Is Chile Next? The Effect of Japan’s Earthquake on Nuclear Energy Ambitions in South America

While Argentina, Brazil and Mexico are currently the only nuclear energy producers in Latin America, other countries in the region have considered the idea of building nuclear power plants. Recently, Chile has been perusing the nuclear market with energy on its mind. Last month, the Chilean government signed a treaty with France on uranium development and this week Chile was poised to sign a major agreement on nuclear energy cooperation with the United States to coincide with President Obama’s visit to Santiago. However, the nuclear momentum has been interrupted by the tragic events unfolding on the other side of the Pacific.

Chileans are paying careful attention to the nuclear crisis in Japan, as it rings close to home. Both Chile and Japan are located on the infamous Pacific Ring of Fire that concentrates the most violent seismic activity of the world. Japan’s recent 9.0 magnitude earthquake came almost exactly a year after Chile’s 8.8 magnitude earthquake. Both countries experienced tsunamis in the immediate aftermath. If Chile were to build a nuclear power plant, would it be safe? Or could it be vulnerable to a nuclear meltdown similar to what is happening in Japan?

Nuclear power plant accidents are rare but catastrophic. Improved plant designs and careful location selection should reduce this threat considerably. There are a few design options available between light (Pressurized Water Reactor-PWR and Boiling Water Reactor-BWR) and heavy water reactors (Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor-PHWR) with distinct advantages and disadvantages regarding efficiency and costs along the fuel cycle. Brazil, Mexico and Japan have all adopted variants of the light water reactor (the breached Japanese power plant is BWR); Argentina has embraced the heavy water design (PHWR). However, when considering a topography with a higher than normal probability of experiencing cataclysmic natural disasters (like Japan and Chile), selecting the location of the plant is of the utmost importance.

But is there any location in Chile where a major seismic event would be highly unlikely? The answer is probably not. If selecting a location in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico provides any guidance, proximity to users has in the past been the single most important determinant of location. Existing Latin American plants built over 30 years ago are located next to large urban areas in order to minimize distribution costs. Yet, the crisis in Japan makes it considerably less likely that Chilean voters would put distribution benefits ahead of safety concerns.

Civil society, when in opposition, can thwart the location of nuclear facilities. “Not in my backyard” rallies, increasingly popular in South America, could steamroll proponents of nuclear energy in the country. Given the two devastating earthquakes on both sides of the Pacific within a year, a decision to build a nuclear energy plant would bring major demonstrations. Marcelo Tokman, former Chilean energy minister agrees, “in fact, we have a civil society that increasingly is more active in opposing projects in hydropower, coal plants, and even mining. Given this, if the decision was made to advance with nuclear energy, undoubtedly there would be numerous protests.”

For now, the current Chilean government administration of Sebastián Piñera is still waiting to see how events in Japan continue to unfold. His government went ahead with the signing of a U.S.-Chile agreement on nuclear energy this past Friday. It seems President Piñera is keeping the nuclear option open, perhaps as a bargaining chip to make sure that the U.S. provides more support for the development of alternative energy sources, such as wind, solar and geo-thermal technologies. Chile’s energy security is one of the nation’s main concern, and rightly so. How it will be solved remains an open question, but one that hardly will be answered by Chileans alone.