The Brazilian government is working toward restarting its nuclear program, which includes the construction of 12 nuclear power plants that will be producing electricity by 2050. The country already has two nuclear power stations, Angra 1 and Angra 2, as well as a third, Angra 3, which is nearing completion; all three are in the state of Rio de Janeiro. At present, nuclear energy’s share in the Brazilian energy mix stands at less than 2 percent, and the aim is to increase that figure to 5 percent, according to the National Energy Plan. Eduardo Braga, the mining and energy minister, told a public hearing in the House of Representatives that “Brazil cannot give up on nuclear power, given the energy security that it represents and the fact that it is a cheap energy source.”
The decision to restart Brazil’s nuclear program was made undemocratically, according to Heitor Scalambrini Costa, a physician and Pernambuco Federal University professor, who is also a member of the Brazilian Environmental Justice Network. “The decision was made by a group of 10 people who make up the National Energy Policy Council. Most of the council members are government ministers, who are obliged to obey the president,” Scalambrini told Truthout. “The only one to disagree was the then-environment minister, Marina Silva, who later resigned from her post. There was no wider debate involving the academic and scientific sectors, or civil society.”
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Brazil holds the seventh-largest reserves of uranium in the world.
Along with the decision to restart the nuclear program, both the government and company representatives have been advocating changes to the way new nuclear power plants are built, in order to allow the private sector to participate in a sphere to which only the state has access, at present. According to the website of Eletronuclear, the public sector company responsible for operating and constructing nuclear power plants in Brazil, “it will doubtlessly be possible for the deals to involve both international and national private investment.”
The first nuclear power plant in Brazil was built using US technology, and the other two with German technology. Eletronuclear is now broadening the range of suppliers. According to the Eletronuclear website, the leading international suppliers are expected to participate in post-Angra 3 power plants: Areva/Mitsubishi (France), Westinghouse/Toshiba (USA), Rosenergoatom (Russia) and SNPTC and CNNC (China).
These new business opportunities have led companies to put pressure on the government to speed up the investment process. In the last four months alone, two large-scale international events to promote nuclear power as a “clean energy” source have taken place in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, with the participation of international investors.
During the Atlantic International Nuclear Conference (INAC) held in São Paulo in 2015, the French company Engie declared its interest in investing in nuclear energy in Brazil. Mauricio Bahr, an Engie representative, stated, “Engie is a big player in nuclear energy programs across the world and we are very interested in the Brazilian market. We are waiting for the government to give the green light so that the market can be opened for private enterprise, and once again we are here to cooperate with the authorities, proving our experience at INAC.”
The federal government is showing signs of turning nuclear power into a business, by reducing state participation in the production of nuclear energy and creating space for the private sector. During the International Nuclear Energy Seminar (held at the Rio de Janeiro Stock Exchange in June 2015), Leonam dos Santos Guimaraes, Eletronuclear’s planning, management and environmental director, told international investors that business models that regulate production of nuclear energy in the country needed to be more flexible in order to facilitate greater interest from private companies. At the conference, foreign companies reaffirmed their interest in the Brazilian nuclear sector and discussed possible models for public-private partnerships that could be adopted by the country.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Brazil holds the seventh-largest reserves of uranium in the world. The country also controls the technology necessary to conduct the entire fuel fabrication process, including the first phase – uranium enrichment – which is currently performed commercially by the United States, Russia, China, Japan and two consortia from European countries. “There is no doubt that the existence of uranium and the technology is vital, so that the country can decide to continue its nuclear program,” Scalambrini said.
An Energy Crisis?
According to Eletronuclear, in Brazil, the generation of electricity using thermal power plants is not motivated by the exhaustion of hydroelectric power (which generates most of the country’s energy), but rather by a desire to combat any risks that the power source might face by acting primarily as a backup in the event of the hydroelectric power grid going down. Eletronuclear’s press department explained to Truthout that “hydroelectric power will continue to dominate the system.” According to the government, however, “nuclear power plants are components that ensure the continued operation of [the] electrical grid.”
Scalambrini considers the decision to be a mistake. “The country has an abundance of renewable resources, and several that can effectively meet demand, using decentralized generation without waste as well as offering complementarity among the various renewable energy sources,” he said, referring to the benefits of having a diverse energy mix. “For that reason, there is no reason to invest in nuclear power plants in the country.”
Scalambrini added that since 2005, the nuclear industry has stepped up its aggressive lobbying in a number of Latin American countries, with significant influence over legislation and energy policy.
He also maintains that compared with the situation in several European countries, “the situation in Brazil is going in the opposite direction, owing to pressure from powerful interest groups that answer to investment firms…. On top of that, of course, the military sectors are fascinated by the power that nuclear energy provides. Not to mention the media, whose interests are clearly in favor of this energy source.”
“Wherever the nuclear power plant is built, the entire population along the river will be affected.”
One powerful lobby is the state nuclear sector of the Russian corporation Rosatom, which holds a keen interest in the Brazilian nuclear business. “Rosatom comprises more than 250 companies and scientific institutions, including all of Russia’s civil nuclear companies, the facilities of the nuclear weapons complex, research organizations and the world’s only nuclear propulsion fleet,” Scalambrini said. “It also holds one of the leading positions in the world market for nuclear technologies.”
The company has proven that the Brazilian government is willing to build, operate and finance investments in nuclear power plants in the country. “Through these agreements, the Russian company will receive shares in such power plants and build and operate them, in addition to providing technical know-how and financing. They undoubtedly represent multimillion-dollar deals, and essentially it is money that is stirring the interests into action. Every 1,000 megawatts will cost $5 billion,” Scalambrini said.
In order for other nations to carry out these deals on Brazilian soil, a series of changes to the country’s 1988 federal constitution would be required. Article 21, Section XXIII and Article 177 guarantee the state a monopoly over the entire uranium chain, involving mining and electricity generation.
Countries Against Nuclear Energy
The decision of the Brazilian government runs contrary to the stance adopted by some European governments such as those in France and Germany. Following the accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011 – which even today is still not under control – they have opened a debate and, under pressure from civil society, decided against further investment in new nuclear plants.
The French Parliament has adopted a transition law to reduce the proportion of nuclear energy used for electricity generation; by 2025, the nuclear share of the energy mix must be reduced from 75 percent to 50 percent. With 19 power plants, France’s nuclear sector ranks second in the world, and its economy depends on the energy source for its electricity supply like no other; nearly 75 percent of demand is met by nuclear power.
Even before the reduction was announced, the French nuclear industry was already facing difficulties. Its foremost industrial group, Areva, which is now focusing on Brazil, posted losses of nearly 5 million euros in 2014, which forced it to cut between 5,000 and 6,000 jobs.
In 2011, Germany declared that it would end commercial energy production at all of its nuclear power plants by 2022. Echoing the Brazilian Anti-Nuclear Organization, the German government has justified the decision by citing security reasons, namely the lack of safety measures to protect citizens in the event of an accident at a nuclear plant.
The two countries are joined by Austria, Belgium and Switzerland, which reviewed their plans to install new power plants and decided to take a step back from nuclear energy. Specifically in Italy, by unanimous decision, more than 90 percent of the population voted against the installation of new nuclear reactors in the country.
Germany Breaks Its Nuclear Agreement With Brazil
At the height of the Brazilian military dictatorship, on June 27, 1975, the “Agreement of Cooperation in the Peaceful Use of Nuclear Energy” was signed between Brazil and West Germany. It remained in force for 15 years. In addition to scientific cooperation, the agreement established that German technology would be used to build up to eight nuclear power plants, one atomic fuel-processing plant and one uranium-enrichment plant.
The agreement is renewed automatically every five years if neither country officially denounces it up to a year before the date set for its renewal. The agreement was renewed automatically without interruption until 2014, when international cooperation between Brazilian and German anti-nuclear organizations led to a campaign to end it, and in November 2014 the German government denounced the agreement, which will come to an end on November 18, 2015. Germany proposed that the Brazilian government shift away from nuclear energy and focus on the development of renewable energy resources.
The German government refused to guarantee loans for the construction of Angra 3, saying the power station does not adhere to the required safety conditions.
A Culture of Secrecy
Despite the fight for the Brazilian nuclear market having already begun, the public has been given extremely scant information regarding the government’s plans. “The reports published by the press are often conflicting,” Scalambrini said. “There is little information from the government about the issue of safety, the implementation processes, management model or the areas chosen for the construction of these nuclear power plants. The culture of secrecy and lack of transparency prevail over questions relating to the issue of the power plants.”
When questioned by Truthout, the press department of Brazil’s Mining and Energy Ministry would only respond by detailing the number of plants to be built and their potential output, stating that “other questions are still under review and there is no data to publish.”
The government’s position is backed up by the Brazilian Constitution, according to Alzeni Tomáz of the Articulação São Francisco Vivo, a collective of social organizations and movements that are fighting to preserve the São Francisco River, which has been affected by large-scale projects such as dams and hydroelectric plants. Law 4.118/62 of Article 27 establishes the secretive nature of nuclear activity. “This is the grounds on which the government maintains a ‘secretive’ stance on nuclear activities,” she said.
The city of Itacuruba is a leading candidate to receive one of the first four nuclear plants under the 2030 National Energy Plan. It lies in Pernambuco State in the Sertão, on the banks of one of Brazil’s main rivers – the São Francisco.
The region surrounding Itacuruba is host to the driest climate in Brazil; the last drought went on for three years. Most of the communities here depend on tankers to bring in their water supply for washing, cooking and general use. The Sertão is the most populous semi-arid region in the world, with close to 17 million inhabitants. The most common vegetation here is small trees with small trunks known as caatinga; at first sight, they appear to have been killed by the drought, but with a little rain the foliage revives, awakening life in the region.
On its website, Eletronuclear states that “the results of the studies carried out to select the location of the region’s nuclear plant showed the São Francisco river to be the best option, according to the criteria used in the selection process.”
Scalambrini explains: “The exact location has not officially been announced. The selected area on the banks of the San Francisco River was mentioned in an official document from Eletronuclear’s regional office in Recife, Pernambuco’s state capital. The indicated area points toward Itacuruba being the first choice for the installation of the nuclear plants.”
The plants have been cause for alarm and resistance for social movements, particularly for those that strive to conserve the life of the São Francisco, which has already been affected by several megaprojects. “Wherever the nuclear power plant is built, the entire population along the river will be affected: the indigenous lands, the Afro-Brazilian communities known as Quilombolas, and the fishing communities that live from this river,” Tomáz said.
The area in Itacuruba that has been identified as a likely building site is part of the sacred land of the Pankará people. “The government [carries] out large-scale projects without consulting us, the ones that live from the land,” Lucéria Pankará, the chief of the Pankará, told Truthout. “They do not ask what we think or what we want. They do not respect us.”
Pankará land in Itacuruba is in the process of being officially recognized and demarcated by the government, but Pankará notes, “With these projects, that process has come to a halt.” As a way of putting pressure on the government, the Pankará people occupied part of their land before official demarcation.
To enable the construction of a hydroelectric center, one part of the São Francisco River that irrigates Pankará land in the city was dammed in the late 1980s, flooding the old city of Itacuruba along with three others. A huge number of people moved to the banks of what is now an enormous lake, to set up their homes and rebuild the city.
Gerardo Leal, an indigenous Pankará man, was one of nearly 20,000 people who were evicted from their land and homes in Itacuruba. “Essentially, the city was rural and provided food for the whole region,” Leal told Truthout. “I used to live on one of the innumerable islands of the river. The soil was very fertile; everything that we planted would grow: fruit, rice, beans, potatoes, onions and other vegetables. We had plenty of fish, and whatever was left over we could sell. Everything was flooded because of the dam and we have been left in this situation, without lands. We were pushed out toward the city.”
Leal went to the city but could not manage to live away from his land. “I’m a farmer, born and raised,” he said. Having returned to his ancestral land, he and his people are now awaiting the demarcation of their territory, threatened by the potential construction of the nuclear plant.
“Our lands are our history, our life – they are the record of all our ancestors,” Leal said. “How can the elders teach our children if we’re in the city? There is no way of preserving our culture.”
Translated by Alfie Lake.