SANTIAGO, Chile, Oct. 30 (UPI) -- Chile is thinking again of meeting its future energy needs with nuclear power, after more than a year of hesitation and delays caused by the March 2011 Fukushima atomic reactor disaster in Japan.
Energy Undersecretary Sergio del Campo signaled the end, at least for now, of the government's consideration of alternatives to nuclear energy in comments he made during a discussion hosted by the Australian-Chilean Chamber of Commerce.
He also indicated a government decision on building a new nuclear power plant could come early next year but government experts say a power generation plant may not be ready during the current term of President Sebastian Pinera, which ends in 2014.
Chile has two small medical research reactors in operation since the mid-1970s.
"We are going to start next year," del Campo said, citing the stalled feasibility studies.
"We have always said that we weren't going to stop these studies. What we are going to do is continue analyzing this possibility for future governments."
Chilean Energy Ministry officials, pressed for clarifications, said del Campo's statements didn't herald a new nuclear energy program but the government won't rule out nuclear energy.
Nuclear power is a hugely controversial subject in Chile, because of the country's scarce fresh water resources and exposure to earthquake risks. Only in March a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck central Chile, the strongest and longest temblor reported since a magnitude 8.8 earthquake hit Chile Feb. 27, 2010.
As in Fukushima, the 2010 Chilean quake triggered a tsunami that caused widespread devastation and economic losses of up to $30 billion.
Despite the controversy, early plans for up to four nuclear power plants of 1,100 megawatts each were discussed in talks with France and the United States. Most expert recommendations say Chile is too dry to accommodate nuclear plants inland and may need to site any future facilities along the Pacific coast.
Supporters of nuclear power say Chile's economic growth is being held back by limits on its imported energy supply and outdated power grid.
U.S. President Barack Obama visited Chile last year and in talks with Pinera recommended use of new technologies and "clean energy," which pro-nuclear campaigners say includes nuclear power as well as renewable solar, wind and geothermal power.
Chile began actively to consider nuclear energy around 2007, when former President Michelle Bachelet ordered a preliminary study.
Pinera visited nuclear power plants in France during his presidential campaign in 2009, and a month after taking office, attended the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. Participants included nuclear power producers Argentina, Brazil and Mexico.