BUENOS AIRES, Oct. 26 (UPI) -- Argentina is going ahead with plans to start enriching uranium as the first major step toward expanding its nuclear program.
Argentine officials indicated enrichment of the fuel would be for civilian use and a precursor to Argentina building more nuclear power stations to add to the current inventory of two plants in operation. A third nuclear power generation facility is scheduled to come on stream.
Announcing the program, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner called the country's existing and planned nuclear power plants "strategic nuclear resources," an unusual term for what the government says is a clearly civilian-use nuclear program.
Argentina under military dictatorship came close to developing nuclear facilities for military purposes. The project was put on the back burner but never abandoned when elected representatives succeeded military rule.
Since last year, however, Argentina has embarked a major review of its military infrastructure while carrying on a vigorous campaign to advance its claim of sovereignty over the British-ruled Falkland Islands.
Argentina and Britain went to war over the islands in 1982 after a junta-backed Argentine military force seized control of the territories and was beaten back by Britain. The 74-day conflict led to more than 1,000 deaths but didn't silence Argentine claims over the Falklands.
British-backed exploration for hydrocarbons in the Falkland Islands waters gave new momentum to Argentine claims.
Fernandez said the planned start of uranium enrichment in 2011 signaled the relaunch of Argentina's nuclear program.
"We are returning to Argentina a right that we should never have renounced, such as managing strategic nuclear resources that had been abandoned during the 1990s," she said in a televised speech when she visited the Pilcaniyeu uranium enrichment plant in the Patagonian province of Rio Negro.
Officials said the enrichment process would be to produce fuel for Argentina's two existing reactors and a third scheduled to be commissioned next year.
Both of Argentina's existing nuclear power plants, the Siemens-built Atucha I and Embalse in the province of Cordoba, are in need of extensive refurbishment. The 360-megawatt Atucha I, commissioned in 1974, and the 650-megawatt Embalse, started a decade later, contribute only a small part to Argentina's electricity consumption.
Critics cite inefficiencies and waste of resources among problems that have prevented the two plants from operating to full capacity. Refurbishment and upgrade will cost tens of millions of dollars that Argentina doesn't have.
It remains unclear if Argentina's military nuclear development plan is also up for review. The plan was launched in the 1990s and its existence was neither confirmed nor denied.