SANTIAGO — Chile and the United States signed a nuclear energy agreement on Friday despite Japan's huge atomic crisis, Chilean lawmakers' shrinking support for nuclear power and protests by environmental groups.
The memorandum of understanding on the use of peaceful nuclear energy was signed by Chilean Foreign Minister Alfredo Moreno and US ambassador Alejandro Wolff, two days before US President Barack Obama makes his first official visit to the South American nation.
Moreno said "Chile wants a greater understanding of nuclear energy, especially after what happened in Japan," where a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami rocked a nuclear power plant, triggering the most serious nuclear crisis since Chernobyl and fears of a large radiation leak.
Like Japan, Chile lies on the Pacific Ring of Fire, a horseshoe-shaped region that is prone to severe earthquakes. Just last year Chile suffered its own monster 8.8 quake and accompanying tsunami which killed more than 500 people.
Opposition lawmakers and environmental groups like Greenpeace rejected the atomic agreement as too risky for a country with such dramatic seismic activity.
But Chilean authorities stressed that no nuclear plants were planned.
"Chile is not able to have nuclear energy and what has happened in Japan has done nothing but reinforce that position," Moreno said.
Energy Minister Laurence Golborne, insisted that ratification of the agreement "is not a step to install a nuclear plant in Chile."
Chile is a net importer of fuel and has explored various opportunities to expand its energy reserves.
The country has two small experimental nuclear reactors, used for medicinal and technological applications. It has a formal commitment not to make any decision in the next 10 years about building a nuclear plant.
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