Brazil and Nuclear Power (1960+)

Since its independence in 1822, elite Brazilians have considered their nation to be destined for greatness (grandeza) and to rank among the world's modern powers. Yet according to Lincoln Gordon, a scholar of Brazilian trade and energy policy, this nationalistic aspiration has been continually upset by the shortcomings of Brazil's uneven economy, which has relied largely on the exchange of its raw materials for goods manufactured abroad. Such a trade relationship allows little room for long-term growth. As part of the effort to launch itself into a first world economy while simultaneously proclaiming its greatness, Brazil has undertaken an extensive nuclear energy program that now includes two nuclear power plants as well as a high-tech centrifuge capable of refining the abundant domestic uranium supply.

In the post World War II era, nuclear technology has been the international hallmark of greatness, power, and modernity. Thus the Brazilian military government of the late 1960s created secret facilities for the production of atomic weapons (publicly denounced and discontinued in 1990) and, in 1970, approved the construction of a nuclear power plant at Angra dos Reis, a bay about two-hundred and fifty kilometers south of Rio. The plant, called Angra I, was finally completed in 1982 and a second reactor at the same site, Angra II, began producing electricity in 2000. Combined, these two plants produce 2000 megawatts per hour, about 4% of the total electricity generated in Brazil. Hydroelectric power, generated at dams on Brazil's many large rivers, is by far the largest source of energy and accounts for nearly 85% of the total output.

Yet the efforts to achieve grandeza through nuclear technology faced the same economic difficulties as earlier attempts at large scale industrialization. Following the advice of the United Nations' Economic Commission on Latin America (ECLA) in the mid-twentieth century, Brazil sought to bolster domestic manufacturing in order to lessen the dependence on foreign imports, a strategy known as Import-Substitution Industrialization (ISI). The nuclear plant, however, required not only foreign contractors for its construction but, once the Angra I power plant began operation in 1982, the importation of refined uranium to fuel the reactor. Thus the trade imbalance continued.

Nationalistic pride in nuclear power also wavered. Angra I and II produce little of Brazil's power and protests against nuclear energy by groups within Brazil have done much to decrease the prestige that policy makers had once hoped would come with nuclear capacity (see the source "Protest on Angra III"). Although Brazil signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1998, its secretive policies have been cause for concern among some international organizations. Fears of a South American arms race between Argentina and Brazil have abated, but the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) still worries that Brazil might be attempting to produce nuclear weapons, especially at the new uranium centrifuge in Resende. Brazil has aggravated the situation by refusing international inspectors full access to the facility, resenting that it should be subject to restrictions and checks that were not imposed on the U.S. and other countries while they developed nuclear programs.

Furthermore, Brazil still faces an energy crisis; if its current rates of production do not increase significantly by 2010, it will encounter serious energy shortages. With the opening of the Resende uranium refinement plant in 2006, Brazil may opt to reinvest in nuclear power and build a third nuclear reactor at Angra. Although the Angra plant would be very expensive (about 3.5 billion USD) and produce less energy than new hydroelectric dams, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is expected to approve the plant's construction.

Questions for further exploration:

1. With the opening of the Resende plant in 2006, Brazil became one of only six nations with the capacity to refine its own U-235. Furthermore, Brazil claims that the centrifuge at Resende is twenty-five times more efficient than those of the U.S. and France. In the context of Import-Substitution Industrialization and grandeza, how will the uranium refinement plant at Resende impact Brazil's attitude about nuclear power? About national pride?

2. How has nationalism been central to Brazil's nuclear program and what role does it continue to play today? Is the focus still on grandeza or have practical economic considerations become more important to policy makers (or, is it a combination of both)?

3. As seen in the sources for this unit, Greenpeace and other environmental groups have been protesting Brazil's nuclear plants. What are the environmental impacts of Brazil's nuclear program?

4. Hydroelectric power is often considered to be environmentally friendly. Why, then, is there such concern about the impact of building new dams on the Amazon that the government is considering approving another nuclear plant, despite the fact that it would cost much more and produce less power than a new dam?

Further Reading:

Gordon, Lincoln. Brazil's Second Chance: En Route to the First World. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2001.

Angra I and II from the Bay

Date: 2009
Owner: Wikimedia
Source Type: Buildings


Located on a beautiful bay about twenty kilometers from a popular beach area, the Angra dos Reis nuclear complex is the site of Angra I and II, and the proposed site of Angra III, a power plant that Brazil has planned to construct since the mid 1980s. This new plant has been the subject of controversy as recently as May 2007, with several environmental groups protesting its construction while others support it as a means of ameliorating some of Brazil's energy needs. With Brazil's newly developed capacity to enrich domestically mined uranium, many see nuclear power as a necessary supplement to hydroelectricity, one that will ultimately make Brazil self-sufficient in the production of electricity. Angra III, if built, would be located between the two older reactors, Angra I (right) and II (left).

Some small research reactors had been imported from the United States during the 1950s, but the construction of the Angra facility marked the true beginning of the nuclear program in Brazil. Building a plant at Angra dos Reis was proposed in 1970 and was begun in 1971 by the contractor Westinghouse. After several delays caused by budget shortages and bureaucratic inefficiency, the plant began producing power in 1982 (the Angra I reactor is the cylindrical building on the right of the picture). Angra I has received some criticism, including complaints that it was built on loose stone instead of a proper bedrock foundation, but it has performed well in its twenty-five years of service. Angra II, a more advanced reactor, was begun in 1977 but financial shortages prevented its completion until German banks invested in the project in 1995. Finally completed in 2000, Angra II (the dome-shaped building on the left) remains the most advanced nuclear power plant in Brazil. The plants have a combined output of about 2000 MW/hour, about 4% of the electricity produced in Brazil.

CITATION: Sturm. Vista das usinas de Angra, January, 2009.



Cesare Lattes, Nuclear Scientist

Date: 1969
Owner: Sistema de Arquivos da Universidade Estadual de Campinas
Source Type: Images


Brazilian nuclear physicist Cesare Mansueto Giulio Lattes (1924-2005) who helped discover the pi meson, or pion, and worked extensively with cosmic rays was a leading contributor to atomic physics in the years after World war II. The child of Jewish-Italian immigrants, Lattes attended the University of Sao Paulo where he earned his degree in physics before receiving a grant to study with Cecil Powell's research team at the University of Bristol in 1947. Using a newly designed photographic plate, Lattes was able to record the passage of a new kind of atomic particle, the pion, as cosmic rays traveled through it. Lattes discovered that adding Boron to the plates prevented the tracks from fading, and used this technique to record the first artificially produced pion while working with Eugene Gardner at the University of Berkeley's cyclotron. He also used his specially designed plates to record pions, muons, and alpha particles in cosmic rays from a research station on top of the Bolivian Andes. All of this was accomplished while in his early twenties. Lattes would later have a leading role in the Brazilian-Japanese Collaboration on Cosmic Rays and took part in the establishment of the Brazilian Center for Research in Physics. He maintained a prominent place in Brazilian and international science until his death in 2005, doing much to facilitate and popularize the study of advanced physics in Brazil.

CITATION: Cesare Lattes. Collection of the Sistema de Arquivos da Universidade Estadual de Campinas, Brazil.



Goiania Radiation Accident

Date: 1987
Owner: Greenpeace International
Source Type: Images


In 1987, a container full of cesium-137, a radioactive element used to combat cancer, was opened by the owner of a junkyard in Goiania, Brazil. Children and adults both were attracted to the glowing blue substance that was imagined to be valuable and was thus soon broken into pieces for distribution. Many rubbed it on their bodies and one six year old girl even ate some of this highly radioactive material. Without knowing it, these people spread radioactive particles throughout the city of Goiania until two-hundred and forty-four people were exposed. Once the clean-up and medical efforts began, several of the relief workers were contaminated as well and dozens of people were hospitalized because the cesium had severely damaged their bodily tissue. The radiation killed four people within a week, including the girl who had ingested the cesium dust, and they were all buried in lead coffins sealed in concrete (in an attempt to prevent further exposure). Several blocks of Goiania were destroyed and the rubble sent to a sealed storage facility several miles away. The problems caused by the improper disposal of a small amount of radioactive material used for medical purposes is a daunting reminder of the dangers posed by the large quantities of radioactive waste produced at the world's nuclear power plants. Until Brazil and other states using nuclear power develop safe means for disposing of this highly toxic waste, nuclear power will remain controversial.

CITATION: Goiana Radiation Accident Memorial. Image copyright Greenpeace International.



Presidents Lula and Bush

Date: 9 Mar 2007
Owner: White House
Source Type: Images

This photograph from March of 2007 shows Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, commonly known as Lula, and U.S. President George W. Bush at a joint press conference in Sao Paolo, Brazil. The two presidents discussed trade relations, the American community, and energy issues, especially the use of ethanol. Brazilian ethanol is made from its abundant sugarcane and Brazil is one of the world leaders in powering vehicles with renewable energy sources, although serious questions have been raised by environmental and labor activists about the social and ecological consequences of Brazil's massive expansion in sugarcane cultivation for ethanol production.

President Lula took office in 2003 and will stay in power until 2011. Construction of the proposed Angra III nuclear plant ceased in 1985 due to lack of funds, yet Lula and other government ministers are contemplating renewing the project. In May of 2007, Lula stated that if new endeavors for hydroelectric plants- delayed by environmental concerns- cannot be begun in the near future, then Brazil will once more focus its efforts on nuclear facilities. A decision on whether or not work will recommence on Angra III (which is estimated to cost about $3.5 billion USD) is expected very soon.

CITATION: President George W. Bush and Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva smile as they field questions from reporters Friday, March 9, 2007, during a joint press availability in Sao Paulo. White House photo by Paul Morse. U.S. Government Graphics and Photos. 



Protest of Angra III

Date: 2003
Owner: Global Voices
Source Type: Images


On August 6, 2003, the fifty-eighth anniversary of the nuclear attack on Hiroshima, Greenpeace activists protested the construction of the Angra III nuclear reactor. Although plans to build the new power plant have been discussed since the early 1980s and many of its parts have been waiting in storage for over twenty years (at a cost of $20 million USD per year), Brazil has yet to commit to its creation. These protesters are located in front of the Rio De Janeiro building for Electrobras, a 70% government-owned holding company and the main shareholder in Electronuclear, Brazil's nuclear utility. Brazil's environment minister, Marina Silva, was also against the construction of Angra III, claiming that nuclear waste is a major problem to which there is still no solution. Both she and Greenpeace advocate alternative energy sources, yet they may be fighting a losing battle. After a brief decline in support for nuclear power in the 1990s, a large portion of the government has begun to promote Angra III (and perhaps other new nuclear power plants) as a reliable, safe, and clean way to combat Brazil's energy shortage. Although waste is a significant issue, nuclear reactors do not produce any greenhouse gases or other harmful emissions, making them an attractive alternative for administrators concerned about global warming. Debates concerning the pros and cons of nuclear power are still prevalent throughout the world and may be coming to a head in Brazil within the next few years.

CITATION: Greenpeace activists protest Angra III.  Image courtesy of Global Voices.



Resende Nuclear Plant

Date: 19 Oct 2004
Owner: Global Security
Source Type: Buildings


This photograph shows the uranium enrichment facility at Resende, Brazil. The Brazilian government refused to allow a delegation of U.N. nuclear experts to inspect its centrifuge in 2004, claiming that the country wanted to protect its industrial secrets. Brazil claims that the centrifuge at resende allows for an ultra-modern enrichment process, one that is both more cost effective and efficient than techniques used in the United States. The U.N., however, was worried that Brazil could be enriching weapons-grade uranium at the facility, causing a stalemate that delayed the plant's operation. An agreement was ultimately reached that would allow inspectors to monitor the output of the centrifuge without actually seeing the device, setting a precedent that many worry may lead to the illegal production of nuclear weapons in other countries, notably Iran. The Resende plant finally began enriching Brazilian uranium in May of 2006 and government officials hope that Brazil will be able to supply all of its own uranium by 2015.
CITATION: Landscape view of Resende nuclear facility, Brazil. Image copyright



Source References

Web Sites

Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC and IAEA)

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Gordon, Lincoln. Brazil's Second Chance: En Route to the First World. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2001.

Oliveira da Silva, Glaucia. Angra I e a melancolia de uma era: Um estudo sobre a construção social do risco. Rio de Janeiro: Editora da Universidade Federal Fluminense, 1999.

R. Zibechi. "Dark Side of Agrofuels." Americas Program Report. (July 2007):


Date: c. 2000

Brazil is known to have about 309,000 tons of uranium oxide (U3O8), the salt known commonly as Yellow Cake, in geological reserves. This is the sixth largest stock in the world. Geological surveys in the 1970s-80s discovered these natural deposits, prompting Brazilian efforts to refine its domestic uranium -a goal finally accomplished when the Resende plant opened in 2006. The only active uranium mine at present is the Lagoa Real mine in Bahia state, an open pit mine estimated to contain over 100,000 tons of uranium ore. It was discovered by aerial surveys in 1976-77 that used gamma-ray spectrometry to identify potential uranium deposits. Only about 50% of Brazil, the fifth largest country in the world, has yet to be explored for uranium deposits and, some experts speculate that over 500,000 more tons of U3O8 remain undiscovered. With Brazil's capacity to refine its own ore, this vast energy supply will serve all of the country's domestic nuclear energy facilities as well as supply surplus to be exported for a handsome profit.