On Nuclear Power in Brazil

Last week, Greenpeace issued a report on nuclear power in Brazil in which it said the Angra III power plant currently under construction has “the potential for a catastrophe that could even surpass Fukushima.” As the report notes, while Brazil is in the middle of a tectonic plate (rather than on its edge, as Japan is), “this does not mean that Brazil can not [sic] suffer a major earthquake,” pointing to the Eastern US, which is also in the middle of a tectonic plate but experiences earthquakes periodically. Additionally, the powerplant is surrounded by hills, which wouldn’t matter as much save for the fact that Rio de Janeiro state regularly sees the type of heavy rainfall that leads to massive landslides. Given the plant’s proximity to these hills, there is a very real threat that a landslide could directly hit the plant and lead to environmental disaster.

The nuclear power plant near Angra dos Reis in the state of Rio de Janeiro. While the first two reactors have their origins in the military dictatorship of the 1970s, construction on a third reactor has again led to concerns over the safety and location of the power plant.

Of course, this is not the first time that nuclear power and its potential threats have been an issue in Brazil. Indeed, the origins of nuclear energy in Brazil provide a fascinating blend of Cold War politics, 20th-century developmentalism and dependency, and nationalism. A military dictatorship governed Brazil from 1964 to 1985, and throughout that period, it advocated major engineering projects designed to both make Brazil more modernized and self-sufficient and to project a vision of modernization and development to the world outside. Some of these projects, such as the Rio-Niterói bridge and Rio’s metro system, were successful even while improving daily life in Brazil; others, such as the Trans-Amazonian highway, had more mixed results.

In the 1970s, military president Ernesto Geisel decided it was time that Brazil become a nuclear power as well, and began moving towards creating a nuclear power program. Initially, leftists and the regime’s opponents condemned the program, saying (among other things) that it was a waste of money in a country that was in desperate need of social justice to address basic and very real (and increasing) economic inequalities. Nonetheless, in 1975, Geisel signed a contract with West Germany that provided Brazil with the technology needed to begin construction on two nuclear power reactors. and, in a curious confrontation between the anti-imperialism rhetoric of the Cold War and nationalism, many people from the left who had previously opposed the regime’s plan for nuclear power now vociferously supported it, as taking a stand for energy autonomy was also seen as taking a stand against the US’s vision of acceptable development.

However, unlike the radioactive waste that the plants produced, the dream of nuclear power soon faded away. Brazil’s economy increasingly worsened as the second oil crisis of the 1970s hit, and by the early-1980s, inflation was above 100% for the first time since 1964 (when the regime ironically pointed to 100% inflation as one of several reasons why the coup that overthrew president João Goulart was justified). The military was gradually leaving power, and Brazilian people, confronting increasing economic turmoil and instability even while trying to shape the democratization process, stopped paying as much attention to the issue of nuclear energy, even as the project was delayed and costs increased. Although the agreement with West Germany was signed in 1975, the first of three planned reactors was only connected to Brazil’s power grid in 1985; the second did not get connected until 2000. And although the regime had begun work on a third reactor in 1984, by 1986, construction had halted.

However, in 2010, with a burgeoning population and increasing energy needs, the Lula administration restarted construction on Angra III, the third reactor at the site, and as it’s now scheduled, Angra III will be fully operational by 2015. However, the construction has also refocused opposition to nuclear energy not just in Brazil, but in the international community, and as Greenpeace’s report makes clear, there are very real concerns. While I see the need for Brazil to address its energy needs, and while I appreciate the effort to be self-sufficient, I can’t think that nuclear energy is the best source, especially as the country refuses to fully invest in safer wind-energy (in spite of the savannas and thousands of miles of coastline that could provide wind energy). I’ve driven past the area where the nuclear plant is, and it’s both odd and disconcerting to see it just sitting in the middle of nowhere, nestled on the coast amidst thick tropical forest. At the end of the day, I don’t think a Fukushima event is not likely. However, it’s nuclear power, and with nuclear power, that’s not enough of a guarantee.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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