After learning that radioactive materials such as uranium could be one of the main sources of energy in the world, Mexico made sure to nationalize its reserves and sought to develop its nuclear industry. Learn about some of these efforts and the difficulties that marked their end.
The discovery of the importance of uranium worldwide and the knowledge of its existence in national territory moved the Mexican State to reform Article 27 of the Constitution to incorporate it as a natural reserve and to create institutions to manage it, initially with the formation of the National Nuclear Energy Commission in 1955. However, these efforts were cut short with the closure of Uranios Mexicanos (URAMEX) in 1984.
The possibility of using nuclear energy for non-war purposes, especially in the second half of the 20th century, brought with it new applications and legal and regulatory constructions that supported the intervention of governments around the world to regulate technical and safety issues and, of course, the economic resources generated for the energy industry. Consequently, very soon conventions were held in which the guidelines for nuclear technology were defined for the benefit of mankind.
The study of uranium was a central issue in the Mexican government's political agenda, as this solid-state radioactive metal could be used as fuel for nuclear reactors. While the Second World War was coming to an end, Mexico took the first steps in the so-called nuclear law, since given the world interest in this mineral, article 27 of the Mexican Constitution was modified to incorporate radioactive materials as national resources, susceptible to exploration, exploitation, and benefit. Thus, in August 1945, the Ministry of Economy issued a declaration clarifying the incorporation of uranium as a natural reserve.
A year later, based on the experience of the oil expropriation, a presidential decree reformed the old declaration so that uranium deposits and other radioactive substances would be exclusively exploited by the Mexican State. This laid the foundations for the establishment in the 1950s of the National Nuclear Energy Commission (CNEN), which was in charge of the regulation, coordination, export, and import of atomic equipment and materials, as well as commercial relations related to the uranium industry.
The CNEN was also in charge of research tasks in the field of nuclear, scientific, and technical physics. The state of Oaxaca was one of the first places where explorations were carried out, specifically in the municipalities of Huitzo and Telixtlahuaca. From 1956 to 1959, intense work was carried out in search of radioactive material in different areas, among which the El Muerto mine in Huitzo stands out, of whose exploration we have some photographs. This area in particular was of great interest, since in the following decades it was the object of new exploratory works.
During the 1960s, intensive efforts were made to develop the uranium-based energy industry. In 1961 geological investigations were carried out in most of the states of the country to find deposits of radioactive minerals. The reports produced by the CNEN indicated that between 1967 and 1968 large, medium, and small reserves were found in various regions of the states of Sonora, Chihuahua, and Durango, while the results were smaller in areas of Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, and San Luis Potosi. It should be noted that, paradoxically, these zones were considered areas that, due to their geological conditions, presented good prospects for exploration to be intensified.
Despite the findings obtained, the lack of experienced personnel in certain sectors, the lack of infrastructure, and the coordination gaps between the exploration and exploitation processes of minerals were factors that led the government to reform the law on nuclear matters. The previous decrees had not been incorporated into the Constitution until 1975 when the sixth paragraph of Article 27 was reformed, which stipulated that "the use of nuclear fuels for the generation of nuclear energy and the regulation of its applications for other purposes corresponds to the Nation".
The functions were divided into different institutions. One of these was Uranio Mexicano (URAMEX), a decentralized agency created in 1979 to be the exclusive agent of the Mexican State to explore, exploit, benefit, and commercialize radioactive minerals. The public company operated for a few years to move towards energy diversification in Mexico, with the original idea that the country would generate 40% of its electricity with nuclear fuel.
URAMEX had an ambitious plan to explore the national territory: in September 1980, José Calderón Trujillo, infrastructure manager at URAMEX, explained to the General Director of Informatics Policy of the General Coordination of the National Services of Statistics and Geography the goal of exploring almost half a million kilometers of the national territory before the end of 1982. In the search for the most advanced technological tools, URAMEX implemented the IMAGE 100, an automatic interpretation system based on sensors that could be placed on airplanes or artificial satellites.
However, with the arrival of Miguel de la Madrid to the presidency, the nuclear program was abandoned and importance was given to the generation of hydraulic, geothermal, and carboelectric energy. This change in priorities made URAMEX's existence unsustainable since without budgetary support it could no longer sustain the payments to its workers, which resulted in a strike. Likewise, by 1984 a new nuclear law was published, which dictated that radioactive minerals would be managed by the federal government, by national interests, which left the activities carried out by URAMEX in the hands of the Mexican Geological Service.
The documentary heritage guarded by the AGN allows us to reflect on the experience of our institutions in guaranteeing national sovereignty in energy matters by regulating the ownership, exploration, exploitation, and strategic use of resources. As this article shows, many of these minerals become relevant with the development of productive forces worldwide and teach us about the importance of the long-term perspective, of the construction of rules and institutions that allow us to put them at the service of the Mexican people. We invite you to explore the background of URAMEX and find many other experiences to address the energy issue.
Full Citation: Archivo General de la Nación. “El Uranio, Un Mineral Estratégico Para La Industria Energética En México.” gob.mx, 3 Apr. 2023, www.gob.mx/agn/articulos/el-uranio-un-mineral-estrategico-para-la-industria-energetica-en-mexico?idiom=es.In-Text Citation: (de la Nación)