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Brazil: Nuclear Energy?

Latin America Advisor

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said earlier this month that Brazil will increase the use of nuclear energy if it cannot build enough hydroelectric plants. What is the potential for nuclear energy in Brazil? Do you see nuclear power becoming an important part of Brazil's overall energy matrix in coming years?

Cláudio Frischtak, President of Inter.B Consultoria de Negocios in Rio de Janeiro: Brazil's energy needs to a significant extent are from renewable sources (44.5 percent versus 6.1 percent among OECD countries and 13.2 percent globally)—and mostly from hydro and biomass sources—while the share of nuclear power is small (1.5 percent). Hydropower has a dominant role in the supply of electricity (76.7 percent of consumption), while the two nuclear power plants are responsible for just 3 percent. In the next 25 years, the government plans to finalize one plant (2 GW of capacity) and build an additional four to eight plants, adding a total of 6-10 GW. Nuclear power will remain a marginal source of energy. However, the country faces a major challenge in ensuring that renewable sources, particularly hydro, remains a dominant source of energy: most, if not practically all, hydro projects and potential are in the Amazon region, and sugarcane-based biomass, wind, and solar power will not be able to make up the difference if the new hydro projects are denied the necessary licenses. As a result, there is a sharp trade-off between the use of fuels which cause greater pollution and CO2 emissions (coal, natural gas) and the use of possibly one of the cleanest sources—water—in a fragile environment, the Amazon rivers. There are no easy choices, and ultimately Brazilians will have to assess the costs and benefits, and choose the least damaging alternative.

Roberto Schaeffer, Associate Professor in the Energy Planning Program at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro: As of today, Brazil's power sector has a total installed capacity of more than 90,000 MW, of which more than 70,000 MW (some 80 percent) are hydroelectric-based and only 2,000 MW (2 percent) are nuclear based. Still, the country has an estimated remaining hydroelectric potential of more than 170,000 MW. Despite some problems the government is facing in obtaining the required licenses from environmental agencies to initiate the construction of some new hydroelectric power stations in the country, which is causing some delays in the much-needed expansion of the power system, the remaining hydro potential in the country is so huge that it is just a question of time for better projects to be selected and submitted for approval by the environmental agencies and then built. Add to that the huge (more than 200,000 MW) wind potential dispersed all over the country, with good complementary characteristics between wind and water regimes (it is windy in the drier seasons), and also the large potential for power generation from the available sugarcane bagasse from the sugar and alcohol industries (7,000-10,000 MW), which is not being properly explored. And finally, various studies recently made available in the country also indicate a huge potential (20-30 percent economic savings potential) for electricity conservation in all sectors of the economy. Because of that, and also because of the nonfavorable public perception of the risks arising from nuclear generation in the country, the high costs of the technology when compared with the other alternatives mentioned here, the lack of the so-called advanced power reactors, the unsolved problem of nuclear waste disposal, a bad record of developing reliable emergency evacuation plans in case of accident for the only two reactors in operation in the country, the recent declaration of President Lula is bravado, rather than a real solution to the current, short-term problems Brazil is facing in its power sector.

Nelson Altamirano, Visiting Scholar at the University of California at San Diego's Center for Iberian and Latin American Studies: There is no doubt Brazil needs to generate more electricity, but nuclear generation will not be faster or cheaper than getting environmental approvals for dams. Brazil's commitment to nuclear self-sufficiency became real after Germany, in 1975, agreed to supply eight 1,300 MW nuclear units in 15 years at an estimated total cost of $4 billion, and with six reactors incorporating 90 percent Brazilian technology. Thirty years later, only two units were built with a combined 1,896 MW capacity. Angra-I alone required more than $4 billion and is expected to be shut down by 2009 because of frequent failures. Angra-II, after 23 years of construction and $10 billion, has run well since 2000. Any new nuclear program has to re-boot construction for the 1,224 MW Angra-III. It already ate $1.5 billion and needs $2 billion to re-start construction, but nobody knows how much and how long it will take to make it run. Previous governments wanted the private sector to jump in, but there is strong opposition from the Navy. In addition, there are security issues with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Lula may have found the political arguments to finally press for Angra-III. However, nuclear energy cannot replace gas in solving the problem of shortages, when peak demand cannot be met with hydroelectricity. It cannot substitute for hydroelectric plants either because of their uncertain construction periods. So Brazil needs to find more gas and build more dams independently from following the new global nuclear wave.

Republished with permission from the Inter-American Dialogue's daily Latin America Advisor newsletter. 

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