The Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan is a reminder to Latin America and the rest of the world of the urgency of ending our reliance on nuclear power. Japan is already taking a second look: Prime Minister Naoto Kan recently announced plans to postpone construction of 14 new reactors until 2030 and invest in renewable energy sources. (A not-insignificant decision given that 30 percent of Japan’s electricity is produced by nuclear power.)
Other countries are following suit. China put on hold the construction of 25 new reactors. Italy passed a referendum blocking new facilities. Switzerland decided to abandon the construction of new plants, and Germany will phase out all nuclear reactors by 2022. Meanwhile, Venezuela scrapped its plans to build a 1,200-MW plant in cooperation with Russia, and Ukraine reported that it will cost more than $2 billion to fix the cracks on the sarcophagus built over Chernobyl´s defunct reactor.
The share of nuclear power in the Latin American electricity grid is small to begin with. There are only six reactors distributed across the region: two each in Brazil, Argentina and Mexico. They generate less than 4 percent of the electricity in each country. Why build more?
Nuclear energy is dangerous, expensive and unsustainable, with issues that range from the mining of uranium and ensuring the security of power generation plants to the intractable problem of storing radioactive waste, such as plutonium, that will remain hazardous for thousands of years. It also carries big risks associated with arms proliferation.
Finally, nuclear energy is certainly not an answer to the climate crisis. The emissions associated with mining and enriching of uranium, building and decommissioning plants, and storing radioactive waste for centuries surpasses the emissions of any renewable source, perhaps reaching those of a gas-fueled plant.1 The cost is also higher than most modern renewable sources such as wind, small hydro, biomass, and solar energy (photovoltaic) generation, due to operational decommissioning and waste storage costs.
Let’s start with the security issue about proliferation and dangers associated with sensitive materials. There has always been a close connection between civil nuclear programs for electricity generation and military nuclear programs.
Civilian nuclear power provides both the technological capability and the fissile material for nuclear weapons production. Why should we run the risk of creating more nuclear weapons? In 1990, Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello revealed the existence of a facility in the Amazon that had been built secretly during the military regime to test nuclear devices. In 2008, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and French President Nicholas Sarkozy revived the Brazilian nuclear program with an agreement on a technology transfer to build the first Brazilian nuclear submarine, provide uranium enrichment, and secure financing to build the Angra 3 reactor.
More troubling, the agreement triggered similar announcements elsewhere in the region. Argentina announced it would expand its own civilian nuclear program and Venezuela said it would build a nuclear reactor.
Besides proliferation, there are also concerns about the capacity of Latin American governments to protect nuclear plants and prevent nuclear materials from falling into the wrong hands. The struggle against the illegal arms and drugs trades already serves as a good indication of how unprepared the region is to deal with theft, leakage or gang attacks. The United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency Illicit Trafficking Database registered 1,995 incidents between 1993 and 2010 involving the use, theft, loss, and illegal trade of weapons-
usable nuclear material and nuclear or radioactive sources.
The Fukushima crisis reminded the world that nuclear power is an extremely unforgiving technology. Even a well-organized and well-
resourced country was absolutely unprepared to handle melting reactors. What guarantees do we have that a major disaster won’t happen again?
Instead of looking into the rearview mirror of power generation, Latin America should leapfrog to a clean and sustainable electricity matrix by investing its limited resources on clean energy that will generate lower emissions and more jobs, with a decentralized and diversified portfolio of wind, small hydro, biomass, geothermal, and solar.
In early May, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the Special Report on Renewable Sources.2 The report indicates that 80 percent of the world energy supply can be met by renewable sources by 2050—avoiding emissions equivalent to 560 Gigatonnes of CO2. Most of the 160 reviewed scenarios estimate that renewables will contribute more to a low-carbon energy supply by 2050 than nuclear power or fossil fuels using carbon capture and storage technologies.
According to the 2010 report “Energy [R]evolution: A Sustainable Latin America Energy Outlook,” by the German space agency, by 2050 the installed capacity of renewable energy in Latin America will increase sixfold, up to 840 gigawatt, and could represent over 98 percent of the electricity grid.3 Until 2020, this growth will be based on the expansion of biomass and wind energy. After 2020, small hydro, geothermal, photovoltaic, and solar thermal energy will complement electricity generation.
For instance, a solar farm in a 25 square kilometer area in the Sonora or Chihuahua desert with an average of 5 kWh/m2 per day could theoretically replace the entire electricity generation from Laguna Verde nuclear power plant in Mexico, assuming an efficiency of 15 percent. In the Brazilian case, both wind power in the south and the northeast coast, and biomass—specifically electricity from sugarcane bagasse—in the southeast are able to complement the energy deficit of hydro plants in the dry season, providing base load power to the country and eliminating the need for nuclear plants.
The introduction of renewable energy into the electricity grid will reduce its future costs. Due to the lower CO2 intensity of the renewable portfolio, by 2050 the renewable energy portfolio should cost 4 cents/kWh less than an electricity matrix based on nuclear power and fossil fuels (factoring in a carbon tax of approximately $50 per metric tonne), by some estimates.4
In the Brazilian electricity market, for example, wind power is commercialized at $80/MWh, while the estimated cost of nuclear energy is at least twice that.5 According to Ildo Sauer of the University of São Paulo, there is a wide range of renewable energy technologies that can be applied to replace nuclear power at half the cost of the Brazilian nuclear program—saving over $13 billion to address the country’s energy needs.
Latin American countries should make the energy revolution a reality and phase out nuclear energy and fossil fuels for a fair, renewable and green future.
4. de Carvalho, J.F., Sauer, I.L., Does Brazil need new nuclear power plants? Energy Policy (2009), doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2008.12.020
5. de Camargo Furtado Marcelo, Avaliação das oportunidades de comercialização de novas fontes de energias renováveis no Brasil, Dissertação apresentada à Escola Politécnica da Universidade de SãoPaulo para obtenção do título de Mestre em Engenharia.São Paulo, 2010