The Americas

Chile, U.S. Sign Nuclear Energy Accord

SANTIAGO, Chile -- Chile and the U.S. signed a nuclear energy accord Friday, despite fears of radiation spreading 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 the U.S. ambassador, Alejandro Wolff, and Chile's foreign minister, Alfredo Moreno.

Chile's mining and energy minister, Laurence Golborne, personally signed a similar accord with France last month. But with Japan's disaster still developing, he and Pinera left this one to the foreign minister, and have stressed that it focuses on training nuclear engineers, not building reactors. They say Chileans need to be fully educated about nuclear power before deciding whether to build any plants.

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."

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Chile's booming growth is being held back by limits on its imported energy supply and outdated power grid.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 the country from other progress it needs to make to secure 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.