Argentina’s nuclear projects at risk due to slashing of state funding

Construction of the first reactor designed in the country is on the brink of being halted, and nuclear medicine has also been affected

An array of Argentina’s nuclear projects are at risk due to the slashing of funding for the National Commission of Atomic Energy (CNEA, by its Spanish acronym), one of the numerous state organizations affected by President Javier Milei’s austerity plans. 

Among the CNEA’s purview is the construction of CAREM,  — the first nuclear power reactor entirely designed in Argentina —, and the RA-10 multi-purpose reactor, which has the potential to increase the country’s ability to produce radioisotopes that are key for the diagnosis and treatment of several forms of cancer.

“We are not getting any answers [from Energy Secretary Eduardo Rodríguez Chirillo],” physicist Adriana Serquis, currently head of the CNEA, told the Herald. “He also said that the fund slashing would not affect the CAREM, but it did. We have no way of implementing the budget for any of our projects.”

Serquis said that although the Energy Secretariat has not confirmed works will be stopped, the construction of CAREM will inevitably be halted if the situation is not resolved, given that one of the project’s contractors had to fire 69 workers last Monday due to a lack of funding. 

The construction of the RA-10, which started in 2016, is on the brink of stopping for the same reason. Nuclear medicine and radiotherapy services have also been affected, hampering diagnoses and treatments.

Additionally, on March 28, the government renewed all state employee contracts for only three months, putting part of the CNEA personnel at risk, including scientists and engineers, as well as people who have specialized in nuclear medicine or nuclear waste management, Serquis added.

Like many state dependencies, the CNEA was not assigned a budget for this year and is using an extension of the 2023 one. Due to the recent record-high inflation rates, CNEA managers called the situation “critical” in an internal document, warning that the budget could last only until May or June, depending on the area. 

As of this writing, the government has only transferred 16.4% of the funds to pay suppliers. Already well into the trimester, they have been forced to halt their services.

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“If we start laying off employees, or people begin leaving the country due to their bad salaries, we will not recover — we will lose a geopolitical possibility, a national strategy of technological and energetic sovereignty,” Serquis said.

Although Serquis resigned before Milei took office, the Energy Secretary has not accepted her resignation nor named anyone else in her role. An Energy Secretariat spokesperson was asked for comment, but no answer was provided by the time of writing.

Argentina’s nuclear industry is one of the most advanced in the region. The country has three nuclear power plants. Embalse in Córdoba province, operational since 1983, and the Atucha Nuclear Complex, which encompasses Atucha and Atucha II, two adjacent nuclear power plants near the town of Lima in Buenos Aires province. The three of them combined produce 10% of the country’s electrical energy.

Serquis highlighted the importance of the projects at risk. The CAREM, for instance, is 65% finished and it is the first small modular reactor (SMR) in the world to be officially under construction. It is set to go online in 2028, whereas the rest of the world plans similar projects to be finished in 2030.

In a recent op-ed for the Herald, Bernardo Dall’ Ongaro, a member of the Nuclear Affairs Committee at the Argentine Council for International Relations (CARI, for its Spanish initials), argued that SMRs could provide a political and commercial opportunity for Argentina. The country could eventually export SMRs, given that they are capable of producing large amounts of low-carbon electricity and that there will be demand for them as helpful tools in the energy transition.

The RA-10, finished at 85%, will ensure the self-supply of radioisotopes for medical use and provide the capacity to meet a large part of the demand in Latin America. It can also be used to assist in the production of semiconductors for the microelectronics industry.

Argentina’s nuclear industry could suffer more blows. The Argentine Center for Proton Therapy, which is also managed by the CNEA, is set to be installed in Buenos Aires City in the upcoming months. Proton therapy, the most advanced form of radiotherapy, is a form of cancer treatment that concentrates solely on the tumor, thus reducing side effects on healthy tissue. 

“The center’s main task will be treating childhood cancer,” Serquis said.

Serquis said she and her team presented a business plan to the government but have yet to hear a response. “These projects can be beneficial for the country, but right now we need to keep on investing,” she said. She calculated that each of these projects would cost US$50 million this year.

“Just like with the rest of the state, [the national administration] is only interested in closing the numbers fiscally,” said Serquis. “We must look at the long term and continue to grow in knowledge-based production, which is a great possibility we have as a country.”


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