The latest nuclear power newcomer: Bolivia

The list of reactor countries keeps growing.
Written by Mark Halper, Contributor
La Paz Mark Goble Wiki.jpg

Powering up: Nuclear could help provide electricity to La Paz, the world's highest capital city at over two miles above sea level.


The list of countries turning to nuclear power for the first time keeps growing. The latest addition: Bolivia.

The landlocked South American country will "take the first steps this year" toward a nuclear program, Fox News Latino reported in a sketchy update to an announcement last month by President Evo Morales that Bolivia will build its first nuclear reactor. 

The nuclear agenda will include electricity generation as well as medical technologies, water management, and mining, Bolivian Nuclear Science and Technology Institute adviser Hernan Vera told Fox in Vienna, where he had been attending a meeting at the International Atomic Energy Agency.

President Morales proclaimed in his state of the union address last month in La Paz that "Bolivia cannot remain excluded from this technology, which belongs to all humankind."  About 23 percent of the country's population lacks access to electricity, including nearly 40 percent of rural dwellers, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

It's not clear exactly what Bolivia's first nuclear move will be. As one of South America's poorest countries, it will almost certainly need foreign assistance. Morales, a former coca farmer and the first indigenous Bolivian  to be democratically elected president, said that France, Argentina and Iran have all offered to help, the BBC reported.

Regular readers of my blog here on SmartPlanet will see this next paragraph coming: Morales would be smart to consider developing nuclear power that departs from the conventional reactors of the last 50 years, and move toward alternative technologies that are safer, more efficient, potentially less costly,  produce less long lived waste, and make it more difficult to fashion bombs.

Alternatives include reactors like molten salt reactors, pebble beds, and "fast" reactors, with each having its own set of advantages and challenges. They also include the possible use of thorium fuel

In fact Bolivia, known for its mining industry, has significant reserves of lithium, a metal that features in the fluid designs of some molten salt reactors, and that also serves as an acidity balancing agent in conventional reactors. In another guise, lithium can also help trigger thermonuclear bombs.

Bolivia is the latest country to join the nuclear newcomers' club, as developing nations and others look to secure a steady power source that is light on global warming-inducing CO2.  

Like wind and solar, the nuclear electricity generating process does not emit CO2, and it emits very little over its cradle-to-grave lifetime including mining and reactor retirement.  Its CO2 footprint is less than solar's and on a par with wind, two renewable sources that cannot generate around-the-clock like nuclear can, and that require far more land.

Around this time last year, some 45 countries were either planning or considering turning to nuclear for the first time, and industry forecasters were predicting a 30 percent growth in nuclear electricity generation by 2020.  First timers include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Poland, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Turkey, in partnerships with countries including Russia, China and South Korea. 

Two other would-be newcomers, http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/bulletin/thorium-reactors-could-soon-power-indonesia-chile/Indonesia and Chile, are considering newfangled thorium-fueled reactors to provide electricity and to desalinate water.

Recently, countries that had backed off nuclear power following the March 2011 meltdowns at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant are showing signs of returning, including Japan and to a lesser extent, Germany. In the United States, the Obama Administration has warned that the country could fail to achieve its CO2 reduction goals if it closes more nuclear plants. It has prematurely shut down four over the last year.

Bolivia has a total generating capacity of 1.66 gigawatts, only slightly more than a single large nuclear reactor, and low for its population of 10.5 million people. It generates about 60 percent from fossil fuels - primarily natural gas, of which it has significant reserves - and 40 percent from hydro.

It is a key exporter of natural gas to other South American countries including Brazil and Argentina. If it were to use nuclear to replace some of its domestic natural gas-driven electricity production, it would mirror developments in Russia, which wants to increase the nuclear quotient at home while focusing on natural gas exports. Likewise, one of Saudi Arabia's motivations for turning to nuclear is to rely less on its key export, oil, for domestic electricity plants.

Photo is from Mark Goble via Wikimedia

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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