Venezuela puts nuclear over oil

Nov 11, 2010 12:00 AM

Venezuela expects a nuclear reactor to save it $1 bn per year by increasing the amount of oil it exports, but a lot of work remains to realise the promise of nuclear cooperation with Russia.

On 9 November Venezuela's National Assembly ratified last month's nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia that could see the countries work on a research reactor and then a nuclear power plant. Celebrating this act, the Ministry of Communication and Information said a large nuclear reactor could displace some 15 mm barrels of oil from electricity generation with an export value of $1 bn.

Producing 1200 MWe, a pressurized water reactor from Russia would produce up to about 10 TWh per year. This tallies with the latest International Energy Agency data which shows Venezuela used oil to generate 13.11 TWh of electricity in 2007 - about 11% of its total.

Although nuclear power plants usually operate for constant base-load supply and oil is usually used flexibly to meet peak demand, it is clear that nuclear power could liberate the majority of that oil for export while reducing carbon emissions at the same time.

Other countries plan to use nuclear power in the same way and enable more exports of fossil fuels. Russia has been expanding its nuclear and hydro generation base in order to export more gas, while producers in the Middle East like the UAE and Iran would also prefer to export oil and gas rather than use them for electricity.
Nuclear energy is not entirely new to Venezuela. The Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research (Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Científicas, IVIC) operated a 3 MWt research reactor from 1960 to 1994 to produce radioisotopes for industry, medicine and agriculture. Currently the institute has a gamma ray facility to sterilize disposable surgical supplies, packaging, medicine and even some dry foods, but this is powered by imported cobalt-60.

The 19-article cooperation agreement with Russia sees the first step to renewing Venezuela's nuclear development as personnel training, including the application of International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.
Other key developments will be radiation safety, environmental protection, emergency response and the expansion of the proper regulatory environment to maintain those capabilities.
"There are people trained in this country, but we need more staff and a new generation to join the project and first it is important to know what we need," said Angel Viloria, head of IVIC. "Each of the estimated developments in this program has a portion where we define what type of staff are required and in what areas."

Success in developing the research reactor facility is a pre-requisite to the installation of nuclear power generation capacity. Rosatom and AtomStroyExport of Russia will work towards these aims with IVIC and the National Electricity Corporation (Corpolec).
"We will probably take more that ten years to complete the nuclear technology program, for we are surely talking about more than one reactor," said Viloria, noting that many elements in cooperation nevertheless remain undecided. "What has been signed with the Russians are instruments through which only some agreements have been established."

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