TREND: Mexico mulls nuclear expansion

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Amid the sweeping energy reforms that open the doors to foreign investment and given the country's need to increase its electricity generation capacity, the Mexican government is considering expanding its nuclear program.

Located on the Gulf coast in Veracruz state, the Laguna Verde nuclear power station's two reactors have a 1,365MW generation capacity and the plant produces around 4.5% of Mexico's electricity.

The plant, which has been operating since 1990, is owned by state power utility CFE.

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Nuclear power will remain state controlled in the wake of Mexico's energy reforms, while all other forms of generation will be open to competition, CFE's director general of renewable power Alejandro Peraza said in May.

The energy ministry's (Sener) 2013-17 national energy strategy, approved by the senate last year, states that nuclear generation is the most cost-effective way of increasing the share of renewables in Mexico's energy mix.

"It's essential to increase nuclear generation in the power matrix as it is a viable and proven alternative," the ministry states, highlighting the importance of launching a campaign to educate the public about the safety of the technology.

Recent media reports hint that CFE is considering expanding Laguna Verde and possibly building two more nuclear power stations in Veracruz. The utility has not outlined the potential generation capacity of any new plants, or given an estimate of the construction costs.

A 2010 study by Mexico's engineering academy estimated that a new nuclear power plant would cost around US$4.5bn.

Sener should conduct and publish a study on the impact of expanding Laguna Verde or of building other plants, ruling PRI party senator Héctor Yunes said in late June.

Such a study must detail the health and socio-economic impact of such projects, the senator for Veracruz state said.

Citing the nuclear power plant's good track record, he said Mexico's experience operating Laguna Verde would allow for a nuclear program that includes the construction of two more power stations.

The plant operates under International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines and in 2007 it received a national quality award for complying with safety regulations.

However, in the wake of the 2011 earthquake in Japan that caused serious damage to the nuclear power plant at Fukushima, concerns have been raised about the safety of Laguna Verde due to its coastal location.

In 2013, an advisor to the national association of civil protection agencies expressed concern regarding the potential damage to Laguna Verde that could be caused by an earthquake, citing a 5.5-grade quake in October 2009 with its epicenter in Alvarado, just 170km south of the nuclear facility.

"Terms such as 'guarantee' cannot be used when applied to safety," said Carlos Manuel Uribe Arroyo.

"Safety is not subject to conditions of certainty, there will always be a risk, however small, or even just a remote possibility, in the same way that human error is inevitable, and there will always be risks," he said.

Earlier this month, Mexico's energy minister Pedro Joaquín Coldwell opened the national nuclear forensics laboratory and signed a collaboration agreement between Laguna Verda, the national nuclear safety commission and the federal police, a measure designed to step up the safety of the country's nuclear industry.

"Nuclear energy is a peaceful tool for economic, technological and scientific development," he said.

While the planet has proven hydrocarbon reserves for the next 50 years, the uranium reserves could provide energy for at least the next 100 years, and for even longer with improved technology, he said.

Nuclear technology is no longer exclusive to the developed world, he said.

BNamericas will host its fourth LatAm Power Generation Summit in Santiago, Chile, on August 13-14. Click here to download the agenda.