Nuclear power in Argentina: anti-proliferation fiddling while the world burns

Argentina’s third nuclear power plant, Atucha II, a.k.a. Presidente Nestor Kirchner, went critical in early June of this year and will reach full power—roughly 745 megawatts—within weeks if not days. This will give Argentina some 5.5 billion kilowatt-hours of clean electricity every year (assuming a 90 percent capacity factor), and avoid the dumping of some 3 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) every year into our planet’s atmosphere. The decision to build Atucha II was announced in 1979, which means that 33 years elapse before that announcement bore fruit. Why did it take so long?

In short, because the countries that could have helped Argentina build the reactor decided to withhold that help in an attempt to force Argentina to conform to anti-proliferation policies that were based on the premise that operators of power reactors would use them to make explosive for a nuclear bomb.

The history of nuclear proliferation has proven this premise to be absurd. But that matters not to the army of North American anti-proliferation “experts” inside and outside government. It matters not, because they are concerned less about stemming nuclear proliferation than about blocking civilian nuclear energy.

The countries that could have but did not help Argentina with its third power reactor were, principally, the U.S., Canada, and West Germany. Canada and West Germany had each, during the mid-1970s, sold Argentina a heavy water (deuterium oxide) natural uranium power reactor. The German reactor was built at Lima, in Buenos Aires province; construction of the Canadian one began at Cordoba in the west of the country (the machine put its first power into the grid in 1983). Argentina decided in 1979 that it wanted a third reactor, and asked the Germans and Canadians for bids. But the international civilian nuclear goalposts had moved drastically since Argentina had bought those first two reactors.

What moved the goal posts was reaction in the anti-proliferation establishments in the U.S. and Canadian governments, to India’s nuclear test in 1974. India had made plutonium in a research reactor that Canada had given it in the late-1950s. It did not matter that the reactor was not a power reactor like a CANDU; what mattered was Canada’s official view that Canada and India had agreed that the reactor would be used for peaceful purposes only. India, then and ever since, disagreed with that interpretation. When India exploded its device in 1974, Canada’s response was to join with the United States to attempt to tighten control of subsequent nuclear agreements, to make recipients of Canadian civilian nuclear technology agree to so many irrelevant and symbolic gestures of good anti-proliferation intent that some recipients could not help wondering if the game was really worth the candle.

Canada’s post-1974 anti-proliferation zeal was more out of a desire to mollify the U.S. than anything else. And the U.S. was, and for most of its nuclear history has been, rather selective in its efforts to stem proliferation. Because the sad truth is that the U.S. cannot, and with the exceptions of Iraq and Libya never has been able to, prevent determined countries from acquiring nuclear weapons or weapons capability. But it can make life miserable for some countries that show an unseemly disinclination to formalize the generally accepted anti-proliferation lip-service that is embodied in such international mechanisms as the Non Proliferation Treaty and the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Argentina was one of the countries whose unseemly disinclination for empty lip-service galled the U.S. Like some other countries including India, Argentina did not appreciate what it felt was the breezy and self-interested insensitivity on the part of the U.S. and the other NPT weapons states to its unique security worries. For this reason, Argentina for a quarter century refused to accede to the NPT (it eventually did sign, in 1995). By the time it had decided to build a third power reactor, in 1979, Argentina’s refusal to accede to the NPT became the reason (pretext might be a better word) for the Americans to pressure both Canada and West Germany to condition any reactor sale on full-scope safeguards—a condition that Argentina had been adamant it would not accept.

Another thing that galled the U.S. was Argentina’s preference for the heavy water natural uranium reactor fuel cycle. This kept Argentina free of dependence on enriched uranium, a commodity on which the U.S. thought it and selected other countries had a monopoly. This commercial self-interest received support from the anti-proliferation crowd: received wisdom in the American anti-proliferation establishment has always been that the heavy water fuel cycle is particularly proliferation prone—in spite of the fact that every successful weapons program, in every nuclear weapons state, inside or outside the NPT, has incorporated the ability to separate uranium isotopes.

Canada was particularly inflexible in demanding that Argentina accept full-scope safeguards. This had the effect in Argentina of simply ruling out another CANDU purchase. The West Germans showed far better sales acumen. They demanded full-scope safeguards only on a package that included both a reactor and a heavy water production unit. The Argentines slipped through that easy loophole by buying only the reactor, thereby avoiding full safeguards (see John Redick “Nuclear Illusions: Argentina and Brazil,” p. 5).

It has always been unclear whether American commercial nuclear sanctions policy is intended to actually stem proliferation, or to simply serve the same purpose as other economic sanctions: to apply commercial pressure in order to compel a regime to act in a certain way. I doubt many American officials could articulate a coherent differentiation. The issue is moot, in light of a salient and too-often-unasked question. That question is: what effect did American policy on Argentina’s third power reactor have on Argentina’s actual decisions regarding a military nuclear program?

The answer is, none. Unbeknownst to the deuterium-obsessed experts in the U.S. anti-proliferation establishment, Argentina in the 1970s was developing the capability to separate uranium isotopes—a far more important capability to a weapons program than running a heavy water power reactor. Argentina formally announced this capability in 1983, when it revealed a gaseous diffusion facility at a site in the southern part of the country near the Chilean border.

American anti-proliferationists were gobsmacked. The Argentines had done what U.S. experts had always assumed could not and would not be done: they had figured out how to separate uranium-235 from uranium-238. It is a bit puzzling why U.S. experts would be gobsmacked. This was not the first time that assumption had proved laughably wrong, and it would not be the last. As far as I can tell, the revelations of uranium separation capability in Argentina, Brazil, India, Pakistan, North Korea, South Africa, Iraq, and Iran had as little effect on dislodging the deuterium-mania in the U.S. as the revelations about the same capability in the USSR, UK, China, and France.

So why did U.S. anti-proliferationists continue to focus all their attention on heavy water? Because, as I mentioned above, their objective is to stem not weapons proliferation so much as nuclear energy. In the case of Argentina, the 1983 enrichment revelation ought to have told American (and Canadian) policymakers that the hitherto-unknown military nuclear program was now out in the open and that that program’s envisioned enemy, Brazil, having been informed by the Argentines themselves about the enrichment plant prior to everyone else (Redick, p. 21), was part of a remarkable, and ultimately successful, bilateral process to fix relations between the two countries. That, more than any symbolic accession to the NPT by either Argentina or Brazil, was far more important to the cause of non-proliferation. But the U.S. antiproliferationists remained fixated on heavy water, and kept advising the government to do everything it could to block civilian nuclear deals in the Southern Cone. So the government did, by putting pressure on the West Germans to demand full-scope safeguards on any civilian nuclear deal with Argentina. The result was it took until 1995, after Argentina had finally buckled and agreed to accede to the NPT, that the Germans finally approved the sale of the power reactor. Did that make Argentina a better non-proliferation country? No—Argentina’s bilateral process with Brazil had already done that, more than a decade earlier. But no credit was given for that.

In the end, all that the anti-proliferationists in the U.S. accomplished was the delay, by a couple of decades, of a machine that makes carbon-free electricity. During those decades, Argentina either went without the power, and thereby suffered continued economic underperformance, or got it from fossil fuels.

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9 years ago

I believe that the maximum progress in development of indigenous nuclear technology, especially in successful construction and operation of PHWRs, took place in India at the same time when an antagonistic relationship between India on the one side and Canada, USA, and other NSG countries on the other side, existed in matters nuclear. I wonder why, Argentina, which I believe is better equipped in industrial infrastructure compared to India, did not furrow the heavy water power reactor development path all on its own. Perhaps, if there was a will, it might have found a way.