By Carlos Pallordet, Timetric.

Brazil’s long-standing nuclear programme has been plagued with works delays, budget overruns and operating difficulties. Angra 1, the country’s first nuclear station which began operating in 1985, has suffered so many shutdowns that Brazilians nicknamed it “vaga-lume”, the Portuguese word for glow worm. However, the situation has improved in recent years and Brazil is moving forward with new nuclear projects.

In the past five years, the government has announced plans to build four new reactors as well as complete Angra 3, a long-delayed project. Rising electricity demand, coupled with the need to maintain a balanced energy matrix, lies behind Brazil’s desire to expand nuclear generation in the coming years. But there will be no rush. Only Angra 3 is expected to be operational by 2020, allowing just enough additional installed capacity to maintain nuclear power’s present 2% share in Brazil’s energy matrix.

Brazil’s relationship with nuclear energy is an inheritance of the country’s old fear of oil-dependency. Initiated by the military government in the late 1960s, the nuclear programme fell far short of the original, ambitious plans. Out of the numerous projects initially planned, only two reactors – Angra 1 and Angra 2 – came to fruition. In 2011, the two plants together provided 2.007 MW of installed capacity, which left Brazil low in the ranking of the thirty countries operating nuclear power plants in the world (Chart 1).

Angra 3, which is expected to start operating in 2016, will have a capacity of 1.405 MW, leading to a 70% expansion in nuclear by 70% (Chart 2). Work resumed in 2008 with the aid of the Brazilian national development bank (BNDES), which approved BRL 6.1 bn in financing to cover almost 60% of the BRL 9.9 bn estimated cost. Further plans to build four new nuclear reactors with capacity of 1000 MW each by 2030 have now attracted the attention of main global contractors such as Areva, GDF Suez and EDF.

The main reason behind plans to expand nuclear power is the determination of Brazilian energy planners to reduce dependency on hydroelectricity and limit vulnerability to an oil price shock. But there are other factors that support the bright outlook for domestic nuclear power. First, Brazil has large reserves of nuclear fuel – specially conventional uranium – to feed growing domestic requirements. The country holds 5% of the world’s conventional reserves, but some believe new exploration could place it among the world leaders, Australia and Kazakhastan.

Another advantage of nuclear power is cost. Nuclear power generation enjoys economies of scale. According to the World Nuclear Association, the addition of Angra 3 will reduce network prices as the resulting nuclear power – while twice as expensive as hydro- will be cheaper than that produced from natural gas, oil or coal. Finally, continuing development of nuclear energy helps maintain the country’s profile in science and technology and contributes to its geopolitical clout.

The main downside of nuclear energy are the environmental hazards. The Fukushima disaster in Japan has raised global awareness. However, Brazilians appear among the least preoccupied. A recent survey conducted by Globescan, a public opinion research consultancy, that encompasses 23 countries already using nuclear power, placed Brazil among the countries with the highest support for nuclear energy: 60% chose either to keep operating plants or build new ones, compared with 35% wanting to shut down nuclear plants.

With Brazil’s political determination to develop new projects in the field, the country is set to position itself as the next frontier for the world’s nuclear industry.

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