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Nuclear Energy

The challenge of competitiveness

The navy requests BNDES resources in order to improve its uranium enrichment technology

CTMSPThe Naval Technology Center in Sao Paulo (the CTMSP) is going to send a proposal to the National Economic and Social Development Bank (BNDES) on the funding of a project concerning the technological improvement of uranium enrichment ultracentrifuge machinery. The project, budgeted at R$ 60 million, will be financed with resources from the Technology Fund (Funtec), established last April, that supports innovation (see insert on page 32).

The high speed centrifuges, developed by the CTMSP and the Nuclear and Energy Research Institute – IPEN, are being installed in the first module of the Uranium Enrichment Plant (FEU), of the company Indústrias Nucleares do Brasil (INB) in the town of Resende, state of Rio de Janeiro. The machines will produce enough enriched uranium to feed 60% of the needs of the Angra I and II nuclear plants, according to the contract signed between the Navy and the INB. The first enriched batch produced by the national ultracentrifuges should go into operation in October of this year.

The ultracentrifuges installed at Resende have competitive performance in relation to similar equipment used in the European Union and Russia. Through the support of the BNDES, the center’s researchers want to reduce the relationship between equipment cost and its production capacity.In countries that make use of high speed centrifuge technology, the cost reduction is obtained by increasing the size of the machinery. If the BNDES approves the proposal, the improvement in ultracentrifuge technology will be concluded in a year and a half.

The Funtec – which should sponsor the enterprise – can count upon R$ 180 million, corresponding to 10% of the BNDES’s gross profit for 2003, to support entrepreneurial innovations. The approval of projects within the environment of the new fund forecasts, among other criteria, the participation of the bank in the enterprise’s results. The format of this participation, in the case of the ultracentrifuges, is still under review, but the hypothesis of patenting the Brazilian high speed centrifuge technology, which would then become a bank asset, has not been discarded.

Government priorities
“The projects that make up the navy’s nuclear program are among the government’s priorities”, affirmed Rear Admiral Ricardo Torga, the president of the Science and Technology Advisory Commission, an organ linked to the Ministry of Defense. Among these projects is that of the construction of a nuclear powered reactor for the generation of electrical energy and the Uranium Hexafluoride Plant (Usexa), for the conversion of the mineral into gas – currently imported -, which is enriched in the ultracentrifuges. “The reactor technology is ready”, says Torga. What ismissing are the civil engineering construction works and the assembling of the equipment that demands a total investment of US$ 145 million. The Defense’s expectation is to conclude the enterprise by 2012, with resources from the Navy’s budget, if the project were to be included within the proximate multiple annual plans.

The Usexa Project
which will be built at the Aramar Experimental Center belonging to the CTMSP, is at a more advanced stage: the civil engineering works have been concluded and at least 75% of the equipment has already been purchased and delivered. What is missing is the electromechanical mounting and the control system. The project’s conclusion demands a further R$ 19 million and part of this ? R$ 3 million ? has already been obtained through the Energy Sectorial Fund, administered by the Studies and Projects Financier (Finep). When completed the Usexa will process 40 tons of uranium per year, or 10% of the needs of Angra I and II. Nevertheless, with small adjustments production could attain some 120 tons per year. If the chronogram for the liberation of resources is maintained, the Usexa Project will be completed in a year and a half. “Our expectation is to transfer the technology for the production of uranium hexafluoride to the company Indústrias Nucleares do Brasil so that it can have self-sufficiency in the production of the gas”, Torga says.

Within the nuclear fuel cycle, the cost of the production of uranium hexafluoride represents 8%. The major cost is the enrichment carried out with the high speed centrifuge technology. No matter what, domination of this technology is strategic, since similar plants in operation in other countries are old and, in the medium term, it is possible to forecast a shortage in the offer of supply of services for the conversion of yellow cake and uranium hexafluoride.

An agreement with China
The Navy’s Nuclear Program has gained the government’s attention over the past few months. On the 19th of May the Ministers of Science and Technology, Eduardo Campos and of Defense, José Viegas, accompanied the BNDES President, Carlos Lessa, on a visit to the Aramar Experimental Center in Iperó (SP), the CTMSP’s Research Unit. They took with them a message from President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in which he restates support “for the clear development of the Nuclear Program” and extolled “two significant realizations”: the development of the uranium enrichment ultracentrifuges and the project for the construction of nuclear reactors for application in the generation of electricity and naval propulsion.

On that occasion, Minister Campos reaffirmed that the program had been among the “strategic points” of his ministry. At the end of May the Minister accompanied President Lula to China. The Chinese showed interest in widening their cooperation with Brazil in the nuclear area, and in understanding the Brazilian technology of uranium enrichment and also in the purchase of Brazilian uranium in the form of yellow cake, a piece of news that provoked polemic discussion throughout the country.

In a press release, the Ministry of Science and Technology (MST) clarified that Brazil does not participate in the international commercialization of uranium. “A revision of this policy”, the release detailed, “would depend on the results of a wide ranging study, at the inter ministerial level, which should be coordinated by the MST over the next three months.” The press release, emitted on the 26th of May, did not discard cooperation in the nuclear area, assuming that the international norms supervised by multilateral agencies are respected.

And further advised that “a government position on the theme” will be announced in August when a visit to Brazil by the President of the Science and Technology Commission for the National Defense Industry of China (Costind), Zhang Yunchuan, is forecast.The federal government, according to the MST assessors, is putting together a work group formed by representatives of the ministries of Science and Technology, Defense and Foreign Affairs, which will have the responsibility for the task of carrying out studies that will serve as a base for the revision of Brazilian nuclear policy.

BNDES invests in innovation

The Technology Fund (Funtec), launched in May of this year, is the result of a partnership between the National Economic and Social Development Bank (BNDES), the Ministry of Science and Technology (MST) and the Financier of Studies and Projects (Finep). As its objective it has the financing of the transformation of knowledge into innovation, assuming that the commercial use of the results has been assured.

It can count upon an initial patrimony of R$ 180 million for supporting the development of products and processes in the company environment and of basic or applied research in a technological character implemented by public or private institutions.

The Technology Fund could well finance research and development (R&D), the importation of R&D and of machinery and equipment for innovation, the training of personnel, and industrial projects, among others. The BNDES will have a sharing in project results by way of the participation in a company’s share capital, the acquisition of beneficial shares emitted by the company in favor of the bank, or through the sharing of income coming from the ceding of the right of use of patents or royalties.