Little by little, the federal government is beginning to resume the Brazilian nuclear program that was put on hold in the late 80’s. Last June, besides approving the completion of the Angra 3 nuclear power stations, it included in the Ministry of Science and Technology’s Multiannual Plan for 2007-2010 measures designed to strengthen Cnen (the National Nuclear Energy Commission) as an institution, as well as funds for completing the first phase of the Uranium Enrichment Plant of the Brazilian Nuclear Industry, in Resende, state of Rio de Janeiro. Going forward, Sérgio Resende, minister of Science and Technology, will also implement a national radioactive waste policy, through the creation of the Brazilian Waste Management Company and the construction of permanent storage facilities.
In July, this willingness became even clearer: president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced the release of R$ 1 billion over eight years for the Navy’s nuclear program. The forecast is that there will be an annual transfer of approximately R$ 130 million to the Ministry of Defense budget in order to finance the construction work and equipment for the prototype of a Brazilian nuclear submarine on land, besides research grants, logistics, maintenance, etc. The project is being developed at Labgene (the Nuclear Power Generation Laboratory) of CTMSP (the Navy’s Technological Center in São Paulo).
The nuclear submarine is a dual project, to use the Navy’s expression. Acquiring the technology to build the reactor will also enable Brazil to put in place faster and safer procedures for the protection of its territorial waters in future, while it will also qualify the country to build small nuclear power stations. “In both cases, the power generation concepts are the same”, explains senior naval officer André Luis Ferreira Marques, Salvaguardas advisor and coordinator of the CTMSP uranium enrichment project. In a submarine, the nuclear reactor generates the power that drives the propulsion turbine; outside a vessel, it produces the heat required to power nuclear power plant turbines. The operating requirements are the element that differs. “A nuclear power station works as if it were a large truck: it accelerates and then runs at a more or less constant speed. In a submarine, things are different: it accelerates, goes around in a curve, stops. The reactor, in this case, has to be more flexible”, he explains.
Acquiring this technology would make it possible to build small nuclear power stations capable of generating up to 1,000 megawatts (MW), as provided for in the 2030 National Electric Energy Plan, prepared by the Ministry of Planning’s EPE (Power Research Company). These power stations would be suitable to supply the demand for power in the Northeastern regions and might become an alternative for avoiding blackouts.
Labgene will be the first high power nuclear reactor entirely built in Brazil. The reactors of nuclear power stations Angra 1 and 2 (with 600 MW and 1,300 MW, respectively) were built by Westinghouse, a U.S. company, while the Angra 3 reactor, with 1,300 MW, will be supplied by Areva, a French company, pursuant to international agreements. There are another two smaller reactors currently operating in the country: the 5 MW IR1, manufactured in the U.S. and installed at Ipen (the Nuclear and Power Research Institute), at the University of São Paulo (USP) campus, and Ipen MB-01, also a low-power reactor, that works as a test laboratory for electronic modeling.
The Labgene reactor will be a prototype with a generation capacity of 48 thermal MW, or less than 10% of the capacity of Angra 1. This, however, is sufficient to power the submarine and its lighting, electronic and other systems. Although smaller, the reactor will use the same pressurized water reactor system as the three Brazilian nuclear power stations, states naval officer Ferreira Marques.
A US$ 130 million inventory
Since the program started, over 25 years ago, the Navy, in partnership with private companies, has been investing in the construction of components for this project, such as the reactor’s casing, condensers, pressurizers, and propulsion turbogenerators, among others. Most of these pieces of equipment have already been bought. “We have US$130 million in materials stocked at Aramar”, describes the naval officer.
The reactor’s casing was made by Nuclep – Nuclebras Equipamentos Pesados S.A., a state-owned engineering company established in 1975 to manufacture heavy components, at Itaguí (state of Rio de Janeiro); the turbine comes from Dedini S.A. Indústria de Base, in Piracicaba (state of São Paulo), a manufacturer of equipment for the sugar and alcohol industries and for hydroelectric power stations; and the pressurizer and the condenser were manufactured by the Garcia Jaraguá group from Sorocaba (state of São Paulo), that develop projects for the oil, petrochemical and chemical sectors. Siemens Brazil made the generators and WEG, from Jaraguá do Sul, in the state of Santa Catarina, is a strong candidate for supplying electric motors, according to Ferreira Marques. The project’s nationalization ratio is higher than 90%. “This is a program that generates a great impact in its wake for all Brazilian industry”, stressed the naval officer.
Labgene is already being built at the Navy’s facilities at Aramar, near Iperó, state of São Paulo. This is an 8 million sq. m area, protected by a 22 km fence. It will be comprised of a set of buildings that will house turbines, the pressurizer and the fuel, besides an area for packaging the waste, among others. The foundations of the reactor’s and fuel’s buildings are ready: these buildings will be earthquake proof and even tropical tornado proof. “Now, with the government’s resources, we will speed up construction and assemble equipment”, says Ferreira Marques.
All of the reactor’s configurations will be tested and ratified at Labgene, from the equipment’s design to issues connected to the security of the facilities and operating conditions, among others. In the laboratory, it will be possible to simulate several crucial factors, such as fuel and nuclear shielding. Only once it has been approved and tested will the technology be transferred to the Brazilian Nuclear Industries for civilian use, i.e., for the construction of a nuclear power station. “A program of this magnitude could not be developed without a strong experimental base to test calculation methods, as well as the project and construction tools”, stresses Ferreira Marques.
The reactor should be ready in four to six years, he expects. “It all depends on the ‘liturgy’, as the program complies with the Law of Public Bids no. 8666, and on the release of funds.” If everything goes well (i.e., if the program receives the R$ 130 million per year as announced), the reactor should be ready in 2014. If not, receiving only R$ 100 million per year, the project’s completion will be postponed to 2019.
The Brazilian nuclear program, formed by projects for nuclear power generation and propulsion, as well as the fuel cycle, is 27 years old. Its design began in 1979. Since then, it has consumed US$ 1.1 billion in Navy budget funds. The transfers, however, were irregular. In 1989 they reached a peak, at US$ 90 million; thereafter they dropped systematically up to 2004, when they started to recover slightly. “The program advances slowly, but the results vs. what you get abroad are good, even in cost terms”, comments Ferreira Marques. “The USA declared that they spent US$ 3 billion over 20 years in the development of the uranium enrichment technology”, he compares.
Labgene, the nuclear power propulsion and generation project, has already received investments in the order of US$ 300 million. Another US$ 214 million were invested in the fuel cycle project, also created in 1979 with the purpose of developing national nuclear fuel cycle technology. This second line of the nuclear program has already yielded results: the Navy returned and transferred to INB uranium enrichment technology based on ultracentrifugation. The machines were developed by CTMSP and Ipen and the first modules have already been installed at INB’s Resende plant.
The fuel cycle is comprised of the following phases: mineral prospecting, mining and yellow cake processing, conversion of this compound into UF6 (uranium hexafluoride), uranium enrichment, reconversion into uranium dioxide, and the manufacturing of uranium pellets and of the fuel element.
With regard to this process, Brazil has a relatively important advantage: the world’s sixth largest uranium reserve, totaling some 310 thousand tons. This is enough to generate the 8 thousand MW produced by Angra 1 and 2 for the next eight decades. Brazilian reserves, however, may be far larger; only 30% of the country has been prospected and only down to a depth of one hundred meters. The last prospecting effort was carried out 30 years ago, using Soviet techniques that are now highly out of date. “Today, we have technology for this”, says Ferreira Marques. Minister Sérgio Resende has announced the government’s intention to resume uranium prospecting. Ferreira Marques bets that at the end of this new evaluation Brazil should climb another two positions in the ranking of the world’s largest uranium reserves.
The uranium extracted from the Catité mine in the state of Bahia is transformed into uranium hexafluoride in Canadá. However, according to Ferreira Marques, Brazil is ready to start building Usexa (the Uranium Hexafluoride Plant), also at the Navy’s facilities in Aramar. The construction work is under way and most of the equipment has been purchased. The completion of the plant will require some R$ 20 million. When it is ready, Usexa will process 40 tons of uranium a year, or 10% of the Angra 1 and 2 requirements. The technology will be transferred to INB, a federal public and private company, that will thereby be able to assure its gas supply.
The two projects are being developed in conjunction with several institutions and universities, such as Ipen, IPT (the Technological Research Institute), USP (the University of São Paulo), and Unicamp (the Federal University of Campinas), among others, with the support of the Ministry of Science and Technology, of Finep (the Studies and Projects Financing Institution), CNPq (the National Research Council) and BNDES (the National Social and Economic Development Bank).
“We must now focus on propulsion and power generation, as we have now acquired the know-how for the fuel cycle”, stresses Ferreira Marques. The reactor’s technology, according to him, will allow the country to diversify its energy matrix. Nuclear energy is a good option with environmental advantages, although Brazil’s vocation continues to focus mainly on hydroelectric power. However, in countries such as Japan, South Korea and China, nuclear energy is the only way to expand the power supply. “For these countries, in the post-petroleum world, there is no other solution.”
Japan and South Korea, for instance, have nuclear power technological know-how, but they lack uranium. They buy the technology from the Americans and Canadians. “Brazil will be one of the few countries in the world that has everything.”Republish