Brazil's Nuclear Ambitions: Worrisome?

On Thursday, July 31, Brazilian authorities gave the final go ahead to the civilian nuclear power company, Electronuclear, to continue construction of the country's third nuclear power plant. Although the decision to revitalize the 22-year-old nuclear reactor, Angra 3, came late last year, plans were finalized in July by the government's environmental regulatory agency. Electronuclear, a subsidiary of the state-owned energy firm Electrobras, plans to begin construction in February.

Brazilian officials must constantly address the country's still inadequate supply of energy if they hope to see Brazil continue on the path to becoming a superpower. For this reason, together with several major new discoveries of oil deposits off Brazil's coastline, a confident President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva hails the developing nuclear initiative as one that could ensure an increased supply of energy to the population. However, there are grave political and economic implications of any turn to nuclear energy that he is taking, that should not be overlooked or minimized.

Electronuclear representatives pledge to strictly comply with the 60 conditions put forth by the Brazilian government to ensure the safety of the plant now under construction. Environmental activists warn, however, that reviving the construction of the Angra 3 plant, which was aborted in 1986, is neither environmentally safe nor fiscally or politically sound. Greenpeace activists held a demonstration in late July outside the Ministry of the Environment's headquarters in Brasília to protest the decision of Roberto Messias, president of the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Resources, which granted the permit for the further construction of Angra 3. Its detractors cite the health risks posed by potential leaks, such as the ones discovered at French power plants in July that resulted in contaminated drinking water, and Brazil's flawed radioactive waste disposal program that allows for an insufficient number of repositories for hazardous waste material. Radioactive waste is currently being stored at the plants themselves, while Brazilian officials determine a more concrete long-term plan of action.

Brazilians take the mention of potential environmental and health repercussions very seriously, remembering the four lives that were lost and the thousands of citizens currently with health problems resulting from the mishandling of radioactive material in Goiania, Brazil, in 1987. Environmentalists also contend that there are less risky energy ventures that Brazilian authorities should consider pursuing. Greenpeace argued that the same funds used to revive Angra 3 (approximately $8 billion), could be used to install a wind power plant that would be able to double the energy capacity, take only one third the construction time, and would create 32 times more jobs than Angra 3.

So Why Nuclear Energy?

Brazil currently uses nuclear energy for approximately only 4 percent of its nationwide energy supply, but contains the world's sixth largest uranium reserves. The South American country launched its enrichment program in 2006, but outlined a proposal to enrich uranium only to levels below 5 percent—much less than the approximate 93 percent enrichment level required to build weapons. It is still worth noting that it would be relatively easy for Brazilian technology to quickly increase enrichment to those levels. Brazil is a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as well as other regional and multilateral agreements on the peaceful use of nuclear development. Should the international community be concerned about Brazil's renewed commitment to nuclear energy?

Currently boasting the world's ninth largest economy, Brazil will no doubt join the ranks of major world powers this century. With this in mind, it behooves the international community to be aware of the country's growing economic presence in South America, given Lula's continued defense of what he sees as Iran's similar non-weapons-linked nuclear energy program. In September 2005, Lula stated, "If Iran wants to enrich uranium, if it wants to handle the nuclear issue in a peaceful way like Brazil does, that is Iran's right." Lula went on to comment that Iran should not be punished because of Western suspicions that Tehran wants to create an atomic bomb. This direct comparison between Iran and Brazil's nuclear plans has definite implications for how the international community views comparative developments in nuclear capabilities. Despite Iran's less than spotless record regarding International Atomic Energy Agency protocols and United Nations inspections—Brazil also denied entry to I.A.E.A. inspectors in 2004, and revealed plans to sell surplus uranium to China in 2006—why does Brazil's renewed nuclear program fail to receive the same cluster of criticisms as Iran's?

Will Paraguay Benefit?

Yet another consideration brought about by Brazil's nuclear program is its implications for the country's energy agreement with Paraguay. The renewed interest in nuclear energy might give neighboring Paraguayans hope that Brazilian officials will renegotiate the terms of the energy contract regarding the shared Itaipu hydroelectric plant. Though the two countries split the energy evenly, Paraguay's insufficient infrastructure allows it to utilize only 5 percent of its 50 percent share. Brazil buys the rest of the energy at a flat rate—as per the 1973 agreement—inhibiting Paraguay's ability to achieve a higher income by selling the surplus energy at current market prices to Brazil or some other energy-deprived nation in the region. If Paraguayans could markedly benefit from increased earnings, and Brazil could rely more on other forms of energy—in this case nuclear—then perhaps this revival of Angra 3 could have positive regional implications. Given Brazil's mammoth demand for energy, however, this outcome seems unlikely, as nuclear power may only help to fill the growing Brazilian population's basic need for electricity.

The White House's Inattention to the Region

With most of Washington's attention focused on the Middle East, United States regional officials have not had the necessary authorization to adequately evaluate the regional implications of Brazil's nuclear energy policies. Though Brasilia ostensibly continues to be a United States political ally, the South American country with the largest economy could potentially challenge the balance of power in the Western Hemisphere in the near future. If Washington persists in paying less than ample attention to the emerging superpower, it may soon be shocked by Brazil's potential to have a China-like, booming economy, increased nuclear capabilities, a growing self-confidence in its own power, and an ability to make its own way.

From the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

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