Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Interview: Global Insider: Argentina's Nuclear Program

Global Insider: Argentina's Nuclear Program
Matt Peterson | Bio | 10 Nov 2010
World Politics Review

Argentina recently announced that it will relaunch its uranium-enrichment program, as part of the country's ongoing return to nuclear power. In an e-mail interview, W. Alejandro Sanchez, a research fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, discussed the history and significance of Argentina's nuclear program.

WPR: What is the historical context of Argentina's nuclear program?

W. Alejandro Sanchez: Argentina's nuclear program dates back to its last military government (1976-1983). At the time there were reports that Buenos Aires was aggressively pushing for a nuclear program with the goal of building nuclear weapons. In part, this was a response to interstate tensions and other nuclear programs in the region. During that period, Brazil was also under a military dictatorship (1964-1985) and had a secret nuclear program of its own. Additionally, Argentina had tensions with Chile, then ruled by Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

After the fall of the military government, the nuclear-weapons program stopped but nuclear research continued. The country has two working nuclear power plants, Atucha I and the Embalse. The construction of another plant, Atucha II, began in 1980 but is yet to be completed.

WPR: Why is Argentina planning to produce enriched uranium?

Sanchez: Buenos Aires is trying to expand its pool of energy resources and nuclear power is a natural alternative. Like many other countries, Argentina's population has been steadily growing. According to a census, the Argentine population reached 36 million in 2001; in 2009, official estimates put the total at over 40 million. And the more people there are, the more energy they require. The country had an energy crisis in 2004, when a shortage of natural gas affected local industries.

While Argentina needs to maximize its energy output, concerns remain over nuclear safety. In 2009 there was an incident in which cesium 137 was stolen from a Baker Atlas Co. oil-drilling operation. The thieves demanded $500,000 as ransom. The cesium was ultimately found by authorities. However, the incident highlights the fact that producing radioactive material needs to go hand in hand with well-prepared security forces to guard it.

WPR: How would a robust nuclear program affect Argentina's strategic position in Latin America and more broadly?

Sanchez: Resorting to nuclear energy is increasingly common across the world, so Argentina is trying to establish itself as a major player among rising nuclear powers. In recent years, President Christina de Kirchner has signed nuclear-cooperation agreements with a number of states, including Russia, Brazil and Algeria. By developing a strong home-grown nuclear program, combined with a coherent foreign policy, Buenos Aires can project itself as a nuclear-energy power. Until its 2001-2002 economic meltdown, Argentina was regarded as a South American powerhouse, and during the past couple of years the country has been trying to regain some of its lost international luster. Becoming an exporter of nuclear energy and technology is a good means to achieve this goal.

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