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Russia Inks Uranium One Nuclear Deal With Argentina

I’ve lost track of Argentina’s nuclear program, but eight years ago on this blog, we posted a brief item about former anti-American Argentine President Kirchner dabbling in revitalizing Argentina’s atomic sector:

That Argentina would re-launch its nuclear program should come as no surprise.  What do you expect when megalomaniac Hugo Chavez announces he will start a nuclear program with the help of Russia and Iran?

Fortunately, it appears that Kirchner likely behaved on sharing nuclear technology with Venezuela. Iran? Still an open question. In 2013, we also posted a blog about nuclear cooperation by regional powers including nuclear cooperation between Brazil and Argentina.

Argentina is one of three nations in Latin America with civilian nuclear power programs. The other two are Mexico and Brazil. There are six nuclear power plants in the region, each country operating two reactors.

According to various news sources yesterday, Argentina is back in the nuclear news arena. The Chinese had made a bid to manufacture at least two reactors for the Argentines, but it appears that our friends in South America have opted, at least for now, to work with the Russians. Curious why the Argentines did not go with, say, General Electric? I’ll have to leave that for another post because a lot more background would be needed to make sense of it. Who knows. There still be space for U.S. companies such Bechtel to get in on some of this new business.

President Mauricio Macri met with Vladimir Putin yesterday at the Krelim. Also yesterday, the Argentine Science Minister signed a nuclear cooperation deal with the Russians to, among other things, supposedly build a nuclear plant in Argentina. According to the Argentine Foreign Ministry website the purpose of the memorandum of understanding is (translated from Spanish):

cooperation and joint development between both countries [of nuclear energy], taking into consideration that the uranium extraction method called “In Situ Recovery”, developed by Uranium One, is the most efficient in terms of its low costs and represents a minimum environmental impact, since it does not require soil removal. Likewise, this technology represents around 50% of the world production of uranium and Argentina would be – in this way – a pioneer in its application in Latin America.

The new reactor costs approximately $300 million, and it will create 500 new non-American Uranium One Russian and Argentine jobs. If you’re following the Uranium One political scandal in the United States, the latest is that a federal grand jury in Maryland has indicted the former head of a Maryland state agency for allegedly bribing a Russian official. The Justice Department and the Congress continue to investigate the Uranian One deal approved by then-Obama Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The transaction is connected to a Clinton Foundation donor, Frank Giustra, and Russia.

I’ll spare you most of the policy and legal mumbo-jumbo; however, if you follow these matters then you know that Argentina is a Tier 1 nation. In other words, Argentina has an advanced nuclear program. It also had one of Latin America most advanced ballistic missile programs that, supposedly, has been wholly refocused for civilian outer space work.

Argentina’s nuclear program has a mostly clean history when it comes proliferation issues; however, there is evidence that it has tried to go beyond peaceful uses of atomic energy. It had a covert nuclear program for many years, and most experts who follow these matters do not believe that the full extent of Argentina’s know-how is known.

According to the Peddling in Peril Index (PPI), released this week by the Institute for Science and International Security Argentina scores high marks for export control regulations, but poorly in its ability to prevent proliferation financing:

The bottom twelve countries had negative scores and included, listed from higher to lower ranking India, China, Argentina, South Africa, Pakistan, Egypt, Russia, Serbia, Belarus, Ukraine, the DPRK, and Iran. Similar to Super Criterion Ability to Monitor and Detect Strategic Trade, while countries appear to have the legislative basis to prevent illicit trade, many lack the ability to prevent the flow of money that finances it.

In summary, Argentina is a party to all relevant treaties and arrangements, they have an export legal and regulatory system in place to help track and control the export of nuclear technologies, but this does not mean that the United States should lower its guard. There are many ways in this space that things can go from just alright to bad in no time.

After a year of generally improved relations between the United States and Argentina, I think this could be the first tough talk among friends. At least I hope so. The U.S. Congress should most definitely be looking into this as well. Access to the U.S. market is a privilege, not a right. If Argentina wants to do nuclear business with Russia, be prepared for consequences.

As for Russia, this is vintage Putin. Meddling in Latin America is one of his specialties. He’s been at it for a long time, and he has no intent on slowing it down. Quite the opposite. In fact, the Russian news agency also announced that in addition to the nuclear MOU, the Russians also want to sell Russian rocket engines to Argentina.


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