Clean, abundant and well-distributed electricity generation is critically important for Latin America. In the twenty-first century, energy policies must be affordable over the long term, and they must be sustainable and oriented toward pursuing a diverse mixture of clean technologies that will reduce carbon emissions.
Nuclear power is a reliable, clean and predictable electricity producer that today is ready to fit the economic, environmental and national security needs of Latin American countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela. And with small, modular reactors expected to be available on the market in less than 20 years, nuclear power will be able to service the entire region. Multiple independent studies, including work by the United Nations, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development and others, have shown that nuclear-generated electricity has the same life cycle environmental impact as wind and solar.
Nuclear power is the largest contributor to carbon-free electricity generation in the world, accounting for roughly three-quarters of the world’s carbon-free power. The economics of nuclear energy generation depend on its capacity to produce enormous and uninterrupted amounts of electricity over long periods, with affordable and stable electricity costs. Nuclear generating plants can operate for 60 years or more. For example, a single 1,000 megawatt electrical (MWe) nuclear power station runs about 90 percent of the time at full power, generating close to 8 million megawatt-hours (MWh) annually. Conversely, 1,000 windmills of 1 MWe capacity (each one running at the high end of capacity, typically less than 30 percent) would generate less than 2.5 million MWh annually.
Nuclear power generation satisfies the need for predictable and economic base-loaded electrical systems—those that run most of the time and do not go up and down in power during the day cycle. However, getting there isn’t easy: it requires a very large initial investment. Nevertheless, once a plant is built, it is relatively economical to maintain—similar to hydropower. The cost for new nuclear plants ranges from $4,000 to $7,000 per kilowatt-electrical (kWe), which is about the same as hydropower, slightly more than coal plants without carbon reduction equipment, more than twice as much as natural gas plants without carbon capture, and less than wind and solar. Nuclear is competitive because the other cost factors (fuel, operation and maintenance and capital improvements) are significantly less for nuclear (about $0.023 per kWh) than for gas (about $0.05 per kWh), and less than coal.
The need for dependable nuclear infrastructure currently favors nuclear deployment by countries that already have operating units and/or have urgent needs for diversification. But this should change as small reactor technologies with lower initial capital costs become a reality. For countries with political stability, an appropriate regulatory system, and a commitment to environmental protection and to fuel diversification using carbon-free generation, a nuclear-inclusive energy strategy is the best option.
The economic and environmental benefits of nuclear power are clear. But following the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, the safety of nuclear power is undergoing intense scrutiny after 25 years of accident-free operation. Though a legitimate concern, the safety of nuclear energy should not be defined by one occurrence; the two previous accidents occurred in plants with old or inferior technology. The dominant reactor technology in use and planned worldwide is based on light-water cooled reactors (LWRs). In over 50 years of operation, no serious public injury or death has been attributed to the operation of LWRs.
The Fukushima Daiichi reactors were the world’s first to experience core degradation and release significant radioactivity off-site as a result of a catastrophic external event. The earthquake and tsunami combination caused complete loss of the power needed for cooling. However, nuclear plants have endured major earthquakes (e.g., in Armenia, Japan, California) and have taken direct hits from Category 5 hurricanes (Andrew at Miami’s Turkey Point). Nuclear units have suffered multiple devastating tornadoes, survived tsunamis of lesser magnitude than at Fukushima (approximately 14 meters above normal), and been battered by floods and a combination of events in multiple locations. None of those cases resulted in radioactive releases affecting health.
We can build nuclear power plant structures and emergency systems to withstand the maximum credible natural disaster for a specific region. Nevertheless, like other major industrial complexes with hazardous materials, the system’s location and its emergency support structure are critically important. The new LWRs being deployed have design enhancements that focus on increased plant safety, simplicity and standardization, ensuring improvements to core cooling and containment integrity. Furthermore, they have a two-order-of-magnitude improvement in the capacity to prevent or mitigate the consequences of accidents that could result in potentially hazardous offsite radiation doses, including the capability of cooling reactors under complete loss of power.
Improvements are needed in both nuclear proliferation and the permanent disposition of used fuel. The historical reality is that nuclear power plants have been regarded as a security risk because fuel from civilian nuclear installations can be diverted for military purposes without proper oversight. However, no fuel has ever been diverted from a nuclear power plant. The same is true of used fuel. The current Non-Proliferation Treaty and its Additional Protocol requirements have significantly improved safeguards and have limited access by violators to the nuclear user group.
The Fukushima accidents will serve to develop even safer and more affordable nuclear-generated electricity. The review of what occurred in Fukushima and the lessons drawn from the disaster will further help prevent accidents. Latin American countries with suitable political and economic conditions should view clean nuclear energy as a catalyst of growth and development and a clear asset to their energy portfolio. Nuclear energy remains a large source of electricity with predictable and affordable prices, fuel diversity and strategic security—a necessity in a region that is rapidly becoming a global player.