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Samba Power: A Nuclear Re-Start in Brazil

It’s not often we consider nuclear energy in the Americas outside the U.S., but it’s time to take a peek at some interesting developments down in Brazil. America has the Superdome, Brazil has the Sambadrome.

Much has been made of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and their ascent (or return?) to becoming major players in the global economy. This all comes from a well-known 2001 paper by Goldman Sachs. Of course, there are jitters in the global economy now, but the overall trend has continued.

In our 2001 paper, we argued that the BRIC economies
would make up more than 10% of world GDP by the end of this decade. In fact, as we near the end of 2007, their combined weight is already 15% of the global economy.

And perhaps the number one thing all the BRICs need is energy. They need petroleum for cars, motorbikes and buses and electricity for offices, air conditioning and factories. In their national energy strategies Russia, India and China all have pretty robust plans for increasing nuclear capacity. Just imagine being an energy minister for one of these countries: you need round-the-clock electricity, and lots of it to keep growth humming. You also would like it to be low carbon. It’s not too surprising that these emerging economies are taking another look at nuclear.

But what about Brazil? It has just 2 nuclear reactors that have a combined capacity of roughly 2000 megawatts. The country has always seemed more focused on hydropower and biofuels than nuclear energy. Well, that may be changing.

Last week, Brazilian regulators gave the go ahead to start construction on Angra 3, a 1,350-megawatt reactor.

Plant owner Eletronuclear said this means it can now pour concrete for the reactor's foundation slab, which as 'first concrete' would mark the official start of construction.

Now, it appears Brazil may be joining the other BRICs in embracing nuclear. But what’s changed? Why now?

Maybe one of these imaginary energy ministers in Brasilia has seen that Brazil has gone “all in” with hydropower and wants something to hedge the bet. Brazil gets about 85 percent of its total electricity generation from hydropower. Don’t get me wrong, hydropower is a great renewable resource, but it has some issues: it gobbles up quite a bit of land and is usually generated far away from cities.

Many of Brazil's hydropower generating facilities are located far away from the main demand centers, resulting in high transmission and distribution losses. Brazil’s heavy reliance on hydroelectricity has caused some issues in the past, especially during periods of below-average rainfall.

Two recent events have highlighted some of these problems with hydropower. First, there are ongoing protests against the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant that saw James Cameron of Avatar-fame get involved.

With a proposed operating capacity of 11,200 megawatts, Belo Monte will be the third biggest dam project in the world behind China’s Three Gorges dam and the Itaipú dam Brazil currently runs with neighbor Paraguay.

However, it has caused huge controversy ever since the first feasibility studies were carried out in the 1970s. The 516 square kilometers due to be flooded are on the Xingu River and the amount of earth and rocks to be shifted will surpass that moved in the building of the Panama Canal.

In contrast, nuclear plants are quite compact for the energy they deliver compared to hydro and other renewable resources. That’s right, nuclear reactors could help preserve the global good that is the carbon-producing Amazon rainforest. 

There’s also the question of the 2009 blackout in Brazil. Now, this was not a failure of the massive Itaipú dam, but transmission lines leading to the dam which failed, creating a cascading effect.

…the failure of three transmission lines that deliver power from the plant created a domino effect, cutting off electricity to 18 of 26 states in Brazil, including the country’s two largest cities, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

Again, our pretend energy minister might think that instead of getting 20 percent of your entire country’s electricity from just one plant, it might be better to have relatively smaller and relatively more local nuclear plants supplying it. I bet it’s a lot less stressful for somebody monitoring the grid to see 1100 megawatts suddenly disappear due to a faulty transmission line than 11,000 megawatts. It must be quite a challenge to try to pull 11,000 megawatts out of your hat. In a phrase, diversify, diversify, diversify. 

And there may be more to follow Angra 3; Brazil’s national energy plan to 2030 has called for more nuclear energy.

  Even the most conservative case calls for the completion of Angra 3, and the construction of four 1000MW new nuclear power plants, two in the northeast, and two in the southeast.

Sounds like Brazil will be joining the rest of the BRICs in boosting its nuclear ambitions.

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