Brazil’s Nuclear Power Industry

By Sibel Tinar, Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO – Brazil is the world’s tenth largest consumer of energy, and nuclear energy accounts for a little more than three percent of the country’s electricity. Brazil’s energy policy has long been based on the use of renewable resources, primarily hydroelectric power, which currently generates about 92 percent of the country’s power.

Rio's Centro, which is home to the Eletrobrás Building (on the right), photo by Rodrigo Soldon/Flickr Creative Commons License.

The policies Brazil has been following to reduce its dependence on imported oil since the 1973 oil crisis have reached an official point of success in 2006, with the declaration that it has achieved energy independence. Among these policies were increased use of ethanol as fuel, increased domestic oil production and exploring the alternatives for the generation of electricity.

Brazil’s nuclear program dates back to 1950s, and the country acquired its first nuclear reactor from Westinghouse of the United States in the 1970s. Despite these efforts, the first of the nuclear reactors in Brazil’s sole nuclear power plant at Angra dos Reis in Rio de Janeiro state only started operating in 1982. A second reactor called Angra II that is built with German technology joined Angra I in 2000, after being in development on and off for almost 25 years. 

The construction of a third reactor, Angra III, has resumed in 2010 and it is expected to start commercial production at the end of 2014.

State-owned Eletronuclear, which is a subsidiary of Latin America’s biggest power utility company Eletrobrás, has a monopoly in Brazil’s nuclear power generation. According to the Plano Nacional de Energia 2030 (2030 National Energy Plan), Eletronuclear has been planning to construct four more reactors by the year 2030. Last year, Eletronuclear announced that the development of a fourth nuclear reactor was in the works at a second yet undisclosed location.

Angra Nuclear Power Plant, photo by Rodrigo Soldon/Flickr Creative Commons License.

Eletrobrás operates under the Ministry of Mines and Energy, and the National Nuclear Energy Commission oversees all plutonium exploration, as well as supervising and controlling all aspects of Brazil’s nuclear program.

The problems and delays in the construction of Brazil’s nuclear reactors can be attributed to political fallout resulting from technical problems in initial construction. Worldwide concerns about the environmental effects and the safety of operating nuclear power plants have hindered the industry’s efforts to develop and use nuclear energy. And despite being caused by discarded medical equipment completely unrelated to nuclear energy generation, the 1987 Goiânia Radiological Incident has unpopularized nuclear power in the eyes of the Brazilian public.

The market liberalization of the energy sector at the end of 1990s, witnessing the safe production and use of nuclear power in the world, as well as changing political dynamics, helped resurrect the Brazilian nuclear power industry in the recent decade.

Brazil’s increasing electricity consumption, as well as the the vulnerability of hydroelectric power to environmental conditions such as droughts, which was experienced on a heavy scale in 2001 and crippled the electricity supply, are the two leading reasons why nuclear power is regarded as crucial to sustain reliable power throughout the country.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has repeatedly stated that he saw investing in nuclear energy as imperative to ensuring that Brazil meets its ever growing energy demand, and to secure Brazil a place among the world powers that harness nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. Lula’s position has been criticized by Greenpeace, which sees nuclear energy as hazardous, outdated and unnecessary. Greenpeace has been encouraging Brazil to invest in clean energy instead.