x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

World shrugs off Chavez's power plans, as should he

The chances of Venezuela becoming an effective member of the nuclear club are slim, but the country's people should ensure for their own safety that it ends at talk.

The Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, right, talks nuclear with his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez. Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP Photo
The Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, right, talks nuclear with his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez. Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP Photo

The chances of Venezuela becoming an effective member of the nuclear club are slim, but the country's people should ensure for their own future safety that it ends at talk

"They'll say we're going to make atom bombs," said the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in reply to the deal announced recently whereby Russia is to sell his administration a nuclear power station. "We're not going to make atom bombs."

Despite his concern the prospect of Venezuela, a close ally of Iran, joining the nuclear club is so remote as to provoke little more than raised eyebrows from world leaders. More to the point is whether the development of a nuclear-generating capacity makes any economic sense for Venezuela.

There is no reason, on the face of it, why the country should not seek to diversify its sources of energy, especially as it is suffering a severe electricity crisis, which this year has led to frequent power cuts and strict rationing that was partly lifted a few months ago as the rainy season brought temporary relief to dams feeding hydroelectric plants.

In July, the electricity minister Ali Rodriguez said the system had been "taken out of intensive care" but the crisis was far from over. He admitted there had been insufficient investment in thermoelectric generation during the 11 years of the Chavez government.

Most of the existing plants are operating well below par. Almost a third of the 24,490 megawatts of capacity has operating restrictions, due mainly to deteriorating infrastructure. Power cuts are one reason the Venezuelan economy - uniquely in Latin America - has yet to emerge from the recession.

After the announcement of the nuclear deal, Mr Rodriguez said it was "part of a strategy that aims at diversification".

This is curious, because only months earlier he made no mention of nuclear power when outlining his ministry's strategy, which emphasised wind and conventional thermal power. He was not even in Moscow for the announcement, which seems to have been made more for political reasons.

Based on the chequered history of nuclear power in Latin America and the nature of the Venezuelan regime, it is not hard to predict where this story is headed.

Billions of dollars will be handed over in exchange for reactor parts that will sit for years, if not decades, in warehouses or exposed to the elements while endless setbacks delay the construction of the buildings intended to house them.

If the plant ever comes on line, it will be plagued by cost over-runs and safety concerns, make almost no contribution to the power supply and eventually be dismantled before its decommissioning date.

The Laguna Verde plant in Mexico, for instance, began partial operations in 1990 after 18 years of planning and construction. Close to a fault line in an area prone to hurricanes, it has been plagued by claims of corruption, poor maintenance and environmental hazard.

Mexico's third-largest city, Veracruz, lies downwind and would probably have to be evacuated in the event of a leak. But there is no evacuation plan because the emergency perimeter stops short of the city boundary.

Juragua in Cuba was abandoned due to the collapse of the Soviet Union after US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) was wasted; the Atucha II plant in Argentina was held up for 20 years and is still not completed; and Angra III in Brazil was started in 1984 but has not been finished. As with Laguna Verde, the Angra plants have been heavily criticised for being too close to urban areas.

There is no reason to think Venezuela will prove more capable than its neighbours. If anything, the reverse is true. Even Mr Rodriguez admits the country has no "maintenance culture".

Although the press is not allowed into power plants, photographs of one of the biggest - Planta Centro - were leaked on the internet and show it littered with rusting metal.

Neither Moscow nor Caracas has revealed the projected cost of the plant. Estimates go as high as $10bn - money that would be much better spent upgrading the Venezuelan transmission network.

The world has little reason to worry about a nuclear Venezuela. But Venezuelans should be lobbying hard to stop it coming about.

 

business@thenational.ae