its industry can manufacture small-scale reactors, such as CAREM, and whose modularization makes it possible to achieve any capacity needed, it is paradoxical to consider purchasing a turnkey reactor with foreign technology.
We believe that the best approach would be to direct human resources and investments to the task of completing CAREM 25 in two years and power CAREM in five.
With 70 years of state support, Argentina has developed a mature nuclear industry with the capacity to produce and export SMR reactors. This can provide solutions to our most pressing problems: the generation of added value for our exports and the creation of quality jobs.
CAREM is not alone; of the more than 80 SMRs under development, 33 are similar. So, what are Argentina's chances of playing a role in the niche of opportunities that will probably open up in these years and of capturing a share of the international market?
It would be opportune to coordinate the resources of the public sector with the private industrial complex that complements it in order to quickly have an export CAREM and set itself the epic challenge of exporting the first one by the end of this decade.
The close relationship with Brazil, a supplier of enriched uranium, could be enhanced through a strategic partnership to create a nuclear market in Latin America before it is occupied by global powers. The Argentine nuclear industry could aspire to become a major player in the export market, contributing with high value-added products to the growth of the knowledge economy.
Ultimately, it is a matter of setting priorities. Nuclear power generation in Argentina, with its three plants, generates net benefits.
If the State were to reinvest them in the expansion of the sector to finance CAREM 25 and the power plant, we would see a nuclear flourishing as never before in our history, without the need for State subsidies. This growth would generate challenges, enthusiasm and expectations among professionals and technicians in the sector, significantly improving their job prospects and providing the country with a new and genuine source of wealth.w