Chile's president insisted Wednesday on signing a nuclear accord with the United States during President Barack Obama's visit next week, saying the country must keep reactors as a potential option for fueling the booming economy despite anxieties about Japan's disaster.
Governments around the world are re-evaluating nuclear energy because of radiation leaks since the powerful earthquake and devastating tsunami in Japan, which had been seen as a model for designing safe nuclear facilities. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez called off Russia's plan to help build a reactor, calling it "something extremely risky and dangerous for the whole world."
Skepticism about nuclear power is rising in Chile, too, but President Sebastian Pinera said the country needs to double its energy resources and can't be afraid to consider all the alternatives.
"Chile needs to learn about nuclear energy, and that's why we've signed accords with France and Argentina and we'll sign another with the United States," Pinera said during a meeting with the Japanese ambassador. The goal is to learn lessons from Japan's example, and train Chileans to make wise decisions.
Chile, like Japan and the United States' west coast, sits on the Pacific's "ring of fire" of seismic activity. It is so prone to major earthquakes that many Chileans believe nuclear energy should have no part in the country's future. Greenpeace plans to protest against the accord during Obama's visit, and even lawmakers from Pinera's center-right party have asked him to drop plans for nuclear energy.
Both Pinera and Obama include nuclear power in the "clean energy" matrix they say is needed to avert global warming.
But with the accord's wording still secret and Chilean lawmakers demanding more transparency in light of Japan's crisis, plans for a high-profile signing ceremony have apparently been shelved. A closed-door ministerial-level event ahead of the presidential meeting is now most likely, officials told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak on the record.
Asked in Washington if the accord would be signed in Chile, a top White House official said only that nuclear energy would be discussed between Obama and Pinera.
"Nuclear safety and security is part of the bilateral dialogue between the United States and Chile," said Dan Restrepo, Obama's point man on Latin America at the National Security Council.
The accord _ a broadly worded "memorandum of understanding" about shared goals _ has gone through many drafts, but Chilean officials said it will generally focus on training Chilean engineers.
That's an essential first step toward any nuclear energy future, but also something Chile needs for its health care system. Chile has just two small, underused research reactors, and nearly all its nuclear experts are approaching retirement. Without highly trained nuclear engineers, it will struggle to provide nuclear isotopes for medical purposes, including diagnosing cancer.
Sara Larrain, who leads the environmentalist group Sustainable Chile, contends lobbying by the nuclear power industry is setting back Chile's renewable energy future.
She and others say Chile should build huge solar-powered plants in the northern desert where sun is constant, wind energy farms along the long and breezy Pacific coast and geothermal plants above the country's volcanic steam vents.
Chile now generates less than 3 percent of its energy from renewable sources. It lacks a unified electricity grid or a long-term clean energy plan, and has provided few incentives for industrial use of renewables, said Pilar Moraga, an environmental law professor at the University of Chile.
"Chile has opportunities it isn't taking advantage of," Moraga said in an interview.
Chile's economy is booming, on track to meet Pinera's goal of 6 percent annual growth. With 17 million people, Chile trails the more populous Brazil and Argentina in the size of its overall economy, but its per capita income of $14,000 a year leads South America, according to the United Nations.
Still, each new mine or factory requires more energy _ and for every percentage point the economy grows, the electricity supply needs to expand by as much as 1.5 percent, economist Miguel Marquez said.
Today, imported fuel, coal and hydroelectric dams provide 13,000 megawatts to the country's four independent electricity grids, but at this rate, Chile will need 20,000 megawatts a year by 2030, experts say.
The energy crunch has already arrived: A prolonged drought has drained reservoirs, lowering hydroelectric capacity. By importing all its oil and most of its natural gas, Chile suffers inflationary price jumps and supply shortages.
The government has extended summer hours for three more weeks, approved a plan for rationing and controlled blackouts, and may even lower its 220-voltage electricity by five watts. But these are stopgaps.
Small wind projects already approved and awaiting construction will add 1,500 megawatts and geothermal plants could add 2,000 more, Larrain said.
But Marquez said Chile's regulatory framework favors cheap, dirty fuels and doesn't encourage conservation, because it lacks incentives for using renewable energy or penalties for polluting. He also said Chile hasn't pushed the all-important mining operations and other heavy industries that consume 70 percent of the country's power to invest in unifying and modernizing the grids to better support solar and wind energy.
In February, the government approved the huge Castilla coal-fired power plant, with $4.4 billion in Brazilian funding, to provide 2,100 megawatts mostly for mining operations in the northern desert. Several other coal-fired plants also have been approved.
Burning more coal will make it harder to keep Chile's promise to reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020.
If Chile's largest mining companies were required to be just 2 percent more efficient each year, these plants wouldn't be necessary, Marquez said.
But Pinera said Chile's energy needs are so profound it needs any energy it can get _ from traditional sources to nuclear to hydropower _ the latter a likely reference to a controversial plan to dam a pristine river in southern Patagonia for the Hidroaysen project. That would generate 2,750 megawatts for a grid that could serve large new mines in southern Chile and Argentina, but isn't connected to central Chile's population centers.
Pinera's spokeswoman, Ena Von Baer, added later Wednesday that the government "is working hard and putting special emphasis, very strong, on renewable non-conventional energies, which is part of the president's commitment."
She said the government is already investing $12 million this year and plans $85 million next year in this area.
Larrain said the thrust of the government's energy policy is to support industrial growth no matter the cost. Pinera insisted that his government "will always put as its first priority the security, the protection of life, the protection of the health of everyone."
But Japan was already a world leader in nuclear safety, and now radiation is spreading across parts of the country.
Sen. Carolina Toha, who leads Chile's center-left opposition coalition, tweeted that after Japan, "those who are so enthusiastic about nuclear energy for Chile should think again."