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The resumption of Angra 3

Government wants to expand share of nuclear power in the Brazilian energy matrix

ELETRONUCLEARAfter over 20 years, the nuclear option is once again part of the country’s expansion in energy. At the next meetings of the National Council of Energy Policy, made up of seven ministers, representatives of the states and of the universities, a proposal for resuming the works on Angra 3 will most probably come onto the agenda. The new power plant, provided for in the Ten-Year Electricity Plan for the 2006 – 2015 period, is going to add to the Brazilian electrical system another 1,350 megawatts (MW) from 2013 onwards. “The government has already decided to expand the share of nuclear generation in the Brazilian energy matrix. All that is missing is to announce it”, said the Minister of Science and Technology, Sérgio Resende, during the ceremony commemorating the 50 years of the National Nuclear Energy Commission (CNEN) in last November.

The approval of Angra 3 by the council is a strategic decision: it will signpost the government’s willingness to resume the Brazilian nuclear program – interrupted in the 1980’s – and will give backing to the 2030 National Energy Plan, drawn up by the Energy Research Corporation (EPE), of the Ministry of Planning, which provides for the construction of a further four power plants in the Northeast and Southeast, in the next 23 years, depending on the country’s rate of growth. One other study, coordinated by the CNEN at the request of the Presidency of the Republic, proposes the construction of another six new power plants, each one with a capacity for generating 1,000 MW.

Unlike the 1970’s – when the nuclear option was aligned with the nationalist and developmentalist policy of the military governments -, the proposal to expand the supply of energy produced by a nuclear source represents a sort of safeguard for development, against the risk of blackouts: if, in an optimistic scenario, Brazil grows at a rate of 4.6% a year in the next two decades, it will be necessary to quadruple the current generating capacity, EPE foresees. In the most pessimistic scenario, of average annual growth of 3.3%, the supply of electricity will have to be more than double.

To meet this future demand – something around 22 thousand MW – the 2030 National Energy Plan provides for the construction of nine hydroelectric power plants – like the Santo Antônio and Jirau ones, on the Madeira River, for example -, of small hydroelectric plants (PCH in the Portuguese acronym) and wind farms, besides gas, coal and nuclear powered thermal power stations. According to this planning, the share from the nuclear source in the Brazilian energy matrix would leap up from the current 2.1% – reckoning the 2,007 MW generated at the Angra 1 and Angra 2 power stations – to up to 5.6%.

The hydroelectric source will still be dominant  in the national energy matrix, even though its share may fall from the current 75% to 70%, according to EPE, since the potential that can be put to good use is shifting to the North of the country, getting closer and closer to the native areas and conservation units, that being without taking into consideration the huge environmental impact produced by the works, strictly monitored by the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama).

Starting grid

EPE’s proposal to construct the four new nuclear power plants will be submitted to public consultation in the course of the next few months, but Angra 3 is now on the “starting grid”, according to Leonam dos Santos Guimarães, an advisor to the presidency of Eletronuclear, a state company that operates the Angra 1 and 2 power plants and that will be responsible for the conclusion of Angra 3. Contracted in 1984, the project has been systematically renewed. It has already consumed US$ 750 million in equipment – reactor vessel, steam generator, and pressurizer, amongst others -, the maintenance of which costs something around US$ 20 million a year. The total budget for the conclusion of the project is R$ 7.2 billion, with international financing.

The reactor and the control systems will be supplied by the French company, the civil construction works will be in the charge of Andrade Gutierrez and the contention works and manufacture of components will be carried out by other Brazilian companies. “Angra 3’s nationalization index will be 54% percent, similar to that of Angra 2”, says Guimarães.

In the assessment of Odair Gonçalves, the president of CNEN, the approval of Angra 3 is the first step towards the resumption of a wide nuclear program, including everything from the manufacture of the fuel to the production of radiopharmaceuticals. “We have the sixth largest reserves of uranium in the world, and we may go far as to be second in the world ranking, since only 30% of the territory has been prospected and to a depth of only 100 meters”, explains Gonçalves. The country today can count on an availability of 310 thousand tons, sufficient for generating 8 thousand MW for the next eight decades. The president of CNEN calculates that there are still 800 thousand tons of uranium not measured.

The availability of fuel makes it possible for the study coordinated by CNEN to forecast a scenario of self-sufficiency and includes the possibility of exporting yellow cake – a yellow powder that concentrates the uranium ore. “Exportation would not be a market in itself. Export sales would be temporary and in a fixed quantity, just for the financing of the program”, he admits. “We need to find out clearly what our need is, and the volume of the strategic reserves, and then to start thinking about exporting.”

Besides the raw material, Brazil is recording some advance in the technology for constructing reactors and has now mastered the technology of the fuel cycle. “The country is different today from the one that built Angra 1 and Angra 2”, observes Cláudio Rodrigues, the superintendent of the Institute of Nuclear Energy and Research (Ipen). The ultracentifuges for enriching uranium installed at Nuclear Industries of Brazil (INB), in Resende, in Rio de Janeiro, for example, were developed at the Technological Center of the Navy in São Paulo (CTMSP) in partnership with Ipen. They have a competitive performance similar to similar equipment used in the European Union and Russia.

Technological self-sufficiency
But there is still a long road to cover in the direction of technological self-sufficiency. “The resumption of a nuclear program is essential. But one has to separate the immediate issues from a sustainable project”, admits Ricardo Galvão, the director of the Brazilian Center of Physical Research (CBPF), linked to the Ministry of Science and Technology, which acts in the most advanced areas of nuclear physics, such as high-energy nuclear physics and materials.

The “sustainable project” to which Galvão refers will call for investments in research and development to take the country closer to the state of the art of the nuclear technology of the European countries, Japan and the United States. According to Galvão, the future lies with the fourth generation reactors, “intrinsically safe”, as he says, cooled by gas – and not by water, as in the Angra 1, 2 and 3 PWRs -, and in the advanced heat generating systems that use beams of extremely high energy to burn, besides the uranium, the plutonium, significantly reducing radioactive waste. This system, known as ADS (Accelerator-Driven System), is now the target of an “intense research effort” at CBPF and at Ipen.

Nuclear fission – a process for the controlled division of uranium 235, used to release energy that heats the water and produces the steam that powers the generators – may also have its decades counted: in the forecast of the director of the CBPF, by the middle of this century will give way to nuclear fusion, which uses extremely high temperatures, in excess of 600 million degrees to fuse two atoms considered as light – deuterium and tritium, both isotopes of hydrogen -, to generate electricity. “Those who do not master this technology will be left out”, warns Galvão.

The technical viability of this technique was proven in the 1990’s, but it is very difficult to do nuclear fusion in the laboratory, Galvão admits. A pool of researchers from the European Union, United States, Japan, Russia, China, India and South Korea is studying the construction of an international experimental thermonuclear reactor, which will be installed in France, a country that has 80% of its electricity produced from a nuclear source.

Brazil has now been accredited to join this select group in future, with the creation, last November, of the National Fusion Network (RNF). Coordinated by the CNEN, the Brazilian network will be made up of 15 research institutions and 70 scientists. It will enjoy an initial injection of funds in the order of R$ 1 million for the funding of projects. It will be activated as soon as the members of its Technical Board. “If we hadn’t abandoned the nuclear program, we would be in a much better situation. Brazilian nuclear technology has not produced the effect of dragging the Brazilian industry, and there has not yet been any dispersion of intelligence”, regrets Rodrigues, from Ipen.

IPENThe problem of radioactive waste
The main targets of the criticisms of the use of nuclear energy for generating power are the safety of the power plants and the destination of the radioactive waste. Nobody forgets the worst nuclear accident in history, in 1986, when reactor 4 of the power plant in Chernobyl, in Ukraine, exploded and spread a cloud of radioactivity over vast regions of the then Soviet Union and of Europe. It is estimated that between 15 thousand and 30 thousand people died as a result of the accident and that about 16 million have permanent damages. Nobody forgets the accident with the reactor of unit 2 of the nuclear power station of Three Mile Island, in the United States, in 1976, caused by a problem in the equipment and an error in operation. There were no fatal victims at that moment, but there is also no official information about the number of persons contaminated by the radioactivity.

The risk of accidents led the AIEA and all the countries that have nuclear power plants to review their safety standards and to incorporate new procedures and equipment, but postponed the construction of new nuclear power plants in the United States and in countries of Europe. ‘The risk must equate magnitude and probability. In the case of the nuclear power plants, the probability is low, but the magnitude is extremely high”, argues Ruy Góes, the Environmental Quality director of the Ministry of the Environment (MMA). For him, and for the great majority of environmentalists, there is no “zero risk”. There is also the problem of the radioactive waste that, strictly speaking, has different levels of activity. The paper, cleaning cloths and clothing used at the power plant are classified as low-activity waste.

It is generally compacted to reduce volume or incinerated before final disposal. The ionic resins, chemical mud, metal linings etc., of medium activity, are immobilized and, in the majority of times, buried at a low depth. In the case of Angra 1 and Angra 2, this waste is kept in a reserved area, inside the power plant itself. “The destination of the low-activity waste is a problem resolved”, says the advisor to Eletronuclear’s presidency. The suggestions of the group coordinated by CNEN for the resumption of the nuclear program include the construction of a definitive national deposit for waste, close to the area of the two power plants.

Then the high-activity waste, which results from the chemical treatment of the already irradiated fuel that is discharged from the reactor after producing power, is highly radioactive. It has a long life of activity, generates considerable quantities of heat, and needs to be cooled for 20 to 50 years – a period that coincides with the working lifetime of the power plant itself – before final disposal. In the case of Angra 1 and Angra 2, this waste is kept encapsulated inside tanks that are 15 meters deep, inside the power plant itself.

France, Germany and Switzerland reprocess this waste to reduce to the maximum its activity. Other countries are developing technologies to dispose of this waste in underground deposits at a depth of between 200 and a thousand meters, in geological formations that have been stable for millennia, such as those of Yuka Mountain, in Nevada, in the United States. “There are now similar underground deposits in Finland and in Sweden”, says Eletronuclear‘s advisor. But what seems to be a viable technological solution for nuclear power is announcement of the end of time for the environmentalist. “The activity of this waste may resist for millions of years. The half life of plutonium, for example, is 25 thousand years. This is an order of time longer than the history of humanity. Could it be worthwhile?”, inquires the MMA’s Environmental Quality director.

Critical mass
If, besides Angra 3, Brazil decides to reactivate its nuclear program, it is also going to have to invest in training personnel. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, at the peak of the Brazilian nuclear program, the public universities and research institutes trained human resources to provide support for the project. “At the time, we went so far as to have a hundred people doing a doctorate abroad”, Ipen’s superintendent recalls. This contingent of specialists replaced, with competence, the technicians from Westinghouse – the company responsible for the construction of Angra 1 – and those from Germany’s KWU – a Siemens subsidiary responsible for Angra 2. Many are part of the research teams of the CBPF, Ipen and CNEN, amongst other institutes, or are in the universities.

The problem is that, without a nuclear program that expands the market, the demand for the nuclear physics and engineering courses has fallen and the personnel has not been renewed. “The average age of the personnel from the nuclear area is 50. If in ten years we have not had a program for reconstituting and hiring, we can give up any more ambitious project”, CNEN’s president recognizes. In Ipen, the average age is even higher, between 56 and 57. “Today, of the 400 students  on our postgraduate course, only 30% are in the nuclear power area”, says Ipen’s superintendent. “There has to be a demand to recover the intelligence and to participate in a growing manner in the nuclear program.”

Alejandro Szanto de Toledo, the director of the Physics Institute of the University of São Paulo (USP), is also seriously worried about the future. “How to go into a program like this in a competitive way if we don’t train youngsters?”, he enquires. Toledo’s concerns are even wider: he is now organizing a major encounter for Brazilian researchers and specialists in the nuclear area, French technicians and even representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), for them to discuss together the directions of a national program that, besides a balance of technologies and availability of human resources, takes into account the question of global warming and of the non-polluting energy options: nuclear power plants produce 4 grams de CO2 per kilowatt-hour (kWh), against 446 grams produced by gas-fueled power plants; 800 grams by oil-fueled power plants, and 998 grams emitted by coal-fueled power plants.

“The world is going towards nuclear power”, says Toledo, citing the examples of Japan and China and the prospect of new power plants also being constructed in the United States. Brazil, which has shown efficiency in the ethanol program and in the production of fuel from biomass, runs the risk of being “incompetent” in nuclear management. “There are technological options being developed all over the world that will be ready in 10 to 20 years. Are we going to buy another black box, or will we be able to choose? Will we have competence to construct fourth and fifth generation reactors?”. The meeting has not yet a date scheduled, but it should take place before the end of this half year.

The interruption of the investments and of political interest in the Brazilian nuclear program in these two decades has not impaired the Brazilian production of radiopharmaceuticals, used in diagnoses and in the treatment of diseases like cancer, for example. “In this period, Brazil has made good headway. We have technology for meeting the demand from society”, says the superintendent of Ipen, an institute that produces radioisotopes for medical use all over the country.

Mastery of the production technology, besides attending to the population, has generated wealth for the State. The revenue from the sales of radioisotopes is larger than Ipen’s budget for cost defrayal and investments, after discounting the personnel payroll. But the monopoly claims its price: this revenue goes to the Treasury, while Ipen survives with its budget. “If this monopoly had a management model similar to the one used with Petrobras, it would be far better”, Rodrigues ponders. It would, for example, make it possible for the institute to invest in the modernization of its products, which are beginning to become outdated in relation to the developed countries. “There are heavy investments in new drugs that we have not managed to accompany”, he says. In the big centers, they are now working with radioactive material at a protein level that generates drugs that are effective for a given tumor. “It’s an antigen that attacks only the sick cell, and not the organ”, Rodrigues explains. If the country does not invest in the development of this new technology, it is the patients who will pay for price of the delay.

Energy options
There is, however, no unanimity as to the resumption of the nuclear program in the universities and research institutes, nor in the federal government. For José Goldemberg, from USP’s Electricity Institute and a former São Paulo Secretary for the Environment, the nuclear source can be an alternative for countries like the United States, France, Germany, China or Japan, which make intensive use of coal and oil to generate power.  “This argument is not valid for Brazil”, he says, advocating the more intensive use of the Brazilian hydroelectric potential.

Luiz Pingueli Rosa, the coordinator of Coppe’s Energy Planning Program, of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), does not consider the debate about the resumption of the nuclear program a matter for priority. “The priority is the hydroelectric power plants, associated with other technological options”, he says. “From the point of view of price, nuclear power competes with wind power and is more expensive than hydroelectric or gas-fuelled thermal power”, reckons Ruy Góes, the Environmental Quality director of the Ministry of the Environment. “The nuclear option is for the countries that have no other alternative.” He observes that Germany has invested in the production of wind power, which today accounts for 10% of its energy matrix.

Brazil, which in his calculations has potential for generating 143 gigawatts of wind power, uses only 1,100 MW generated in small projects of the Alternative Sources Incentive Program (Proinfra). The amount proposed for nuclear power, R$ 138.14 per megawatt-hour (MWh), is currently lower than the amount for the renewable sources. The average fee for the wind source is the most expensive, between R$ 180.18 and R$ 204.50 the MWh. “We are just starting. If there is a subsidy, the project takes off”, Góes foresees.

More employment in Angra dos Reis
The resumption of the works on Angra 3 will be well received by the great majority of the 140 thousand inhabitants of Angra dos Reis, on the coast of Rio de Janeiro, assures  José Carlos Lucas Costa, the manager for Emergency Response of the municipal government. “We are living with the problem of unemployment, and the new power plant will use local labor in the construction stage and absorb qualified workers when it is in operation”, he says. The population lives with the risk, but is no longer afraid, he says. The “trustworthiness” grew after several educational campaigns in the schools and community that include visits to the nuclear complex. “They all know today that the power from Angra is necessary for preventing blackouts and it is clean.”

The city hall, with advice from CNEN, promotes annual training in withdrawing sessions for withdrawing the population from the areas of risk in the case of accidents. “We are working with three emergency levels established by the IAEA”, Costa explains. At the first level, Unusual Events, the population resident within a radius of 3 kilometers is relocated to the Frade district. At the second level, General Emergency, the radius for mobilization is 5 kilometers. At the third level, General Emergency with Aggravating Circumstances – “on the case of the core of the reactor bursting”, he explains -, the area of protection shifts from Frade to the center of the city.