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Overview Last updated: February, 2014

From the 1960s to the early 1990s, Argentina's nuclear program and missile activities aroused concern that the country was seeking to develop nuclear weapons and possibly aid other countries in developing and delivering them. Argentina has since eschewed nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons but retains an ambitious nuclear energy program. It dismantled its ballistic missile program in the early 1990s. Argentina is now a member of all relevant nonproliferation treaties and organizations.

Atucha I and II nuclear plants Atucha I and II nuclear plants
Nucleoelectrica Argentina SA

Nuclear

Argentina has never produced nuclear weapons. From the 1960s to the early 1990s, however, Argentina pursued an ambitious program of nuclear energy and technological development, which included construction of an unsafeguarded uranium enrichment facility. During that time period, the Argentine government also refused to join the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and to accede to the Latin America nuclear-weapon-free zone (Treaty of Tlatelolco, 1967). When democratic rule returned in 1983, however, the new president placed the nuclear program under civilian control and initiated a process of nuclear confidence building and cooperation with neighboring Brazil. In the early 1990s, the two countries established a bilateral inspection agency (ABACC) to verify both countries' pledges to use nuclear energy only for peaceful purposes, and signed the Quadripartite Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agencv (IAEA). [1] Argentina joined the Treaty of Tlatelolco and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 1994, and acceded to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state on 10 February 1995. Argentina has not signed the Additional Protocol to its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA, which would give the Agency expanded access to undeclared sites. In June 2011 the NSG approved revised guidelines for the export of sensitive nuclear technologies, and recognized the Quadripartite Agreement as an alternative to the Additional Protocol. [2]

Argentina is the first South American country to use nuclear energy. It has two operating nuclear plants, Atucha I and Embalse, which supply 7% of the country's electricity, and a third plant under construction Atucha II. [3] Nucleoelectrica Argentina S.A. is the state-owned company responsible for operation of all Argentine nuclear plants. In August 2006, Argentina took an important step to revive its nuclear energy development program by announcing a major nuclear initiative worth $3.5 billion over eight years. Argentina plans to finish its third nuclear reactor plant (Atucha II), extend the life of the Embalse nuclear plant by 25 years, and initiate feasibility studies for the construction of a fourth nuclear power unit. The plan also calls for the construction of a CAREM (Central Argentina de Elementos Modulares) reactor using technology indigenously developed by the National Atomic Energy Commission (CNEA); [4] increased production of heavy water at the Arroyito plant; and revival of uranium enrichment at the Pilcaniyeu plant. [5] In November 2009, the Senate approved the construction of a fourth nuclear plant. [6] Argentina will most likely equip this plant with a CANDU reactor to be supplied by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL); [7] however, because of concerns about  AECL's privatization, the Argentine government has started to consider other suppliers. Argentina is also seeking to diversify its nuclear technology and is currently considering a fifth reactor that would be fueled by low enriched uranium. [8]

Argentina's advanced nuclear industry is coordinated by the CNEA established in 1950 to develop the country's nuclear technology for civilian use. Four major nuclear complexes and various jointly-owned companies operate under the CNEA: [9]

  • Centro Atómico Bariloche, located in San Carlos de Bariloche, houses training facilities for scientific research and technological development, including the Balseiro Institute. It also houses the state nuclear engineering firm INVAP which designs and builds research reactors and communication and scientific satellites. INVAP has expanded its activities to other areas such as space and medical equipment.
  • Centro Atómico Constituyentes, located in the district of San Martín, Buenos Aires, carries out a wide range of research activities and houses experimental labs and pilot plants for fabrication of nuclear fuel and research reactors.
  • Centro Atómico Ezeiza, located in the district of Ezeiza, Buenos Aires, houses laboratories for production of medical isotopes and the publicly held company (CNEA has 33.3% participation) Combustibles Nucleares Argentinos S.A. (CONUAR S.A.), which supplies fuel elements to Atucha I and Embalse and will be the main supplier to future nuclear plants and research reactors.
  • Complejo Tecnológico Pilcaniyeu, located in the district of Rio Negro, is dedicated to research in the fields of nuclear reactors and nuclear fuel cycle. It houses the Uranium hexafluoride (UF6) plant, the pilot gaseous diffusion plant for uranium enrichment, and the SIGMA advanced diffusion enrichment plant.
  • Empresa Neuquina de Servicios de Ingeneria (ENSI), a state partnership jointly owned by CNEA and the Neuquen Province, operates the heavy water industrial production plant located in Arroyito. The plant, with an annual capacity of 200 tons, meets domestic (Atucha I and Embalse) and international (Canada, United States, and South Korea) demands for heavy water. [10]

Argentina has an active export business. INVAP has sold research reactors to Algeria, Australia, Egypt, and Perú; the company is now seeking to expand its export market by offering small power reactors and services for large power plants. [11] Another possible market for INVAP reactors is Jordan; Argentina signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with Jordan in 2008. [12]

CNEA supplies Brazil with more than one-third of its Molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) requirement and smaller quantities of this medical isotope to Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay. Argentina is one of the six world producers of Mo-99 and the only one to use low enriched uranium (LEU) in its production. [13]

Argentina is seeking technological diversification and has signed cooperation agreements within various nuclear partners in order to further develop its civilian program, give a boost to its domestic industry, and create high skilled jobs.

Since 2008 Argentina and Brazil have been exploring possible areas for nuclear cooperation including the development of reactors for the production of electricity and the creation of a bi-national company to produce radiopharmaceuticals and to enrich uranium on an industrial scale. [14] However, progress has been difficult because each country's nuclear reactors use different technologies and there have been political challenges to allowing Argentina to participate in the Brazilian nuclear submarine program. In June 2010, Argentine Minister of Defense Nilda Garré announced a plan to develop nuclear propulsion for navy vessels. [15] She clarified initial news reports about a nuclear submarine [16] by stating that "it is too early to say whether it [nuclear propulsion] will be for icebreakers or submarines." [17] In August 2010, Argentina signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with Brazil for the joint design of research reactors to produce radioisotopes. These reactors will be built separately by each country at an estimated cost of $500 million. [18]

In September 2009, Nucleoelectrica Argentina SA signed an agreement with AECL for the life extension of Embalse and a feasibility study for the development of an advanced CANDU Reactor (ACR-1000). [19]

In April 2010, Argentina and Russia signed various cooperation agreements on space and nuclear energy among other areas. Argentine President Cristina Kirchner said in a joint news conference with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that Argentina is looking into the possibility of building additional nuclear plants to meet the country's need for electricity. [20] The agreement opens the door for Rosatom Nuclear Energy State Corporation to compete for the construction of those reactors. [21]

Argentina participates in the U.S. "Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors" program, which seeks to prevent depleted radioactive fuel in various countries from being used for military purposes. Since 2008, all of Argentina's operating research reactors use LEU. [22]

Argentina is also a member of the U.S. Megaports Initiative, which aims at preventing illicit traffic of nuclear materials through the global maritime system. The agreement signed on 13 April will provide two Argentine ports --Buenos Aires and Campana-- with radiation detection equipment and training for port personnel. [23]

Biological

There are no indications to suggest that Argentina has ever possessed or sought to acquire biological weapons. It is a state party of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), having ratified it in November 1979. In September 1991, Argentina, together with Brazil and Chile, signed the Mendoza Accord, which commits signatories not to use, develop, produce, acquire, stock, or transfer—directly or indirectly—chemical or biological weapons. Argentina further strengthened its nonproliferation credentials when, in 1992, it became a member of the Australia Group, a voluntary system of export controls on chemical and biological agents, precursors, and equipment.

Chemical

There is no evidence that Argentina has ever had a chemical warfare program. Argentina has been active in CW nonproliferation efforts. In 1992, Argentina became a member of the Australia Group and, in October 1995, ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Even before participation in these bodies, Argentina engaged in regional nonproliferation efforts; for example, Argentina signed the Mendoza Accord in 1991, which prohibits both chemical and biological warfare agents.

Missile

Argentina dismantled its medium-range ballistic missile program, the Cóndor II, in the early 1990s. The Cóndor missile program received technical support from a consortium of European firms and funding from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iraq. Argentina's intent was to develop the Cóndor II not only for its own use—which was largely motivated by its loss in the Falklands/Malvinas War with Great Britain—but for export as well. Concerns that missile technology was reaching the Middle East caused the United States to pressure Argentina to end the program, which it did in 1992. Argentina became a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in 1993.

Sources:
[1] Michael Z. Wise, "Argentina, Brazil Sign Nuclear Accord," Washington Post, 14 December 1991, www.nti.org.
[2] "Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)," Press Release n.237, Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 24 June 2011.
[3] Atucha I, a 357 MWe PHWR using slightly enriched uranium (0.85%) was supplied by Siemens AG (Germany) and started operation in 1974. Embalse, a 648 MWe CANDU 6 reactor supplied by Canada's Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd (AECL), uses natural uranium and started operation in 1984. Atucha II, a 745 MWe PHWR, has a Siemens design like Atucha I. Construction on Atucha II began in 1981 but was suspended in 1994 due to lack of funds. "Centrales Nucleares," Nucleoelectrica Argentina SA, www.na-sa.com.ar; "Nuclear Power in Argentina," World Nuclear Association, www.world-nuclear.org.
[4] The CAREM is a small 27 MWe reactor developed by INVAP under contract with the National Atomic Energy Commission (CNEA). It can easily be modified to produce 300 MWe making it an ideal reactor to provide electric energy to small cities with up to 100,000 inhabitants. "CAREM Project," INVAP, www.invap.net.
[5] Antonio Rossi, "Invertirán US$ 3.500 millones para relanzar el plan de desarrollo nuclear," Clarin, August 2006, www.clarin.com; Ann MacLachlan, "Argentina unveils ambitious plan for nuclear power expansion," Nucleonics Week 47, no. 35, 9, 31 August 2006.
[6] "Por una cuarta central nuclear," Clarín, 25 November 2009, www.clarin.com.
[7] "AECL extends agreement with Argentina for expanded CANDU nuclear co-operation," AECL Web site, 21 September 2009, www.aecl.ca.
[8] Isabel Vila, "El Gobierno proyecta construir una quinta central nuclear con tecnología de tercera generación," Telam, 7 June 2010, www.telam.com.ar; Pablo Fernández Blanco, "Comenzaron estudios para construir una quinta central nuclear en el país," Nucleoelectrica Argentina SA, www.na-sa.com.ar.
[9] Comisión Nacional de Energía Atómica, www.cnea.gov.ar.
[10] Heavy Water, ENSI, www.ensi.com.ar.
[11] "INVAP – Nuclear Background," INVAP, www.invap.net.
[12] "La Argentina firmó un acuerdo nuclear con Jordania," Clarin, 23 October 2008, www.clarin.com.
[13] "El país, exportador de tecnología nuclear," La Nacion, 20 December 2009, www.lanacion.com.ar; "CNEA vende radioisótopos a Brasil," Comisión Nacional de Energía Atómica (CNEA), 19 November 2009, www.cnea.gov.ar.
[14] Sarah Diehl and Eduardo Fujii, "Brazil's New National Defense Strategy Calls for Strategic Nuclear Developments," NTI Issue Brief, 30 October 2009, www.nti.org.
[15] "Garré Informó Sobre Proyectos Tecnológicos de Defensa," Argentine Ministry of Defense press release, 3 June 2010, www.mindef.gov.ar.
[16] Daniel Gallo, "Promete Garré que se construirá un submarino nuclear en el país," La Nacion, 4 June 2010, www.lanacion.com.ar.
[17] "Para Garré, es prematuro hablar del submarine," La Nacion, 5 June 2010, www.lanacion.com.ar.
[18] Daniel Rittner, "Argentina e Brasil acertam parceria na área nuclear," Valor Econômico, 4 August 2010.
[19] "AECL extends agreement with Argentina for expanded CANDU nuclear co-operation," AECL, 21 September 2009, www.aecl.ca.
[20] "Joint News Conference with President of Argentina Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner," President of Russia, http://eng.kremlin.ru.
[21] Lyubov Pronina, "Rosatom May Build Two Nuclear Reactors in Argentina (Update1)," Bloomberg, www.bloomberg.com.
[22] "Ya no quedan reactores con uranio de alto enriquecimiento en el país," Telam, 27 January 2009, www.telam.com.ar.
[23] "Signing of the Megaports Agreement," U.S. Department of State, 13 April 2010, www.state.gov; "U.S.-Argentina Megaports Agreement to Prevent Nuclear Smuggling," 13 April 2010, YouTube.com.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents.

Get the Facts on Argentina

  • The first South American country to have a nuclear power program
  • Suspended and dismantled its medium-range ballistic missile program, code-named Condor
  • Produces 7% of its electricity from nuclear energy