SANTIAGO, Chile – Chile and the U.S. signed a nuclear energy accord Friday even as fears of radiation spread in Japan after a devastating earthquake and tsunami severely damaged some of its nuclear reactors.
A day earlier, White House officials wouldn't even confirm the long-awaited signing, which was supposed to be a high-profile moment in President Barack Obama's visit with Chilean President Sebastian Pinera on Monday.
The accord was signed by U.S. Ambassador Alejandro Wolff and Chilean Foreign Minister Alfredo Moreno.
Chile's mining and energy minister, Laurence Golborne, inked a similar accord with France last month. But with Japan's disaster still developing, he and Pinera left this signature to the foreign minister and stressed that it focuses on training nuclear engineers, not building reactors. They say Chileans need to be educated about nuclear power before deciding whether to use it.
Many Chileans are against nuclear power, and environmental groups plan to protest Obama's visit. Acknowledging the debate during the signing ceremony, Golborne denied that the accord is an inevitable step toward building reactors, and said any decision would be made after Pinera leaves office in 2014.
Pinera said Thursday that Obama's visit would include a working meeting, and that "we have many accords that are important for Chile to sign." In addition to energy, he said they include efforts to bring more U.S. English teachers to Chile, and "matters of democracy and human rights, not just in Chile but in the rest of Latin America."
Friday's ceremony also included seven other accords on topics including education, emergencies, culture and the environment.
Chile's senate president had lobbied to call off the nuclear accord. Some lawmakers were frustrated at not being able to see the wording in advance, and called Golborne to testify in hearings about Chile's energy future — a confrontation now delayed until after Obama leaves Chile.
Chile's booming growth is being held back by limits on its imported energy supply and outdated power grid. Both Pinera and Obama have said the solution is new technologies and "clean energy," which they define as including nuclear as well as more sustainable renewable sources such as solar, wind and geothermal power.
Opponents say even discussing long-term plans for nuclear energy in a country as prone to earthquakes as Chile distracts from other progress on securing domestic supplies. Now that Japan is in trouble despite serving as a model for protecting reactors against quakes, they say Chile should discard the option altogether.
Associated Press writer Michael Warren in Buenos Aires, Argentina, contributed to this report.