Independent regulatory body next step in nuclear process

Monday, April 19, 2010

The creation of an independent regulatory body is the next step in the move towards developing nuclear energy capacity in Chile, according to deputy energy minister Jimena Bronfman.

"This is a long process involving three phases," Bronfman said in an interview on Chile's Radio Cooperativa radio station. "We are in the first stage, a stage of analysis and auto-evaluation. In 2008 and 2009, we did nine separate studies on the feasibility of nuclear power in Chile. The next step is to create a nuclear regulatory framework, separate and independent of other regulatory bodies."

Chile is following International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) guidelines, according to Bronfman. The IAEA has said it will comment on Chile's nuclear self-assessment test by the end of 2010.

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Energy minister Ricardo Raineri said last week on a visit to the US that there would be no decision on nuclear power during the current government of Sebastian Piñera.

"Our mission is to have energy security," Bronfman said. "To diversify the matrix and not depend on one sole supply of power. That is why we are considering the nuclear option. But we don't think nuclear power would be necessary until 2024."

"So no, we will not make a decision during this government. We are simply continuing the process," she continued.

The possibility of nuclear power in Chile was brought into the spotlight again after the 8.8 magnitude earthquake that struck the south-center of the country on February 27. Many feared that nuclear installations would not be able to handle a similar event.

The director of Chile's nuclear commission CCHEN, Fernando López, argued that this was not a concern.

"Nuclear installations are made with high security standards to withstand earthquakes," he said on Radio Cooperativa.

Bronfman and Raineri have both said that they seek to promote non-conventional renewable energy in the country, with an aim of attaining 20% of power from renewable sources by 2020. This figure would far exceed the 10% by 2024 mandated by law passed under the previous government of Michelle Bachelet.

"Nuclear is not renewable," Bronfman said. "But it has far more potential, and it requires much less space than any renewable source. It is competitive. Right now it could be more competitive than non-conventional renewables, which still need subsidies."

Former energy minister Marcelo Tokman, speaking earlier in the year, said that Chile could be ready for nuclear power to enter its energy mix by 2024 and need a total of five nuclear reactors by 2035.

"Given our projections, a nuclear reactor could be viable to begin operations in 2024. And between 2024 and 2035, we could see five 1.1GW reactors coming online," he said in January.

The discussion of nuclear power in Chile has been ongoing for decades, including analyses in 1968-70, 1975-78, 1981-83 and 1996-97. CCHEN last week, in fact, celebrated its 46th year in existence.

Chile's new energy climate, however, which must compete with rising fuel prices, worries over security of supply and the need to cut harmful emissions might make the current nuclear initiative in the country unique.