Argentina nuclear chief: ‘Nuclear energy is part of the decarbonisation solution’

José Luis Antúnez, president of Nucleoeléctrica, talks of the next steps for the industry, and the construction of a new plant with technology and financing from China
<p>The new nuclear plant in Argentina will be a 35-hectare site located in the same complex as Atucha I, pictured, and Atucha II, in Zárate, about 100 km north of Buenos Aires (Image: Nucleoeléctrica)</p>

The new nuclear plant in Argentina will be a 35-hectare site located in the same complex as Atucha I, pictured, and Atucha II, in Zárate, about 100 km north of Buenos Aires (Image: Nucleoeléctrica)

In Argentina, President Alberto Fernández’s government hopes to begin construction of a new nuclear power plant this year. The plant, located in the province of Buenos Aires, will generate 1,200 MW and cost US$8 billion, with the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) expected to finance the majority of the project. The China National Nuclear Corporation will provide the technology for the reactor.

Man in suit and tie sitting at a desk with a computer
Nucleoeléctrica chief José Luis Antúnez: ‘We have to continue to improve nuclear’s image, and demonstrate that it is part of the solution to climate change’. (Image: Nucleoeléctrica)

The project, originally presented in 2015, was relaunched following President Fernández’s visit to Beijing in February, where he confirmed Argentina’s membership of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Although the two governments have already signed the contract for the plant project, many details are yet to be finalised.

As the project moves towards its next steps, José Luis Antúnez, president of Nucleoeléctrica, the state-owned company that operates Argentina’s nuclear facilities, spoke to Diálogo Chino about the plant’s construction and the role of nuclear energy in Argentina’s energy transition.

Diálogo Chino: What is the status of the Argentina–China nuclear project and what are the next steps?
José Luis Antúnez: The contract has been signed and we are now working on the necessary steps to bring it into force. We have a maximum term of nine months to conclude, but we hope to achieve it in less time. We have to close the financial agreement – the credit details and the disbursement schedule. We hope to get the best possible conditions from China, especially now that Argentina has joined the Belt and Road Initiative.

Another important point to be agreed is the transfer of technology. China will provide the enriched uranium necessary for us to manufacture the fuel for the plant in Argentina, which they will supervise. As the agreement was awarded directly and without a tender, it is necessary to demonstrate that the price and financing are reasonable. An environmental impact study must also be carried out.

What will the nuclear power plant’s construction look like and how long will it take?
Once the contract enters into force, we’ll receive the first disbursement from China and start working to get the plant in service, which will take eight years. The work will be divided into 19 buildings in total, including one for the reactor, another for the turbine, and another for the control room, among others, on a 35-hectare site.

We will award US$500 million in supply purchases to Argentinean industries and we will train future operators for the plant. We will hire 5,000 people at the peak of construction and more than 600 once it is in permanent operation. With this new plant, Atucha [the site of the already operational Atucha I and II stations] will become Argentina’s nuclear hub.

The nuclear power plant will have a Hualong reactor, developed and already used in several plants in China. What are its characteristics and what does it mean for Argentina, which has a long nuclear history with other technologies?
The Hualong reactor represents a new horizon for Argentina, as it could lead to further development of our local technological and scientific sector. We are going to acquire a new technology and take advantage of what we have already learned in other projects. In 2012, the Argentine government approved the technology but there was criticism that, at that time, it had not yet been tested. We were sure that China would be successful and fortunately we did not have to regret it. China already has four Hualong reactors in operation and six in the pipeline.

alberto fernandez and xi jinping pose with chinstraps on and flags of China and Argentina behind.
Read more: Argentina joins China’s Belt and Road Initiative

The original 2015 agreement signed with China also contemplated the development of another nuclear power plant, but with Candu reactors – a Canadian technology with which Argentina has much more experience. Do you plan to reactivate it with funding from China?
We want to get Hualong up and running before we talk about another project with China. Beyond that, the idea is to reactivate the Candu reactor. For now, Nucleoeléctrica, with its modest financial resources, is working on the engineering of the project. The purchases will be made from the Embalse nuclear power plant [in Córdoba Province], which operates with a Candu reactor. This does not mean that the reactor will be installed there, but that it will be designed there.

In addition to the new Hualong power plant, Argentina has been cooperating with China on several other nuclear energy projects. What are the next steps?
China recently contracted us to carry out the life-extension engineering for the Candu power plant in Qinshan City. It’s a way of gaining mutual trust. There are two more Candu projects in the pipeline in China, so there could be some very interesting things in the coming years.

What role does nuclear energy have for Argentina in its energy transition?
The production of more than 60% of the world’s energy emits carbon dioxide. The challenge is that, by 2050, energy must be produced with zero emissions. This is a huge task. Nuclear power is a clean technology and allows for large power plants. It is part of the decarbonisation solution. All nations are realising this. China was the first, with a programme to build 150 reactors in 30 years. Argentina will continue to increase not only its nuclear capacity, but also hydro, solar and wind.

Despite this, there is still some rejection of nuclear energy in the country. What image do you think it has in Argentina?
I see the image improving, but we are somewhat out of step with other countries. We have environmental groups condemning the use of nuclear energy and we have legislation in provinces prohibiting its use. Nuclear energy has its flaws – it is an investment-intensive industry. We have to continue to improve our image, work well and demonstrate that, in the face of climate change, nuclear is part of the solution.