Brazil's Nuclear Program: Constant as a Firefly : First Plant Has Gone Off and On 20 Times; Military Pushing Parallel Effort

Times Staff Writer

The "Firefly," Brazil's first nuclear generating plant, is on again--at least for now.

Officials started the 626-megawatt Angra 1 generator early this month, hoping to keep it running indefinitely.

That is no sure thing, if past performance is a guide. Since it was first started for testing in March, 1982, the problem-plagued generator has gone off and on more than 20 times, in the process getting stuck with its embarrassing nickname.

The "Firefly" is part of what once was one of the most ambitious nuclear energy programs in the Third World and today is a multibillion-dollar embarrassment for Brazil. Plagued by miscalculations, funding problems and technical failures, the program has been scaled down drastically and relegated to the back burner.

'Parallel Program'

But Brazilian authorities are now giving high priority to a "parallel nuclear program" with goals that are equally ambitious but less clear. The program is wrapped in secrecy and largely directed by the Brazilian armed forces.

The military has acknowledged that it plans to use nuclear power in submarines. And there have been recurring reports that Brazil is looking toward producing nuclear weapons, although this is officially denied by the two-year-old civilian government.

Nuclear power became a major national objective for Brazil after the armed forces seized power in a 1964 coup. In 1971, the military government gave the Westinghouse Electric Corp. a contra1668554868reactor at Angra dos Reis, a picturesque spot on Brazil's lush Atlantic Coast, about 90 miles southwest of Rio de Janeiro.

Angra 1 was to be fully operational in 1977 at an estimated cost of $300 million. The cost has multiplied to more than $1.5 billion, and no one is yet sure whether all the bugs have been worked out.

West German Accord

Before Angra 1 had become such a headache, the military rulers signed an agreement with West Germany to vastly expand Brazil's nuclear program. The 1975 agreement called for the construction of eight new thermonuclear reactors by 1990 in collaboration with Kraftwerk Union and other German companies.

The pact also provided for the installation of Brazilian factories to build heavy components for generating plants, to enrich uranium for use as nuclear fuel and to reprocess spent fuel. Brazil's goal was to produce increasing percentages of the equipment and material used in the plants, eventually mastering the technology and attaining nuclear self-sufficiency.

Work under the German agreement was expected to cost Brazil about $10 billion, a cost estimate that more than tripled within a decade. The schedule for carrying out the agreement fell hopelessly behind, and Brazil cut back sharply on the original goals.

Shifting Target Date

Angra 2, the first 1,300 megawatt reactor begun under the German agreement, was originally scheduled to start up in 1982. The latest target is 1992.

The second German reactor has yet to be brought from Germany for installation at another Angra site. Plans for the other six reactors are suspended, at least temporarily, and hundreds of Brazilian technicians trained for the program are now out of work.

"The country invested tons of money in educating, training these people," said a foreign diplomat. "Now they just don't have work for them to do."

Joaquim Francisco de Carvalho, a former executive in the Brazilian program, said the German agreement has not only fallen far short of its construction goals but has also failed to transfer substantive nuclear technology to Brazil.

"What there has been is merely a transfer of experience in the areas of project coordination and assembly of nuclear plants, which is undoubtedly also important, but it leaves us dependent on foreign countries in the more relevant areas of concept and basic engineering," Carvalho wrote in a recent, unpublished monograph that he made available to The Times.

Program Disillusionments

Until 1979, Carvalho was industrial director in NUCLEN, the Brazilian government company for nuclear engineering under the German agreement. He now is one of many Brazilian technicians and scientists who are disillusioned with the nuclear program.

Carvalho noted that the only two installations under the agreement that have been finished, the $350-million components factory and the $75-million nuclear fuel factory, are idle.

NUCLEI, a Brazilian government company that was to develop West German technology for enriching uranium, has spent $300 million of a total budgeted $1.2 billion.

"So far, NUCLEI is a great failure," Carvalho wrote.

He and other Brazilian nuclear scientists say that the "jet nozzle" enrichment system that was to be developed for the plant has proved unproductive.

"They're having tremendous problems with it," said a foreign analyst who monitors the nuclear program. "So far they have done zero with it."

Choice Questioned

Brazilian critics of the nuclear program contend in particular that the former military government's first mistake was to choose a type of nuclear reactor that uses enriched uranium fuel. Processes for enriching fuel are complex and costly and have been mastered by only a few countries.

Neighboring Argentina, the only other Latin American country with operating thermonuclear reactors, uses a "heavy water" system that does not require enriched fuel.

West Germany was barred by international agreements from selling Brazil the technology for the "gaseous diffusion" system of enrichment, which is used successfully in Europe and the United States.

Meanwhile, under Brazil's "parallel program," both the navy and the air force are working on projects aimed at enriching uranium.

The air force reportedly is experimenting at its Aerospace Technical Center in Sao Paulo state with an unproven enrichment process using lasers. At the same time, the air force is developing missiles that analysts say could eventually be used to deliver nuclear warheads.

Navy's Efforts

The navy is said to have achieved initial success with the "ultracentrifuge" enrichment process, which is used by Urenco, a German-British-Dutch consortium.

Luiz Pinguelli Rosa, a physicist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, said West German scientists are working with the navy on the enrichment project at the Institute for Nuclear Energy Research in Sao Paulo.

"They say some ultracentrifuge units are now functioning, but they need hundreds of units," Rosa said in an interview. He said the project also is aimed at reprocessing spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium.

Plutonium can be re-used as fuel in some kinds of nuclear generators, and it also can be used to make atom bombs. The project is supervised by the government's National Commission for Nuclear Energy but is not covered by international safeguards against nuclear weapons production.

Exaggeration Charged

Rex Nazare Alves, president of the Commission for Nuclear Energy, told reporters late last year that Brazil already has mastered technology for enriching and reprocessing uranium.

"I think he exaggerates," Rosa said, estimating that full Brazilian mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle is three to five years away.

The navy is building a compact nuclear reactor at Ipero, in Sao Paulo state, at a cost estimated by Rosa of between $100 million and $200 million. Rosa said the reactor, which would use highly enriched uranium as fuel, is a model for compact reactors that can be used in nuclear submarines.

The navy is believed to be planning the construction of a nuclear submarine sometime early in the next century. The technology for building a nuclear submarine is more complex than for exploding an atomic bomb.

Gen. Haroldo Erichsen da Fonseca, army chief of science and technology, said recently that Brazil could build the bomb in two years if it made the decision to do so.

"We do not have the goal of building the atomic bomb, but if it were necessary, we would build it," Da Fonseca told the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo. "Obviously, with the knowledge that we are acquiring, we will be able to do it."

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