Russia to build nuclear power plant in Venezuela

MOSCOW. (Konstantin Bogdanov for RIA Novosti) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced that his country had reached a tentative agreement with Russia to build a nuclear reactor.

"A nuclear reactor, to produce energy for peaceful purposes, will soon be built in Estado Zulia and named in honor of a 20th century Venezuelan scientist, Humberto Fernandez Moran," the Venezuelan Ministry for Communication and Information quoted him as saying. The media report that the construction contract may be signed on November 26, during President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Venezuela.

Although Chavez's flamboyant style is nothing new, it is worth analyzing the possible goals of the project and assessing how viable it is.

The history of South America's nuclear industry is about 50 years old but only Argentina and Brazil have nuclear reactors. In both cases, this is the peaceful tip of the military nuclear iceberg. Both have suspended their nuclear programs under the pressure of the world community, at least officially. They have regular light-water reactors, and Canadian heavy-water CANDUs. The United States, Canada, and Germany have played the main role in Latin America's peaceful nuclear programs.

Latin America is a potential growing-point for the Third World's nuclear industry. Brazil and Argentina are going to continue developing their nuclear industries. Chile has also declared its intention to obtain nuclear technologies.

Venezuela claims to be Latin America's third major power, and in this context its intention to go nuclear looks primarily like an ambitious political move. The oil-producing Venezuela does not need to develop a nuclear industry, unlike India or China, major importers of hydrocarbons. Brazil is also an oil producer but it is sometimes short of energy because of its rapid economic growth.

In short, for Venezuela, a nuclear reactor may simply be a military-political project. It is not likely to cope with a military nuclear program for two reasons. First, the light-water VVER model, which is the only technical solution for the Venezuelan project, is not suitable for military uses. Second, Venezuela does not have enough engineers who are qualified for the task.

It would be premature to expect technical aid from Russia at this point.

The Russian nuclear engineering is obviously overstrained. Recently, the growing number of export contracts for the construction of nuclear power plants abroad has jeopardized Russia's federal target program for the development of the nuclear industry. Russia has only one company that specializes in building nuclear reactors, Izhorskiye Zavody, and it is loaded with contracts for years to come.

It is hard to overestimate the political importance of Russia's peaceful nuclear expansion to the Third World, but Moscow should not forego the interests of its own nuclear industry. Paralyzed by the Chernobyl syndrome in the late 1980s, and the general crisis of the Soviet economic system, it requires overall reconstruction and development.

This makes the Venezuelan-Russian project seem like a political fantasy rather than an economically substantiated move. In the final count, neither side needs it. However, it may be used as a bargaining chip in the big game between the United States, the European Union, China, and Russia, which is now unfolding in Latin America.

Latin America is freeing itself from U.S. control. Its growing military and political ambitions are turning it into what it was, to a certain extent, in the 19th century - the testing grounds of the great powers. But there is one unpleasant detail: They are increasingly testing more and more dangerous toys.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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