OSC Analysis: Brazil Nuclear Program Remains on Hold Amid Cabinet Debate

Wednesday, April 5, 2006

President Lula publicly disavowed plans announced by Science and Technology Minister Rezende to move forward with the Brazilian Nuclear Program (PNB) during their 7-9 March visit to the UK, suggesting that his government remains concerned over adverse international reaction to the PNB amid the ongoing controversy over Iran's nuclear program. The government's decision in January to delay launch of the Resende uranium enrichment plant also was widely seen by the press as an effort to avoid comparisons with Iran. Statements by Lula suggest, however, that his administration is unlikely to abandon the program, and Rezende and other PNB advocates are likely to seek to keep the program alive.

Rezende used the visit to the UK to publicize Brazil's nuclear plans, offering what the press described as unprecedented detail.

In a 7 March interview with BBC Brasil--which was widely reported in the Brazilian media--Rezende said Brazil would resume construction of the Angra 3 nuclear power plant in Rio de Janeiro State and build seven more plants over 15 years. He added that two of these plants would be built on the banks of the Sao Francisco River in the northeast.

Rezende further stated that operations at the Resende uranium enrichment plant, also in Rio de Janeiro State, would begin in April, and that the uranium enriched there would be enough "to supply 60% of the needs at the Angra 1 and 2 plants by 2010." He also said the goal of the PNB was to increase the share of nuclear power from the current 1-2% of the nationwide energy supply to "closer to 5%." Influential, conservative daily reported that Rezende's statements were the "first time" a minister had come out publicly in support of building more nuclear power plants, "specifying quantities and locations" (8 March).

Widely read weekly asserted that Rezende had "deliberately" made the announcement during the UK visit to "gauge" international reaction (13 March). According to the weekly, Rezende's statements indicated that Brazil's nuclear future was being actively discussed within the Lula cabinet.

Lula and other officials moved quickly to overrule Rezende, suggesting that supporters of a cautious approach on nuclear issues as well as critics of the program retain the upper hand.

Lula, at a 9 March news conference with Prime Minister Blair, said that the government had "not yet made any decision" about building more nuclear power plants, and he added that his government is considering all options to meet future energy needs (Agencia Estado). He stated that the construction of other nuclear plants "is not a priority for his government, at this moment," and that the government instead would build the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant in the Vitoria do Xingu region of Para State and decide on two more on the Madeira River in Rondonia State (10 March).

Then Finance Minister Palocci, also in London, rebutted Rezende's comments and defended hydroelectric plants as "cheaper, environmentally cleaner, and safer than nuclear plants" (13 March).

Head of the Civilian Household Rousseff did not comment, but she also favored hydroelectric power over nuclear power in her previous capacity as minister of mines and energy in Lula's cabinet and, according to, probably continues to oppose the PNB (8 March).

The PNB experienced a setback in January when the government postponed the scheduled startup of the Resende plant. The delay came amid calls in the press for Brazil to avoid any "inopportune" moves that could invite comparison with Iran.

Top-circulation claimed the delay was the result of "international political developments" despite denials by Nuclear Industries of Brazil President Roberto Garcia Esteves (15 January). said the delay allowed Brazil to avoid acting "at an inopportune time" that could have resulted in "hasty comparisons of its program with that of Iran" (19, 17 January). Washington correspondent Paulo Sotero reported at the time that the Iranian nuclear issue had created "potential headaches" for the Lula government and could "rekindle pressures" from "nuclear nonproliferation specialists in Washington" for Brazil "to voluntarily stop its enrichment program" (17 January).

Jose Goldemberg, secretary of the environment for Sao Paulo State who served as federal secretary of state for science and technology and the environment between 1990 and 1992, warned in an op-ed against nuclear "adventures that create international distrust," such as the one "that gave rise to the serious problems facing Iran today" (17 January).

Despite Brazil's efforts to distinguish its nuclear program from Iran's--as evident in its 4 February vote at the IAEA in favor of referring the issue to the UN Security Council--the Lula government has underscored the right of all countries to pursue nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, suggesting Brazil is unlikely to abandon the PNB. Rezende and influential allies are likely to continue to press for action.

Lula avoided criticizing Iran during the 9 March news conference in the UK and asserted that "Brazil supports peoples' rights to use nuclear research for peaceful purposes."

Rezende may use the claimed April start date for uranium enrichment to bring the PNB issue to the fore, in an effort to spur action. Chamber of Deputies President Aldo Rebelo, a longtime supporter of the program, urged Brazil to "consolidate and expand nuclear gains" and increase funding for the program in an op-ed published 3 January in Sao Paulo business daily. He criticized the lack of "national unity" over the PNB, which he claimed had been a "target of the IAEA."

An unnamed government source told in May 2005 that the PNB had been drawn up by a team led by the Science and Technology Ministry at Lula's request and was then under study at six ministries (29 May 2005). According to the source, the PNB was still "confidential" but it included construction of two more 1,300 MW nuclear power plants, the same as Angra 3, and four others with a 300 MW capacity.

Rezende later told the press that a PNB consistent with Brazil's growing energy needs would be ready and approved by the first half of 2006 and would include the resumption of work on Angra 3 and the construction of other plants nationwide, according to Rio de Janeiro daily (6 September 2005). National Nuclear Energy Commission chief Odair Goncalves told state news agency Agencia Brasil that the PNB called for an investment of $13 billion by 2022 (5 September 2005).