Chile Nuclear Power

Miguel Camacho-Horvitz
March 11, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: The Pacific Ring of Fire. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In many ways, Chile led the modern power sector reform in Latin America. With economic liberalization policies in the 1970s and 80s, including privatization of utility companies and opening of the sector to foreign investors, it seemed Chile was ahead of its counterparts in "modernizing" its power sector. [1] Still, unlike neighboring Argentina and Brazil, Chile did not launch any nuclear power programs. In fact, despite with one of the most stable and rapidly growing economies in the region as well as increasing energy demands, Chile did not seem willing to consider a nuclear energy option. Even in 2005, soon to be President Michelle Bachelet while on the campaign trail did not consider nuclear energy a valid option to be included as part of her national energy policy.

Soon after, however, several largely independent factors came together to expose the Chilean energy sector. For one, Argentina abruptly reduced gas exports to Chile. After years of increasing gas imports from Chile's eastern neighbor that had led to a rapid increase in electricity production, this quick change led to expensive energy substitutions. [2] Moreover, volatile and rising global fossil fuels prices, as well as the effect of a drought on hydro-plants generation and an earthquake on electrical generation in the North, led to an effective energy crisis from 2006 to 2008. [3] This alone perhaps would not have shifted the Chilean energy conversation towards the idea of a nuclear energy option; however, together with concerns over rising energy consumption in the coming decades and a stronger focus on environmental stability, nuclear energy soon entered the national conversation.

With a growing economy, electricity consumption in Chile was projected to continue growing by six to seven percent through 2020, and the government readily admitted it must quickly develop "sufficient and competitive energy resources." [4] By 2010, a report from the "Ministerio de Energia", Chile's analog to the U.S. Department of Energy, assessed that a nuclear power program would be convenient, competitive, and sustainable, and indeed that it is would likely be necessary for Chile's energy demands starting in 2024. [3]

The Nuclear Option

Today only three countries south of the equator have operating nuclear reactors, though as aforementioned, Brazil and Argentina both count among them. While their reactors provide these two countries with just three and six percent of their total electricity, respectively, nuclear power at one point provided Argentina with nearly one fifth of its electricity. [5] Still there are important differences between a would-be nuclear power program in Chile and the modest but effective ongoing programs in Brazil and Argentina. For one, though neither country ever manufactured nuclear weapons, both Brazil and Argentina had weapons programs with their respective militaries evidently interested in nuclear weapons from the start of their nuclear programs. [5] With a plainly different geopolitical landscape today than there was in the 1970s, it is difficult that such motivations could drive a modern nuclear power program. Secondly and more importantly, Chile faces inherent geographic-based difficulties that do not as much affect Argentina let alone Brazil. Chile has thousands of miles of coastline along the circum-Pacific belt, also known as the "Ring of Fire," pictured in Fig. 1. With nearly continuous seismic activity underneath, Chile has over and over again experienced significant natural disasters including the largest earthquake ever recorded. [6] Naturally, this has engendered skepticism regarding a nuclear power plant.

Obstacles notwithstanding, Chile's previous two heads of states have made tangible progress toward the development of a nuclear power program. During President Bachelet's first term, a nuclear commission she established found that there was no reason to discard nuclear energy as a source of electricity for Chile in the future. [3] Of course, soon thereafter, Chile was struck with an 8.8 magnitude earthquake in 2010. Only a year later, the world witnessed the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant. While these disaster heightened environmental concerns and certainly aggravated the aforementioned public fears over Chile's natural disaster vulnerabilities, they did not wholly stop Chile's progress towards nuclear energy. During the tenure of President Bachelet's successor, Sebastian Piñera, Chile inked a nuclear energy cooperation agreement with the United States. [7] Further, in 2012, the "Colegio de Ingenieros de Chile" - Chile's College of Engineers - outlined a plan for nuclear power in Chile through 2030 that would begin generating energy by 2020. While this is still far from a reality, Chile certainly remains on a path, if somewhat inconsistent, towards nuclear energy.


Today, Chile remains likely a decade away from an active nuclear power generating reactor. The latest World Nuclear Industry Status Report listed Chile as a country with "active preparation, but no final decision," which in terms of level of interest puts it along side Israel and several African nations at the rung below "declared intention to introduce nuclear power and preparing infrastructure." [5] Still, inroads have been made as the government continues to study the issues surrounding nuclear energy, consider International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) recommendations, and inform the population.

© Miguel Camacho-Horvitz. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] R. A. Yepez- García, T. M. Johnson, and L. A. Andrés, "Meeting the Balance of Electricity Supply and Demand in Latin America and the Caribbean," The World Bank, Septemper 2010.

[2] M. Vagliasindi and J. Besant-Jones, "Power Market Structure," The World Bank, 2013.

[3] Marcelo Tokman Ramos, "Núcleo-Electricidad en Chile," Ministrio de Energia, Gobierno de Chile, 2010.

[4] "Energy for the Future," Ministerio de Energia, Gobierno de Chile, February 2012.

[5] M. Schneider, A. Froggatt, and S. Thomas, "Nuclear Power in a Post-Fukushima World," Worldwatch Institute, April 2011.

[6] S. F.L. Watt, D. M. Pyle, and T. A. Mather, "The Influence of Great Earthquakes on Volcanic Eruption Rate Along the Chilean Subduction Zone," Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 277. 399 (2009).

[7] "Memorandum de Entendimiento Entre el Gobierno de los Estados Unidos de America y el Gobierno de la Republica de Chile Sobre la Cooperacion Relativa a la Utilizacion de la Energia Nuclear con Fines Pacificosy," U.S. Department of State, 18 Mar 11.