By Nick OlleSeptember 4, 2012
Brazil has indefinitely suspended plans to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in nuclear energy. Can it afford to ignore its enormous nuclear potential?
Less than four years ago, in October 2008, Brazil announced plans to invest more than AUD320 billion in nuclear energy. With two nuclear power reactors already operational and a third due in 2015, the budget was to fund the construction of as many as 16 more.
Brazil has enormous nuclear potential — having prospected just one quarter of its territory, it is already considered to have the world's fifth biggest uranium reserves (Australia has the most). They have the technology and expertise to enrich it too. Moreover, there is no question of developing nuclear weapons, as Brazil's constitution explicitly forbids the use of nuclear technology for anything other than peaceful purposes . (To some international consternation, though, Brasilia has defended the "inalienable right" of all states — including fellow Non-Proliferation Treaty signatory Iran — to likewise pursue peaceful enrichment.)
Atoms for Energy
As things stand, Brazil's energy matrix is overwhelmingly dominated by hydroelectricity, which accounts for about 85 per cent of all electricity generated in the country. Nuclear provides just three per cent of electric energy nationally, roughly the same percentage as each of gas, oil and biomass.
The company responsible for building and operating Brazil's nuclear power plants is Eletronuclear, a wholly owned subsidiary of the state-run electric power company Eletrobrás. In its Strategic Plan for 2010 to 2020, the latter heralds a "diversification of the national energy matrix" including "more participation in nuclear energy". And the national regulatory body in charge of all nuclear policy and production, the National Nuclear Energy Commission (known by its Portuguese acronym CNEN), lauds nuclear energy as "reliable, environmentally friendly and unaffected by climatic variations".
It may seem strange, then, given this apparent atomic love-in, that the multi-billion-dollar plans for new reactors have been shelved. Indefinitely. So, what happened to bump this bold and expensive commitment off the priority list?
The simplest explanation is that Fukushima happened. Certainly, that nuclear disaster in Japan — when in March 2011, following an earthquake and tsunami, the Fukushima nuclear plant equipment failed, melting down and releasing radioactive material were released into the atmosphere, ground and ocean waters — is how former CNEN President Odair Gonçalves (who was in charge of Fukushima at the time) accounts for the seeming about-face.
"We had a lot of ambition," he tells The Global Mail in a telephone interview. "We were going to finish our third nuclear power plant, which is Angra 3 (alongside the Angra 1 and 2 reactors at Angra dos Reis in Rio de Janeiro state), and build another eight in the next 20 years.
"But after Fukushima things changed a lot. Now it is suspended, and it seems — though I cannot be sure because I am no longer in the system — that there are no plans, for at least the next 10 years, for another plant [after] Angra 3."
Gonçalves, who had presided over CNEN since 2003, resigned in controversial circumstances shortly after the March 11 Fukushima meltdown. Amid reports of nuclear facilities operating without licences, he'd given notice before the disaster, but the then-Science and Technology Minister Aloizio Mercadante convinced him to stay on and "monitor and inform" on the aftermath in Japan, which is home to about 300,000 Brazilians.
It was at this time, too, that Mercadante (who is now education minister) flagged the possibility that nuclear energy may not be viable for Brazil in the future. His main concern, perhaps unsurprisingly, was safety.
One of the worst-ever radiological accidents recorded by the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) occurred on Brazilian soil, at Goiânia in 1987, when four people died following exposure to an abandoned radiotherapy unit.
But then, as now, the real risk of nuclear accidents in Brazil was limited to human error. It's for this reason Gonçalves insists that Brazil's nuclear industry is "very safe".
"[In Japan] there was a unique scenario involving earthquakes, tsunamis and so on. Brazil has none of that. All options are much more secure and safe than in a country like Japan."
And even Fukushima offered some surprising perspective to the "wildly exaggerated" dangers of radioactive pollution, according to the renowned English writer and environmentalist George Monbiot. In an op-ed in The Guardianhe openly upgraded his "nuclear-neutral" stance to full-blown support for the technology. "A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation," he wrote.
The revered Brazilian energy expert, Joaquim Francisco de Carvalho, who chaired the advisory committee created to investigate the Goiânia disaster 25 years ago, agrees that the risk of a nuclear accident in Brazil is small, but warns that the stakes are immeasurably higher when nuclear technology is involved. "Nuclear accidents are much worse than any others, they can be a real catastrophe."
Leaving to one side the question of safety, is Brazil right to baulk at investing in new nuclear reactors for other reasons?
Gonçalves, back in his pre-CNEN role as a professor in the field of radiation at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), thinks not.
Putting the case for nuclear energy as a long-term solution for Brazil, he says it stacks up in terms of cost — "second or third least expensive option after hydro and coal" — and environmental impact — "it's a clean energy, very low greenhouse emissions".
But if we consider Brazil's immense hydroelectric output, not to mention huge offshore oilfields deposits whose discovery less than a year ago inspired President Dilma Rousseff to surmise that "God is Brazilian", it begs the question: Just how important is nuclear energy — or ought it be — to the country's future energy needs?
Here, inevitably, opinions differ.
While the Angra plants provide just three per cent of electric energy nationally, they generate about half the energy consumed in the state of Rio de Janeiro. The new reactors were supposed to double the nuclear contribution to the energy matrix at the national level.
According to Gonçalves, this is precisely what is needed.
"In about 40 years we will have an inversion in the [ratio of] growing demand versus disposable energy," he says. "So what's going to happen in 40 years is that Brazil will have to radically change its energy matrix, which is now based mainly on water.
"In terms of changing the matrix, it seems that still now we don't have another solution for a base energy, that is energy you can count on independent of the weather. It is important to be prepared for what comes after 40 years and I think nuclear is the only available possibility."
On this point, Carvalho begs to differ, pointing to official projections that tell a different story. In fact, Carvalho — who works at both UFRJ and the University of São Paulo (USP) — says Brazil suspended its nuclear program not just as a knee-jerk response to Fukushima, but also because it knows it has enough renewable energy potential to satisfy demand indefinitely.
At the time of writing, much of the nuclear industry was striking over work and pay conditions and CNEN did not respond to The Global Mail's questions on this issue. The Brazilian bureau of statistics, IBGE, forecasts that the country's population should stabilise at around 215 million inhabitants by 2040.
"If we take 215 million and multiply it by 6000 kilowatts an hour per person per year, that gives us a little more than 1.2 million GW hours per person per year," Carvalho says. "That's enough to meet a huge demand, that's the consumption per capita per year of Germany and Germany has a very high quality of life.
"It is not necessary to produce more than this, and this amount can be supplied with hydraulic energy and wind energy. With respect to uranium reserves — yes they are very large. But if there is no need to use them, then why do it?"
Carvalho is currently working on an academic study into how best to harness Brazil's wind, hydro and solar energy capacity in a "smart grid" that efficiently and sustainably integrates energy generators and consumers. He's convinced a combination of these energies is the best way to achieve energy self-sufficiency. "And building a smart grid is cheaper than constructing a nuclear reactor," he adds.
But while public opinion of nuclear power took a dive post-Fukushima, the government's investment in renewable energy is not universally popular either. The dams required for hydroelectic projects are particularly controversial, with one such project in the Amazonian state of Pará drawing opposition the world over. The Belo Monte hydroelectric dam complex under construction on the Xingu River will flood approximately 400 square kilometres of rainforest, about one hundredth of the entire Amazon, and displace an estimated 20,000 indigenous people. Concessions have been granted and the project is smaller than originally planned, but Carvalho acknowledges the flawed process.
"The problem is more social than environmental," he says. "If the government had bothered to move people to better, more urbanised areas, there would never have been a great problem. But the way they did it was a brutal displacement."
Brazilian nuclear expert Ana Maria Ribeiro de Andrade, whose book The Nuclear Option: 50 Years Towards Autonomy traces Brazil's entire nuclear history, says there is a "certain consensus" in Brazilian society that the energy matrix is fundamentally hydroelectric. At the same time, she adds, ever since the Second World War, Brazilian presidents — five of whom were military leaders — have consistently spoken of the need to construct nuclear power plants to complement hydroelectric energy. "Often they'd say the hydroelectric capacity was exhausted as a result of industrial growth, but in reality this never happened. It was a false premise.
"Now the question among experts, in social terms, is: 'What is better for the Amazon? To flood a large area, take the Indians out and remove vegetation for the construction of new hydroelectric plants, or to build a nuclear power station?'"
Like Carvalho, Andrade doesn't think Brazil needs new nuclear reactors, not least because of the "huge" rate of energy loss in the country's ageing hydroelectric plants. Andrade thinks that improvements should be made to Brazil's hydropower production before the country considers nuclear plants.
"If Brazil reformed and improved the old hydro plants, many of which date back to the late 1950s and early 1960s, the better use of these plants [it] could make the construction of new hydroelectric plants unnecessary," she says.
"Before making any investment in any new nuclear power plant, it's necessary to invest in the transmission system and the modernisation of hydropower."
While experts like Carvalho and Andrade agree that Brazil doesn't need to construct new reactors and boost the nuclear input to the national energy matrix, they defend Brazil's pursuit of nuclear technology for other ends. Brazil uses nuclear technology in fields including medicine, science, agriculture and industry. It is even working with France to develop a nuclear-powered submarine.
"My opinion as a citizen is that it is very important that Brazil develops this technology," Andrade says. "Technological autonomy is essential for any country. The uranium enrichment program today is endorsed by the scientific community and is a peaceful program, but we do have to analyse the risks and they can be enormous."