Presidents Obama and Piñera should not pursue nuclear energy in Chile - now more than ever

Right now, even as Japan is on the verge of nuclear disaster after the recent crippling earthquake and tsunami, U.S. President Obama and Chilean President Piñera are continuing with their plans to sign a nuclear accord ahead of Obama's visit to Chile next week.  This is the wrong course to pursue, especially since Chile has abundant options that are safer, more economical and more sustainable.   Indeed, it would be a shame if these two leaders miss this opportunity to be real, forward-thinking leaders by paving the way for non-conventional renewable energy* and energy efficiency growth in Chile.

Chile’s government has projected that national energy demand will double from 2010-2020, and triple from 2010-2030.  In order to meet this forecast, which does not take into account advances in energy efficiency or the recent drop in demand rates due to the world economic crisis or Chile’s own earthquake last year, Piñera is looking to approve a number of large conventional energy projects: HidroAysén, the 2750 MW hydroelectric complex in the Patagonia that stands poised to receive its environmental approval in mid-April, despite the fact that well over half of Chileans are against it; and Castilla, a 2100 MW coal-fired power plant received environmental approval in February despite legal and popular objections.  

Nuclear, it seems is also on the table.  Chile has already signed agreements with Russia and France for various aspects of nuclear development, so it’s no wonder that the U.S. wants in on this opportunity.  Chile is one of the U.S.’s strongest allies in Latin America, with a stable democratic government, an expanding economy and tight bilateral trade relations.  It would be a political blow to the U.S. if Chile were to develop nuclear energy without American involvement. 

But the devastating recent events in Japan should give Obama and Piñera second thoughts.  Chile suffered –and is still recovering—from its own earthquake-tsunami combination just over a year ago, so the idea of building nuclear reactors in Chile seems riskier than ever.  The huge size of reactors on the market now –1100MW and larger—means that any single one would represent a significant percentage of Chile’s installed capacity, currently around 13,000 MW, posing a serious threat if that reactor went offline.  Reducing this threat would require the maintenance of costly excess fossil-fueled reserve capacity.  Then there is the cost of such units, which would be particularly high because Chile currently has no nuclear infrastructure and the unit would need additional seismic hardening.  The spent fuel would have to be handled safely, and the overall timeline for project development and construction are lengthy.

Furthermore, by pursuing this dialogue, these two Presidents are only underscoring the idea that the solution to Chile’s future energy problems will be solved with massive, large energy plants.  The past 30 years have proven otherwise, when continued reliance on one or two main technologies caused severe power shortages

For a stable, independent and economical electric grid, Chile needs power sources that are diversified, distributed, flexible and sustainable.  A recent technical study shows that, by making modest efforts to ramp up efficiency and non-conventional renewables, Chile can save 3041 MW and 4383 MW, respectively.  Combined, that’s over 2½ HidroAyséns, 3 ½ Castillas and 6½ 1100-MW nuclear reactors.  Simply put, Chile does not need destructive massive hydro, large dirty coal or risky nuclear to meet its future energy needs.  What it needs is to actively foster its non-conventional renewable and energy efficiency sectors, with the technical, policy and planning expertise and resources that the U.S. can provide. 

The U.S. has a lot to gain here as well. Collaborating with Chile on renewable and efficient technologies would boost the U.S.’s role in the entire region and expand markets for U.S. products and know-how.

Presidents Obama and Piñera still have a choice.  They can be true leaders by taking the forward-looking step to encourage non-conventional renewable energy and energy efficiency in Chile, building the foundation for a safer, more modern grid using Chile’s own resources.  Or they can ignore the nuclear crises currently unfolding in Japan as well as Chile’s own recent history, and take Chile down the same path to an undiversified and vulnerable power supply that it has trod for the past 30 years. 

*In Chile, “non-conventional renewable energy” is the term used to exclude hydro power above 20 MW from the category.

Thanks to my colleague, Chris Paine, for his nuclear energy expertise.