Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The tale of Chavez and his nuclear reactor from Argentina.

It seems that Hugo Chavez wants to buy a medium size nuclear reactor from Argentina. According to the article, the reactor is needed to be able to help liquefying the heavy oils of the Orinoco Belt. The news was confirmed by Vice president Jose Vicente Rangel here.

On the other hand, reading yesterday’s late news in El Universal, I learned that the president of PDVSA and minister of oil and energy, Rafael Ramirez, just denied that Venezuela would be interested in buying a reactor from Argentina. The news appeared today in Aporrea (see here) and on the ABN and was the first news this morning in the minci page. I was actually amazed that the face of the smiling minister had even replaced that of Chavez, which is quite unusual in the official news. But, if you link the minci now, you will see that the news about Ramirez’s declaration has disappeared from their site (that is why one always have to get a snapshot of any minci page! ).

The question is why? What is going on?

And who is right, Rangel or Ramirez?

Whoever is right, the decision of buying a nuclear reactor cannot be easily justified in Venezuela.

To put it mildly, it is quite strange that in order to produce extra power to liquefy some of the heavy oil of the Orinoco Belt, a country that produces so much gas and oil like Venezuela would need a nuclear plant. If, indeed, extra power is needed, why not build a non-nuclear thermal plant? Venezuelans have had several plants of that kind built, even in record time, during the oil boom of the 70’s, they have expertise in the management and operation of those plants and they have the raw material: oil and gas.

According to Cadafe, there are at least 16 operating plants of that type in the country.

On the other hand, if a nuclear reactor is bought, it would be a total novelty for Venezuela. There is, to my knowledge, only one experimental nuclear reactor at IVIC and, besides that, there has not been any other nuclear experience in Venezuela. Moreover, it seems that Chavez is not thinking of buying the reactor from a country with long experience in nuclear power either, like the US, Canada or France. He is having talks with Argentina!

According to the Argentineans themselves, the nuclear reactor they would sell to Venezuela would still be a “prototype”… So here are my questions, Mr. Chavez:

1.-what is the business sense of buying a nuclear reactor when an ordinary thermal plant or an electric substation from the hydroelectric transmission can be installed? (see below)
2.- Why buy a technology that has not a proven solid record of reliability?
3.- Why buy a technology that Venezuela has no previous experience in deploying?
4.- Where/when are you going to form the highly qualified professionals to deploy that technology?

But for the reader to be able to grasp the magnitude of question number 1, I must recall that Venezuela not only has plenty of oil, gas and coal but also a lot of water.

Here in lilac, from PDVSA map page (click the section “maps” on your right), is the region where the Orinoco Oil Belt (Faja bituminosa del Orinoco) is located.

Below, there is a map, extracted from the Edelca page, showing where Venezuela’s huge hydroelectric resources are being exploited.

And, from the map below, one can see the transmission infrastructure from hydroelectric plant Guri to the important regions of the country using 765 Kv and 400 Kv lines.

If one looks at this map carefully and compares it with the one of the Orinoco Oil Belt given in PDVSA site, one can easily see that the power needed is right there. The generation, the transmission and the oil sands are quite close together. Moreover, exploring the PDVSA map a little further, one can even find the number of already installed thermal and hydroelectric plants.

So here is another question to Chavez:

Why don’t you use Venezuela’s existing hydroelectric and thermal infrastructure Mr. Chavez? And, if, by any chance, the energy is not enough, why don’t you build a gas or an oil plant….after all, you do have oil and gas, don’t you?

I have an answer. Chavez needs confrontation, and by buying a nuclear reactor he knows that he will be provoking the US.

So having explained all the technical details and having questioned the president about it, we still have to answer the first question of this post.

Who was right? The minister of oil and energy or the Vice president?

My guess is both. The Vice-president, as a savvy politician that exploits Chavez’s natural instincts, may have come up with the idea of stirring the waters to create a new confrontation Chavez-USA. After all, congress elections will take place in a short time and there is nothing like a good confrontation with the US to boost Chavez’s popularity. The minister, on the other hand, must know that the nuclear deal would be quite difficult to justify from the technical and economic point of view.

Having said that, I still find it suspicious that the minister’s declarations were removed from the Minci page today…

You know, like in all autocratic regimes, we are now dealing not only with news, but also with the interpretation of no-news.

Welcome to Chavez’s era!

Jorge Arena.

Note added: A reader from Argentina wrote to me stating that even though he sympathizes with the points made in the article, he regrets my denigrating comments about Argentina. He says that Argentina has more than 50 years of nuclear experience and he provided the following links to follow-up on Argentinean nuclear research:

I must say that my comment about Chavez’s choice of Argentina was never intended to be denigrating, and I am very sorry that it was interpreted that way. My intention was to underline that the choice of Argentina as a unique candidate to sell the first nuclear plant to Venezuela seems to be clearly political. Even though Argentina is one of the two only countries with a nuclear program in Latin America, it is not the first one that comes to my mind when I think of countries with extensive experience in building and managing nuclear plants. Before writing the article, I checked this link that seemed to confirm my perception.

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