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October 31, 2014

#foreignaffairs

Monday, July 7, 2014

Nuclear Botnia

By Andrés Federman
For The Herald

Meet Diokitec S.A. The company is owned 99% by Argentina’s National Atomic Energy Commission (CNEA) and 1% by the Mendoza province government. According to its self-description, its mission is to “guarantee the supply of uranium dioxide for the nuclear fuels used in the Atucha I and Embalse nuclear power plants.”

The plant is based — up to now — in Córdoba. But as many of its kin, it is not a welcome neighbour. So much so, that there are plans to move it quite soon to the northern province of Formosa.

Diokitec S.A. is a textbook case of the NIMOBY effect. The acronym stands for “not in my own back yard,” the kind of things with which we do not necessarily disagree, provided they are placed far from where we live or work. True, nuclear power plants, are quite controversial. But the controversy gets more philosophical and less urgent the further away these facilities are from us.

Predictably, the planned move has already triggered protests in Formosa from concerned neighbours and from national environmentalist NGOs. Moreover, Greenpeace has already gone public, albeit in the context of its well-known views against this source of energy. But what makes this case even more interesting is that the protests are starting to come from across the border. There is increasing talk in Paraguay, about the environmental hazards associated with such a neighbour placed near the frontier.

The word Botnia immediately springs to mind. But — on this occasion — it would be Argentina playing the villain’s role. In any case, a new example of cross-border environmentalism in the region. And, perhaps, the chance to start building more cooperative mechanisms and processes to deal with this kind of issues. Although a final decision about locating Diokitec in Formosa has not been reached, there is still a public hearing to take place on July 15, the odds are that the plans will go ahead.

The very bad news is that there will be no way of avoiding negative reactions on both sides of the border. Nuclear energy generation was, is, and will be a sensitive issue. The question is if something can be done to avoid it becoming a permanent thorn on the side of the bilateral relation.

Some of the Argentine government’s moves seem to be pointing in the right direction. Last week, the head of the CNEA, Ms Norma Boero, headed a delegation that visited Paraguay to inform the authorities about the plans. And three months ago, she hosted a delegation headed by her Paraguayan counterpart with a similar objective.

According to the information provided by the CNEA, they arranged on a (much needed?) update of the 1967 bilateral agreement on the peaceful use of atomic energy as well as on personnel exchanges. Perhaps more important, they started to discuss bilateral cooperation on regulatory matters. If both sides are serious, is the best way of offering safeguards to Formosa’s neighbours.

On a more pessimistic note, there are some awkward news. A bill is working its way through the Paraguayan Senate asking President Cartes to state his government’s opposition to this project. And it seems to have cross-party consensus.

Even more awkward, the Paraguayan Senators Arnoldo Wiens (Partido Colorado), Fernando Silva Facetti (Partido Liberal) and Arnaldo Giuzzo (Partido Democrático Progresista) visited Argentina to discuss the issue with their local counterparts. They met with five opposition Senators: Luis Naidenoff, Alfredo Martínez, Eugenio Artaza, Roberto Basualdo and Norma Morandini There were no Victory Front (FpV) senators there. It is worrying if they were not invited to the meeting. And equally worrying if they were invited but declined to attend.

The obvious risk is that an issue, which is sensitive per-se, becomes part of a toxic blend of foreign and domestic politics in which things are likely to get out of control quite quickly. And in terms of foreign policy this transcends the bilateral relation with Paraguay. The bilateral aspect is likely to be noisiest. Not least because it happens at a time when there are other Mercosur and non Mercosur issues straining the bilateral relation. Trade and Yaciretá are two of the contentious problems.

But it should be noted that matters related to nuclear power generation are the subject of close international scrutiny and regulation. Argentina has a good reputation as an international supplier of this kind of sensitive technology which it wants and needs to protect. It would be a pity to see petty domestic political squabbles find their way into the broader international agenda.

If one has to go by what the senators from both countries said, Argentina’s Foreign Affairs Ministry has failed to comply with their requests for information. If that is the case, the Ministry has the chance of fixing its mistake quite quickly. And if the fault lands on its Paraguay counterpart’s doorstep, the fact remains that it is in Argentina’s best interest to be seen to act transparently. And make sure the information gets to all those who request it, including the press, the politicians and — vital in this case — civil society organizations.

Nobody should have any illusions that a nuclear fuels plant can be installed without controversy. But common sense indicates that all efforts should be made to limit as much as possible the usage of the issue to further non-related political agendas. And the way of doing this, is for the Argentine government to engage all possible audiences, on the other side of the border, with clear and credible information.

Expect no miracles. This will not be pain-free. But a proactive approach might help everybody to limit the risk of having a second Botnia in Mercosur.

@andresfederman

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