On February 8, 2014, Argentina poured its first nuclear grade concrete for CAREM-25, an integrated pressurized water reactor (iPWR) whose design has been in intermittent progress for more than 24 years. Will Davis wrote an informative piece titled Argentina carries torch for SMR construction about the design and the project at ANS Nuclear Cafe.
Argentina has a long history of nuclear energy research, development and operation; it set up its Atomic Energy Commission in 1950. Two operating nuclear reactors produce approximately 10% of the country’s electricity; a third reactor is undergoing its final steps before commissioning.
Argentina is capable of producing nuclear fuel; not only does it supply its power reactors, but it has designed and supplied research reactors in Argentina, Egypt, Algeria, Peru and Australia. The research reactor program included one designated RA-8 that was specifically designed to test the fuel designed for CAREM.
The CAREM-25 will produce approximately 25 MW of net electrical power from an indigenously produced reactor core that will provide approximately 100 MW of thermal energy. The Argentinian government plans to invest 3.5 billion pesos ($455 million at current exchange rates) into the prototype project, including the infrastructure developments required to be able to produce the pressure vessel and other major components. Under the current schedule, the plant will receive its first fuel load in 2017.
According to CNEA, the Argentinian National Atomic Energy Agency, at least 70 percent of the components will be supplied by domestic Argentinian companies meeting full international nuclear quality standards.
Like the NuScale Power Module, the CAREM is designed to achieve its full power using natural circulation in the primary coolant system. The flow of water through the nuclear heat source and through the steam generators is driven by temperature, density variation and gravity.
That feature has several attractive attributes. It means there are no pumps in the radioactive portion of the plant that require reliable power, cooling, controls or monitoring systems. If the system loses power, cooling flow through the reactor continues without any interruption.
Relying on natural circulation in all phases of reactor operation requires a trade-off; the maximum amount of heat that can be safely moved from the nuclear core to the steam generators is lower than it would be if the coolant was pushed through the core using pumps. If the designers chose to use pumps to push the coolant, it might be possible to increase the system power output by a factor of somewhere between 3 and 5.
Apparently, the CAREM designers have determined that the additional complexity is not justified for this version of their system. It is also possible that the decision was influenced by the desire to maintain the project’s domestic content as high as possible. Building sealed reactor coolant pumps is a tricky business with a lot of proprietary technology. There are not many capable suppliers in the world.
Recognizing that the CAREM is a first of a kind, the Argentine government decided in 2009 that the plant would be licensed as a prototype.
Following successful operation of the prototype, Argentina expects to build additional units and will seek sales in the export market. In addition to the traditional market of electric utilities, it is targeting markets where there is a concentration of industrial demand with customers might be as interested in purchasing steam as in purchasing electricity.
For example, Argentina and Saudi Arabia already have a nuclear cooperation agreement in place; the Kingdom would be an excellent location for reactors that provide the heat needed to desalinate water.
There is also a strong domestic reason for Argentina’s revitalization of its nuclear energy sector. Until fairly recently, the country was a net exporter of oil and natural gas. Now, though, it is importing both oil and gas. In 2013, its oil and gas trade deficit was $6.5 billion and all of those imports must be purchased using dollars instead of pesos. Argentina has proven domestic uranium resources that it is not currently exploiting.
Argentina has a large shale gas resource, but it apparently values the fuel diversity that uranium provides.
During the past summer, Argentina also experienced an electricity supply shortage that resulted in street demonstrations and protests. That shortage was mainly caused by a poor market design with low incentives for infrastructure investment. However, if there had been additional gas fired electricity supply capacity, it would have simply increased the fossil fuel import bill.