A self-sufficient electricity producer, Brazil did not consider nuclear energy production until the beginning of the 1950s. As the government started to work towards being fully independent in the process of producing nuclear energy, instead of just being an exporter of nuclear material, Brazil began work on a nuclear power plant in the 1970s and started production of energy in the mid 1980s.
Although representing only around 3% of the total amount of electricity generated in Brazil, nuclear energy is making its way to becoming an important alternative source of energy for Brazil.
Brazil began developing nuclear technology in 1951 under the newly established National Research Council, but it was only during the military regime that, in 1970, the government decided to seek bids for an initial nuclear reactor. It was officially the beginning of the Brazilian Nuclear Program.
The contract for Angra I, the first Brazilian nuclear reactor, was awarded to Westinghouse, and its construction started in 1971 in Angra dos Reis, a coastal site 115 km west of Rio de Janeiro. In 1974, the Brazilian government decided to expand the Brazilian Nuclear Program by authorizing Furnas, a subsidiary of the state owned electricity company Eletrobrás, to begin construction of a second nuclear reactor: Angra II.
In 1975, predicting that there would be a shortage of energy in the 1990s and the 2000s, the Brazilian government signed a nuclear agreement with West Germany for the supply of eight 1300 MW nuclear reactors over 15 years. Brazil would also obtain all the technology necessary for developing in this sector from West Germany.
To assist the operation, a state-owned company, Nuclebrás, was created in December 1975. However, an economic crisis struck Brazil in the 1980s, delaying the construction of Angra I and Angra II. The Brazilian Nuclear Program was totally restrutcured, and a new company, Indústrias Nucleares do Brasil, replaced Nuclebrás. The responsibility for the construction of Angra III was also delegated to Furnas.
Construction of Angra II resumed in 1995, with an overall investment of USD 1.3 billion provided by German banks, Furnas and Eletrobrás. In 1997, Furnas and what was left of Nuclebrás merged to become Eletronuclear, a new subsidiary of Eletrobrás. Eletronuclear is responsible for construction and operation of all nuclear power plants in Brazil. No private entities are allowed to build or operate nuclear power plants, though in 2013 this was under review.
Despite the economic crisis, Angra I began operation in 1985. Angra II did not begin operating until 2001. After a general blackout in 2001, the Brazilian government decided that the construction of Angra 3 should be resumed, but this only occurred in 2010. Angra III is expected to be ready in 2018.
In 2011, the Brazilian Minister of Mines and Energy announced that the government is planning the approval of four more nuclear reactors, two in the Southeastern Region and two in the Northeastern Region.
Nuclear power plants
Brazil has only one Nuclear power plant, located in Angra dos Reis, a city located 115 km west of Rio de Janeiro, 250 km northwest of São Paulo and 360 km from Belo Horizonte, thus being in a strategic location between the three biggest energy consuming centers of the country. The nuclear power plant carries the name of Admiral Álvaro Alberto, promoter of nuclear energy research in Brazil in the 1950s. Due to its operating mechanism, the power plant must be located near water sources, the cooling agent used in the power plant.
There are two active nuclear reactors, Angra I and Angra II working in the Angra dos Reis nuclear power plant. Together, they generate around 3% of the total amount of electricity produced in Brazil. Despite its relatively small contribution in the overall production of electricity, when Angra II began operating, Rio de Janeiro became a net exporter of electricity to other states, whereas it was a net importer of electricity before. Construction of a third nuclear reactor, Angra III, started in 2010. Eletrobrás regularly schedules a shutdown for each reactor for a week at least once a year in order to refuel and perform maintenance.
The Angra I reactor is the smallest one and began operating in 1985. It has a net output of 647 MW per day.
Angra II is, until Angra III becomes operational, the biggest nuclear reactor in Brazil. It began operating in 2002 and has a net output of 1350 MW per day.
Angra III is expected to be ready in 2018, after work resumed in 2010. Angra III has the same specifications as Angra II and thus, the same net output .
Nuclear facilities throughout Brazil
The Brazilian Nuclear Program covers a wide use of nuclear energy, always aiming for peaceful purposes. There are about 3.000 facilities in operation around the country using radioactive material or radioactive sources as fuel for industrial production sectors, in health or in chemistry research.
Why choose nuclear energy?
Although the amount of energy produced by nuclear fuel is still very small in comparison to the energy produced by hydropower, and to a lesser extent, by thermoelectric power, Brazil has decided to engage in the production of nuclear energy. This can be explained mainly due to Brazil owning the sixth largest reserve of uranium in the world, which ensures independence in supplying fuel, and its hydroelectric potential being expected to be exhausted in the next decade. The more than 300.000 tons of reserves of uranium in Brazil can fuel 10 reactors like Angra I and Angra II for approximately 100 years.
In the area of energy generation, Brazil is one of the few countries in the world that are capable of performing the whole process of fuel fabrication for nuclear power plants. The process of isotopic enrichment of uranium by ultracentrifugation has a strategic role within the nuclear fuel cycle, and Brazil has the necessary skills and technology to perform this process. Despite that, conversion and enrichment of uranium is still conducted outside Brazil, as it is cheaper.
Also, nuclear power plants have a technical advantage, which is operating with a cheap variable unit cost.
Handling of nuclear waste
The National Nuclear Energy Commission, CNEN, is responsible for management and disposal of radioactive waste. Legislation in 2001 provides for a repository site selection, construction and operation for low- and intermediate-level wastes. A long-term or definitive solution for nuclear waste will be set in place before Angra III begins operation.
Nuclear waste is classified as high-, medium- or low-level waste. High-level waste, which is very unhealthy, is stored in cooling pools beneath Angra I and Angra II. Medium- and low-level waste are sent to the Center for Management of Waste
There are currently in Brazil nine waste management deposits, but only one of them is definitive. It is located in the city of Abadia, in the state of Goiás. The biggest deposit is located in the city of Poços de Caldas, in the State of Minas Gerais, where 15 thousand tons of waste is stored.
Brazil’s nuclear program is surrounded by secrecy. Nuclear issues are still considered a matter of national security, despite Brazil’s democratic transition away from military dictatorship. There is little transparency regarding the various nuclear activities under the government’s scope and the potential impact these can have on public health and the environment. Moreover, numerous attempts to keep radioactive accidents and incidents secret have undermined credibility of nuclear enterprises and led to distrust among the public.
In particular, locals based near uranium mines and nuclear facilities have expressed various nuclear-related concerns, ranging from impacts of uranium mining to the feasibility of emergency plans. Political authorities and civil society organizations also complain about the lack of mechanisms to facilitate dialogue with the nuclear sector. However, in general, Brazilians tend to overlook nuclear-related problems and only pay attention to them when an accident occurs.