Nuclear Reactor Heats Up Debate in Argentina
By Tierramérica Desk *
Some see it as an extraordinary technological achievement, while others claim it is a step towards engaging in the dangerous business of atomic waste.
BUENOS AIRES - The agreement for the sale of a nuclear reactor manufactured in Argentina to Australia set off a firestorm of anger among environmental groups, which fear the deal will turn this South American's country into an atomic waste dump.
In what is considered the most important technological export in the history of the country, INVAP (National Institute of Applied Research) won an international bidding process in 1999 to build a nuclear reactor for research for Australia for 180 million dollars, beating out powerful rivals like Siemens of Germany.
According to authorities, the reactor is already 16 percent built at the INVAP installations in the southern Argentine city of Bariloche, 1,600 km from the capital, and more than 300 local scientists and technicians are involved in the process.
The commercial contract between INVAP and the Australian firm ANSTO (Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization) was approved by the Argentine government through a cooperation agreement signed with Australia in August 2001.
The accord was ratified by the Argentine Senate, and is now being debated in the Chamber of Deputies.
Environmentalists are deeply opposed to the project. They say that the contract commits INVAP to process Australia's nuclear waste on Argentine territory, a clear violation of the Constitution.
According to the non-governmental Greenpeace, which was able to block approval of the cooperation agreement in the Chamber of Deputies last November, the nuclear waste would be sent to the Ezeiza Atomic Center, located near the Buenos Aires international airport, 30 km from the capital's downtown area.
Environmental activists point to the risk of radiation contamination during the transport or manipulation of the waste, which can cause cancer and birth defects among humans.
But the authorities deny such dangers. Héctor Otegui, INVAP general manager, told Tierramérica that Argentina has a long history in nuclear safety and that "it is false" that officials are considering permanent disposal of the atomic reactor's waste in Argentina.
What the trade contract stipulates, said Otegui, is that if Australia requests it in the future, the residual fuels from the Argentine reactor may be processed and conditioned in Argentina for their storage in Australia.
This fuel waste, he acknowledged, is radioactive, but does not violate the Constitution, he said constitutional experts had told him.
And other analysts have described the nuclear danger as "nonexistent".
"First, it must be seen whether Australia will need the processing of the fuel. Second, if Australia wants the processing, the potential risk is negligible: the technology for transporting nuclear materials is dangerous only in the distorted perception of the anti-nuclear organizations," wrote Julio Orione, technology journalist, recently in the Argentine daily 'El Clarín'.
But the green groups are not giving up. They insist that INVAP "has the intention to offer nuclear waste processing services to the world," as Raúl Montenegro, of the Environment Defense Foundation of Argentina (FUNAM), said.
Juan Carlos Villalonga, energy policy coordinator at Greenpeace-Argentina, says the country's current economic, political and institutional collapse could produce "fertile ground" for the nuclear waste business.
"Argentina's vulnerability today is similar to that seen after the Russian crisis of 1998, which led to a law allowing the entry of atomic waste," Villalonga told Tierramérica.
"The greed for cash among countries with economic problems leads many to accept the nuclear waste that nobody wants in their own territory," he commented.
Such warnings were listed in a letter signed by 70 environmental groups to Argentina's President Eduardo Duhalde.
* IPS correspondent Marcela Valente contributed to this report.