Brazil Prepares to Enrich Uranium for Reactors

Brazil plans to begin enriching uranium for its nuclear reactors next year and hopes to export enriched uranium by 2014, Brazilian Science and Technology Minister Roberto Amaral announced Oct. 6.

The news comes 10 months after Amaral made headlines when he told the BBC that Brazil should not rule out acquiring the ability to produce a nuclear bomb. At that time, a spokesperson for Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva distanced the president from Amaral’s remarks, saying they were not reflective of official policy. Yet, Lula’s own commitment to nonproliferation came under scrutiny last year after a campaign speech in which he criticized the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as discriminatory.

Brazil signed the NPT in 1997 after a series of negotiations with Argentina resulted in each state giving up its nuclear weapons programs. However, Brazil did not entirely forgo the military uses of nuclear energy and its uranium-enrichment program remains linked to the Brazilian navy’s attempts to develop nuclear-powered submarines.

Amaral stressed that the uranium-enrichment program is aimed solely at securing Brazil’s energy supply. Brazil currently receives roughly 90 percent of its energy through hydroelectric power. Severe droughts a few years ago led to energy shortages and rolling blackouts in 2001, creating pressure to diversify Brazil’s energy production capacity and renewing interest in the country’s nuclear energy program.

Department of State spokesperson Kurtis Cooper said that the United States believes Brazil takes seriously its treaty responsibilities under the NPT and the Treaty of Tlatelolco, which calls for a nuclear-free zone in Latin America and the Caribbean. However, he added, “The United States urges all states, particularly with sensitive nuclear activities such as uranium enrichment, to adopt the highest nonproliferation standards including the Additional Protocol.”

Although Brazil has not yet signed or brought into force an additional protocol, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) spokesperson Melissa Fleming said that the agency is working with Brazilian authorities to bring Brazil’s uranium-enrichment activities under safeguards. She said the IAEA encourages Brazil to sign the Additional Protocol “to provide the agency with the additional authority it requires in order to provide the necessary peaceful use assurances.”

Brazil plans to begin industrial-scale operations in the middle of next year at the centrifuge enrichment plant in Resende and hopes to provide 60 percent of the low-enriched uranium needed to fuel Brazil’s two nuclear power plants by 2010. It is estimated that Brazil’s current reactor needs will be satisfied by 2014, at which time the country plans to export enriched uranium and could also supply fuel for a possible third nuclear power plant.

According to Amaral, the proposed enrichment plan would save Brazil $11-12 million every 14 months. Currently, Brazil sends its raw uranium ore to Canada to be processed into uranium hexafloride, which is then sent to Europe for enrichment by URENCO. Brazil boasts the world’s sixth-largest uranium reserve.