South America: Anti-Nuclear Activists to Form Common Front

  (IPS) – Environmental organisations in Chile plan to revive the anti-nuclear movement in the Southern Cone of South America, in response to vigorous lobbying by corporations and politicians in favour of nuclear energy in the region.

"The anti-nuclear movement in Latin America has lapsed and no longer exists. We have to rebuild it. If we can get through the next three years we will have won the battle; if not, we will be in trouble," said Sara Larraín, head of the non-governmental Sustainable Chile Programme.

In a bid for survival, the global nuclear industry is desperately trying to extend the useful life of existing nuclear reactors worldwide, sign new contracts in countries that have already opted for nuclear power, and carve a niche for themselves in other nations with pressing energy needs, like Chile, according to Larraín.

"In Latin America today, the anti-nuclear movement is not even a shadow of what it was in the 1990s, although the threat now is several times greater," said Argentine expert Raúl Montenegro, a professor at the University of Córdoba and winner of the 2004 Alternative Nobel Prize, at a meeting with activists on Jun. 18 at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Santiago.

Asked by IPS about the scope envisioned for the movement, Larraín said organisations in Argentina and Brazil, which already have nuclear power plants, should play a leading role, alongside those from Chile and Uruguay, where the nuclear debate is in full swing. Nuclear lobbyists have also targeted Mexico, she said.

Larraín and Montenegro participated in an international seminar on "Nuclear Energy: Present and Future," held on Jun. 19 as part of EXPONOR, a major mining industry exhibition held in the northern Chilean city of Antofagasta.

On Jun. 14, the president of the Confederation of Production and Trade (CPC) business association, Rafael Guilisasti, called on the Chilean government and presidential candidates to make a definite decision on the use of nuclear energy in Chile as soon as possible, arguing that delays would mean that Chile would fail to become a developed country by 2020.

The front-runners for the December presidential elections are sitting on the fence.

The candidate for the rightwing opposition, former senator and business tycoon Sebastián Piñera, said he had looked into the issue, while former president Eduardo Frei (1994-2000) of the governing centre-left Coalition for Democracy, which has been in power since 1990, has expressed pro-nuclear leanings.

Since taking office in March 2006, President Michelle Bachelet has been under pressure from politicians and the energy sector to add nuclear power to the Chilean energy basket, in order to overcome the country’s critical electricity shortage, exacerbated by lower imports of natural gas from Argentina and high international oil prices.

In addition to its dependence on foreign energy sources, the steady increase in greenhouse gas emissions is a major problem in this country which aspires to developed country status over the next decade or two.

While corporations seek long-term, cheap, reliable energy sources, environmentalists advocate energy efficiency and non-conventional renewable energies that have a lower impact on the environment and stimulate local economies.

As well as giving a strong boost to renewable energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal power, Bachelet commissioned preliminary technical studies for 100 million pesos (185,000 dollars) in 2008 and 400 million pesos (740,000 dollars) this year, to assess the potential of nuclear power.

The environmental movement interpreted this as a betrayal of the pact she signed, as a presidential candidate in 2005, with 23 organisations that gave her support. As part of the so-called Chagual Agreement, Bachelet pledged "not to include the nuclear option in the national energy policy" if she were elected.

The president said no decision on the issue would be taken during her administration, but the Greens, who regard nuclear energy as expensive, dangerous and polluting, decided to tear up the pact in April 2008.

The corporate offensive has been led by the big electricity-guzzling mining companies that operate in the north of Chile.

"Environmental groups, for all the legitimacy of their positions, are leading us into a situation in which nothing can be done. They oppose hydroelectric power stations and nuclear energy, which means that only smaller-scale projects are approved. They have a right to express their opinions, but not to impose a veto," said CPC’s Guilisasti in an interview with the newspaper La Tercera.

"Those of us who advocate nuclear power, on the other hand, should express ourselves more forcefully, since our vision is not contradictory to that of the Greens. Sustainable development can be combined with growth," said Guilisasti, arguing that generating electricity from nuclear fuel emits less carbon dioxide than oil or coal, a view contested by environmentalists who measure the impact and output of the entire process.

Worried by the financial and media clout wielded by the corporate sector, the Sustainable Chile Programme produced a 55-page document, "La Energía Nuclear NO tiene futuro" (Nuclear Energy Has NO Future), detailing the reasons for their opposition to nuclear power. The publication received support from Germany’s Heinrich Böll Foundation.

According to Larraín, advocates of nuclear energy "are taking advantage of the rampant disinformation" circulating in Chile today. In her view, many myths propagated by the industry must be overturned, such as that nuclear power is cheaper and cleaner than energy generation from fossil fuels, or that it can make a country self-reliant in energy.

Nuclear power depends on uranium, a non-renewable resource, and requires huge investments and direct and indirect state subsidies to be viable, she said. The enormous cost of dismantling these power stations, which have a useful life of 30 to 40 years, and the lack of disposal sites for radioactive waste, are further structural problems, she said.

Montenegro, who is also head of the Environmental Defence Foundation (FUNAM), said the regional anti-nuclear movement’s strategy should focus on four simultaneous areas: mobilisation, building technical expertise, media impact and court action.

In his view, Argentina, which has two nuclear energy reactors, "is not an example that Chile should follow," because the nuclear energy programme there has proved to endanger the health of workers and the general population, as has also happened in other countries.

Developing nuclear power could seriously affect Chile’s international image as an exporter of foods and flagship products like wine, he said.

He pointed out that earthquakes were an additional hazard in Chile, which is a long, narrow strip of land between the Pacific ocean and the Andes mountains.

"If there is a Level 7 accident (the highest on the International Nuclear Event Scale) anywhere in Chile, in the north, centre or south of the country, we have to assume that this accident will affect at least half of the country," wiping out all productive activities, he said.

The threat of terrorist attacks on nuclear installations is another danger, Larraín and Montenegro said. So are the potential political uses of radioactive materials, even though Latin America and the Caribbean is a nuclear weapons free zone, and in 2003 the region’s 33 countries reaffirmed the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (Treaty of Tlatelolco), in force since 1969.

At a Jun. 18 seminar in Santiago, former Chilean president Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006), currently the United Nations Special Envoy on Climate Change, said "it is important for the experts to assess (nuclear power) and to analyse how it could work, along with the back- up these plants must have in terms of maintenance."

Larraín pointed out that Chile already has two experimental nuclear power plants, at which several accidents have occurred. Two conscripts who were exposed to radioactive material in 1989 later died of leukaemia, while others are suffering serious health effects.