Lack of Nuclear Energy Development in Latin America

Emily Choi
May 28, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: A map showing countries which have or had commercial nuclear power stations. [3] (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

For decades, the use of nuclear energy around the world has been on an upward trajectory as climate change and a general lack of energy sources have become a growing issue. Most developed countries including European countries, Japan, and the U.S. have realized the necessity of nuclear power in order to prepare for the energy crisis that could possibly result from fossil fuels that contribute to global warming or from running out of natural resources. [1] Despite this global trend growing in favor of nuclear energy, nuclear energy in Latin American countries constitutes only a very small portion of the overall energy use. Not only are there only three countries - Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil - with nuclear power plants, but also Latin America's units in operation accounts for only 1.6 percent of the 447 units in the U.S. [2] Argentina's three units (net capacity of 1632 MWe), Brazil's two units (1884 MWe), and Mexico's two units (1552 MWe), are far behind the global trend (see Fig. 1). [3] This lack of nuclear energy development in Latin America can have multiple factors.

Causes and Factors

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) outlines different factors that could contribute to the nuclear energy development in countries. First, safety is certainly a major contributor as accidents such as the Fukushima Daiichi incident have occurred, terrifying the whole world and severely impacting to this day the neighboring ecosystems and the people by releasing radioactive materials. [4] Funding and financing by the government is also a key factor as developing power plants requires various responsibilities and managing sectors such as a national regulatory body. Third, there must be proper policies and electricity markets to establish a strong foundation for nuclear power development. Next, countries must take care of the waste produced from nuclear power plants, and proper waste management is necessary for public acceptance of nuclear power. Lastly, the previous factors all contribute to another important factor, which is the public opinion of nuclear energy. To provide a better understanding of nuclear energy, governments must transparently educate their citizens, which can lead to an informed consent by stakeholders. [2]

Lack of Nuclear Energy Development in Latin America

All the factors mentioned above certainly contribute to Latin America's general lack of nuclear energy development, and while some are applicable to most underdeveloped and developing countries, some are specific to Latin America. First, one universal factor is the issue of safety; similar to the rest of the world, certain nuclear power accidents have caused fear in Latin American countries. For instance, when the Fukushima Daiichi disaster took place after an earthquake in Japan in 2011, Chile decided to postpone its previous decisions about nuclear energy development. [5] This is more of a global phenomenon as polls show that people who said nuclear power plants are unsafe increased significantly from 32 percent to 78 percent following the Tokai Mura accident in Japan in 1999 which caused two deaths. [1]

There also exist some factors that are more specific to most Latin American countries. The Nonproliferation Treaty among Latin American countries to present nuclear weapon development indirectly prevented technical assistance and monetary aid for the development of peaceful nuclear explosive devices. [5] Therefore, after the Nonproliferation Treaty, there seems to have been a discontinuation and dissuasion of any sort of nuclear development although the purpose was not to hinder the development of peaceful use of nuclear energy. However, one exception to note is Mexico, who was the first and an involved member of the Treaty of Tlatelolco (nonproliferation treaty) that also developed its own nuclear program. [5] Thus, the treaty was certainly not the main cause but a contributing factor. For now, the most apparent and Latin America-specific cause seems to be the abundance of natural resources in Latin America. Latin American countries are full of natural resources such as fossil fuels, hydroelectric power, and natural gas. Some countries have more than their needs that they even export energy to other countries. Thus, fundamentally, because Latin American countries do not find the pressing need to find an alternative to their natural resources, they are postponing their development of nuclear energy. [6] Especially with their lack of financial resources for investment, technical skills, and public support, Latin American countries show a lack of interest compared to other nations.


Although there is no urgent need for an alternative energy source, Latin American countries are considering nuclear power for economic, environmental, and other issues just as other countries. Many of them are simply not ready as they face institutional and legal difficulties; for instance, Chile acknowledged its lack of experts in nuclear energy and investment, deciding to postpone their plans for nuclear power plants. [5,7] In conclusion, in the future, it is highly possible that Latin American countries will follow the steps of other countries that currently rely heavily on nuclear energy. In order to be able to embrace this need for nuclear energy in the future, it is imperative that the countries begin to gradually build an appropriate social and political environment.

© Emily Choi. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. 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] "Public Attitudes to Nuclear Power," Nuclear Energy Agency, NEA No. 6859, 2010.

[2] "International Status and Prospects for Nuclear Power 2017," International Atomic Energy Agency, GOV/INF/2017/12-GC(61)/INF/8, 28 Jul 17.

[3] "Nuclear Power Reactors in the World," International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA-RDS-2/37, May 2017.

[4] M. Holt, R. Campbell, and M. Nikitin, "Fukushima Nuclear Disaster," Congressional Research Service, R41694, January 2012.

[5] A, Sotomayor, "U.S.-Latin American Nuclear Relations: From Commitment to Defiance," U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, PASCC Report No. 22012-013, September 2012.

[6] J. Z. Iglesias, "Latin America's Nuclear Future," Hemisphere 20, 16 (Spring 2011).

[7] M. Camacho-Horvitz, "Chile Nuclear Power," PHysics 214, Stanford University, Winter 2016.