Controversial alternative: Bolsonaro wants to multiply the number

Jair Bolsonaro (no party) plans to make billion-dollar investments in a sector marked by environmental conflicts: nuclear energy. Official documents indicate that the Federal Government intends to expand the number of plants and open the sector to the private sector. Although defended as an environmentally sustainable measure, the nuclear energy chain in Brazil has a track record of contamination and accidents.

Prepared by the Ministry of Mines and Energy, the National Energy Plan 2050 (PNE) establishes long-term guidelines for the country’s energy sector. The document highlights that Brazil, despite having suffered from the lack of energy, the oil shocks of the 1970s and the 2001 blackout, can reach a future scenario in which it offers energy to the market.

For this, nuclear energy is pointed out as a tool for “abatement of greenhouse gas emissions” and “energy transition”. PNE 2050 speaks of 10 gigawatts (GW) in new nuclear power plants by 2050, which could mean around 10 new power plants.

Another document, the 2029 Energy Expansion Decennial Plan, also shows the atomic ambitions of the Ministry of Mines and Energy. The text states that nuclear energy does not emit greenhouse gases and that Brazil holds the sixth largest global uranium reserve.

“Eletronuclear, together with COPPE/UFRJ, developed in the past an extensive study covering the entire national territory, which identified 40 large areas technically suitable for the installation of new nuclear power plants”, says the 2029 Energy Expansion Decennial Plan.

Cities of interest to Brazilian nuclear activity / Infographic: Brasil de Fato

Experts heard by Brazil in fact, however, emphasize that it is necessary to consider the environmental risks contained in the entire cycle of nuclear energy, from the mining of uranium, a radioactive chemical element used as fuel for power plants, and question the carbon-neutral energy label of the nuclear sector.

“What proponents of nuclear energy advocate is that nuclear energy is clean because it does not emit greenhouse gases. I would like to say, first of all, that there is no clean energy, all energy is obtained through physical and chemical conversion processes that always result in degradation to the environment, and therefore, to society, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the energy source. In fact, the only energy that can be considered clean is the energy that is not consumed”, says the professor of Institute of Energy and Environment of the University of São Paulo (USP) Célio Bermann.

The classification of nuclear energy is a discussion held today by public policy managers. The European Union postponed the decision on how to classify it and suspended the possibility of new nuclear power plants receiving the “green” seal and, therefore, having greater facilities when it comes to accessing the bloc’s €250 billion fund (more than R$ $1.6 trillion).

While France is the largest economy of a group of countries that bets and defends the implantation of new nuclear plants, Germany decided, after the disaster of Fukushima (Japan), in 2011, to deactivate all its nuclear plants. The subject gains another layer of complexity because Europe is going through an energy crisis, with the soaring price of natural gas, and with the COP26 climate conference.

Billionaire investments and private initiative

Doctor in nuclear energy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and professor at USP, Ildo Sauer believes that there are defenders of the nuclear option for genuine reasons, but also lawyers in the sector for “commercial and economic interests”. As an example, he cites the billions expected for the construction of Angra 3.

The construction of a third nuclear power plant in Brazil has dragged on since 1981 and was even foreseen in the 2030 National Energy Plan (PNE), launched in 2007. With an estimated cost of more than R$ 17 billion, the Bolsonaro government wants to retake Angra 3 with a public-private partnership project that gained ground with the privatization of Eletrobras.

In 2019, the Minister of Mines and Energy, Bento Albuquerque, estimated Brazil’s public investments in nuclear energy for the next few years at R$ 15.5 billion.

Although the Constitution establishes in Article 21 that the Union is responsible for “exploiting nuclear services and facilities of any kind and exercising a state monopoly on research, mining, enrichment and reprocessing, industrialization and trade in nuclear ores and their derivatives”, the Federal Government has been working to expand the participation of private companies in the sector.

Indústrias Nucleares do Brasil (INB), the state-owned company responsible for uranium mining in Brazil, says in its 2020 annual report that it aims to “enable models of partnership with private capital” and seeks “operational flexibility” to possibly sell the fuel nuclear power in the future.

The National Energy Plan 2050 (PNE) also advocates “improving the regulatory framework associated with nuclear energy, through the flexibility of the Union’s monopoly, the organizational structure of the sector and its regulation”. The document advocates the elaboration of a “communication plan” to highlight the “improvements” of nuclear power plant safety.

The performance of state-owned companies in the area in Brazil, however, is marked by security problems and environmental conflicts. INB’s uranium mining in Caetité, a city in the interior of Bahia, has already registered more than 10 accidents, including the leakage of toxic materials and the contamination of workers, says Fiocruz. According to a scientific article, the city of 50 thousand inhabitants has cancer rates above the average in comparison with the State and Brazil. The study states that the mining of radioactive material in the city may be linked to cancer rates.

The environmental conflicts of the nuclear cycle in Brazil will be addressed in future reports from Brazil in fact.

For USP professor Célio Bermann, INB today has “an extremely significant liability and that remains that way without there being a way to redefine itself and increase safety in its activities”.

Ildo Sauer emphasizes that the discussion on nuclear energy should not be “demonized” and that it can be an alternative, but that Brazil does not even know its electrical potential as a wind or solar source.

“If the money they want to use to complete Angra 3 were used to make a combination of wind and photovoltaic [solar], we would produce between 1.5 times and even double the energy that Angra III will produce and we would not leave about a thousand tons of radioactive elements as a legacy for future generations”, says Sauer. “There are countries where the nuclear option remains, in terms of cost and in terms of environmental assessment, as an alternative. This is definitely not the case in Brazil.”

Edition: Rodrigo Durão Coelho

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