Bolivian unrest: what now for the country’s nuclear ambitions?

Heidi Vella 30 January 2020 (Last Updated January 29th, 2020 16:56)

Backed by Russia, Bolivia had set its sights on building new nuclear energy capacity to supply the country’s growing demand for electricity - but could recent political instability put these plans into doubt? We investigate the progress and potential of Bolivia’s atomic energy ambitions.

Bolivian unrest: what now for the country’s nuclear ambitions?
Russia had agreed to support a $300m nuclear research reactor near the Bolivian capital of La Paz. Credit: Russian Government

Home to part of the Andean mountain range, as well as some of the highest above-sea-level cities in the world, the developing South American state of Bolivia is not an obvious candidate for new nuclear energy capacity.

Yet, since 2013, the now ousted former-Bolivian President, Evo Morales, has been pursing plans to reduce the country’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels by investing in nuclear power. Morales’ administration formalised these plans in 2015 when it signed a co-operation agreement to pursue atomic energy with Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear corporation. The arrangement included building a $300m nuclear research reactor 20km from Bolivia’s capital city of La Paz.

In the same year, the government penned another agreement with neighbouring Argentina ‘to promote and develop’ the necessary infrastructure and institutions needed to establish a nuclear industry. Overall, Morales’s administration pledged to invest more than $2bn.

Five years on however, Bolivia finds itself in political turmoil. Morales, who ran the country for 14 years and was the first ever indigenous president, has exiled himself to Mexico following weeks of violent protests and unrest amid accusations of electoral fraud at the end of 2019. As such, the country’s nuclear ambitions now appear firmly on hold.

Progress to date

Prior to Morales’ fall from power, his administration had kick-started the often-lengthy process of initiating nuclear power capabilities. It founded The Bolivarian Agency for Nuclear Energy and had started working with the IAEA to establish a development framework for nuclear. In 2018, it signed a Country Programme Framework with the IAEA leading up to 2023.

Plans for uranium mining in the country had also been floated, but the government halted these and instead decided it could import nuclear fuel from France and Canada. Further agreements were penned with Rosatom for the building of the research centre, which, if it is ever finished, will be the highest in the world at 4000 metres above sea level.

The centre is expected to encompass a pool-type reactor of between 100 and 200 kilowatts, a multi-purpose gamma irradiation unit, a cyclotron for nuclear pharmacy purposes, an engineering department, and several research laboratories.

Challenges ahead

Bolivia is one of only a handful of countries in South America that is either exploring capital intensive nuclear power or already has capacity. Argentina and Brazil both have nuclear reactors in action.

However, the rising cost of current technology – several projects in Europe have run years over schedule and millions over budget – can make it difficult, but not impossible, for developing nations such as Bolivia to adopt atomic energy.

“Developing nuclear energy for electricity production in a new country is a long-term commitment,” says Jonathan Cobb from the World Nuclear Association (WNA).

“The Bolivian approach of first developing a nuclear research centre is one other country’s have followed, the centre will provide experience in the operation and regulation of a research reactor, which with an output of 100-200 kilowatts is very much smaller than a nuclear power reactor,” he explains.

However, to firm up its plans, he adds, Bolivia needs to establish a national regulator and invest in developing skilled staff.

Size of the grid

The small size of the country’s grid system is also a major issue. Current nuclear technology requires power plants much larger than those of fossil fuels. The WNA notes that it does not make sense to have any generating unit more than about one-tenth of the capacity of the grid (maybe 15% if there is high reserve capacity). This is because nuclear plants need to be taken offline for refuelling or maintenance, or due to unforeseen events.

For context, Bolivia’s energy consumption is 7.79 billion kwh a year according to the World Bank, which is vastly smaller than the UK, for example, which uses 309.2 billion kwh a year.

Milko Kovachev, head of the IAEA’s Nuclear Infrastructure Development Section says if a country decides to include nuclear in the energy mix, it is essential to have a stable electrical grid of the right size as most of the nuclear power plants today are on the order of 1,000MW.

“The rule of thumb is that grid capacity should be around ten times the capacity of the planned new power plant. Therefore, a country should have a capacity of about 3,000MW to 10,000MW already in place to introduce nuclear power,” he says.

Therefore, the eventual development of nuclear power for electricity generation in Bolivia will very much depend on its future needs.

Small Modular Reactors

Instead of currently available technology, Bolivia may be better off considering technology coming through the pipeline – such as small modular reactors (SMR).

“It could be that SMR options are available at the time Bolivia considers investing in nuclear generation, and that these would better suited to its particular circumstances, by reducing the initial investment and new capacity to be added to the grid.”

“Alternatively, rapid demand growth or a desire to make a significant reduction in fossil fuel use could prompt investment in larger reactor designs,” he adds.

SMRs, which are expected to be commercially available within the decade, could be better suited to a country like Bolivia which has smaller energy needs and would benefit from lower costs. They are also expected to be much more flexible than current large-scale nuclear reactors, and therefore can work better with both renewable energy and natural gas, which Bolivia has in abundance.

“SMRs will be an option for countries with smaller electricity grids and will also require lower upfront capital cost per unit. This cost should be weighed against alternative options and their competitiveness will need to be pursued through economies of scale,” says Kovachev.

However, he adds that nuclear energy is a capital-intensive project, and for some countries finding funds for the development of the infrastructure is the first challenge. And, besides the costs involved, it requires a significant investment of time.

“It is a commitment that engages a nation for at least 100 years,” says Kovachev. Construction phases can last up to 15 years, though this is expected to be shorter for SMRs.

Political instability

Since the resignation of Morales in November, a conservative interim government has assumed power and elections are expected in May.

Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism party, however, still remains the country’s largest political faction, and despite being exiled Morales says he will lead the party’s new electoral campaign but not stand as leader. The leader will be announced at the end of the month.

If Morales’ party wins power, it’s likely it will maintain programs established by its previous leader, including the bid to develop nuclear power. However, with accusations of vote rigging in the last election, there’s little assurance the upcoming polls will not result in more violence and political stability, both of which will likely keep away potential investors.

Therefore, it remains very early days for nuclear energy development in Bolivia. In fact, the World Nuclear Association doesn’t expect much growth in the nuclear power sector to come from any developing nations, including Bolivia.

Instead, the country is more likely to remain part of a long list of developing nations that has penned agreements with Russia, such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Sudan, but are yet to see them come fully into fruition, at least until it wrestles back democracy.