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Monday, November 2, 2015

Bolivia: A Nuclear Power?

Bolivia's announcement that it plans to build a nuclear-research complex near La Paz has taken some observers by surprise, and caused concern and consternation among some circles. There should be no surprise: It is in line with President Evo Morales' conviction that Bolivia is at the center of the universe, his regime can do no wrong, and that the fate of the world is in the hands of the poor, the powerless and the indigenous.

The complex, which will reportedly include "a cyclotron for radiopharmaeuticals, a multi-purpose gamma irradiation plant and a research reactor," is to be built on a 20-hectare site in El Alto, the huge and teeming city that overlooks La Paz on the Bolivian altiplano. Russia and Argentina will assist.

It will be widely noted among skeptics that Bolivia is one of the poorest nations in the hemisphere, even though it has billions of dollars in its reserves and earns hundreds of millions more each year by exporting natural gas on the legal market and cocaine on the black market. It's economy is probably the most vibrant and certainly one of the fastest growing in Latin America. Poverty, nevertheless, persists, despite numerous government programs to redistribute wealth among the indigenous majority.

The president's claim that nuclear technology is harmless, of course, is a subject of intense global debate. There are hundreds of nuclear reactors functioning around the world (see map below), but I wonder what the residents of Chernobyl and Fukushima would say. The jury is out on that one.

One of the main reasons for the nuclear complex is hubris and national pride. Bolivia recently became one of the poorest nations to have put a satellite in orbit, named the Tupac Katari after the Aymara Indian activist and warrior who fought the Spanish during the 18th Century. In doing so, Bolivia joined several other countries to have space programs that seem hugely unaffordable. The $300 million satellite, to serve national telephone, television and Internet needs, was paid for mostly with a loan from China.

Although I am highly skeptical of Bolivia's plans and its ability to carry forward such a project under the current political regime, there are others who are more supportive. Take a look at this Forbes story from last year. Whether it turns out to be a good idea or not, you have to hand it to Evo and his gang. They think big.

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