Is Angra III obsolete?

Image: Vitaly Kushnir


Disinformation is what marks the nuclear issue in Brazil

As soon as a new government is installed, the defenders of the continuity of the construction of Angra III, started in 1984, with great interests involved, national and international, civil and military, and the usual arguments about nuclear power and climate warming are agitated. Cf. here.

Those who oppose Angra III remember the accusations of corruption, which even involved a former president of the Republic, and compare nuclear power with alternatives in full development, inside and outside Brazil, with lower investments and electricity several times cheaper for the user (Discussion text by Instituto Escolhas – May 11, 2020 – Angra 3 is worth how much it weighs?). And in the midst of all this, there is even a leak of radioactivity in Angra II, kept secret but which “woke up” the City Hall of Angra dos Reis. This then put an embargo on the work, due to non-payment of the “socio-environmental compensation” for the acceptance by the city's residents – who, incidentally, were never consulted – of the installation of something so dangerous in their municipality.

But in the news nothing is said about safety, the biggest problem of the nuclear option in the production of electricity, which gained more attention in 1979, when it occurred in Three mile island, in the United States, a “severe” accident, with the melting of the plant's fuel. hitherto considered impossible, was of the highest gravity level on the International Atomic Energy Agency scale (IAEA). He provoked the immediate shutdown of all the North American and rest of the world's reactors, to see how to avoid a repetition.

And well after, the third such accident in Fukushima, in Japan, was the last straw that changed positions: Germany decided to close all its reactors (the last one not long ago), other European governments decided to imitate it when possible, and the Austrians and Italians prohibited it, in a plebiscite , the construction of nuclear power plants in their countries.

It's in Brazil? “Forgot” the Civil Inquiry 51-2009, with the title: “Projeto de Angra 3 – Adequacy of the project to current safety norms”, opened on September 30, 2009 by the Federal Public Ministry of Angra dos Reis. Where has it been, with its more than 400 pages, since Fernando Amorim Lavieri, the Federal Prosecutor who moved it, was transferred to Foz do Iguaçu, with unconvincing justifications – one of the Brazilian stories that need to be better told? In what dusty corners does it find itself, led by interested parties not to read any indications of the need to adapt the Angra III project, suggested in its title?

It all started because the safety engineers of the National Nuclear Energy Commission - CNEN, responsible for the safety of the plants, who doubted changes in Angra II after the accident of Three mile island, and in the Angra III project at the beginning of construction. Both followed German designs, drawn up before the US accident happened. There was obviously nothing in them to prevent what happened. Alerted, the Federal Prosecutor of Angra, mindful of his responsibilities, could not but open the inquiry that opened, followed by the Federal Prosecutor Daniela Masset Vaz and in the magazine This Is Edition 2118 of 11/06/2010.

This accident was indeed of a kind never before occurred, owing to the loss of control of the heat with which the power plant begins to operate, and the consequent melting of the plant's fuel. It was found that it would have been caused by a rapid chain of human errors and equipment failures, the so-called “multiple failures”. They were impossible to predict, but they led to a complete loss of control of the situation, with tragic consequences.

The world learned afterwards that before Three mile island another similar accident had occurred in 1957, in Mayak, in the Soviet Union, in a secret plutonium production plant for atomic bombs ( It had been kept secret for 20 years, for Soviet but also North American strategic interest: according to historians, the CIA was aware of it but avoided its disclosure, because it could harm the nascent nuclear industry in that country by showing the dimension of the risks involved in it.

These risks were even greater because, in thermoelectric plants that are misleadingly called nuclear, nuclear energy is not directly transformed into electricity, as is the case with sunlight in solar plants or with the force of the wind in wind farms. In them, nuclear energy only serves to heat water and thus produce steam, to be sent under pressure to turbines, which in fact move electricity generators, as the wheels of our bicycles do with the dynamos of their flashlights.

But here comes the daring of the human beings who invented these plants: to heat water in nuclear power plants, instead of coal, diesel or biomass, the same technology as atomic bombs is used, that is, the fission of uranium atoms, which is radioactive. With that these "kettles" become "radioactive kettles". And if they explode, they spread radioactivity in a much larger volume than their small and large leaks that we almost have to get used to if we live near nuclear power plants.

Em Goiânia, in 1987, the opening of the radioactive capsule of an abandoned radiotherapy device, with 19 grams of cesium 137, was catastrophic. Imagine the explosion of a ton of radioactive uranium in a nuclear power plant. For this reason, some of us call nuclear power plants “sleeping monsters”: if and when they wake up, they force all the inhabitants of their surroundings to flee as quickly as possible, so as not to breathe or ingest radioactive particles and thus escape death in the short, medium or long term.

After the accident of Three mile island the IAEA itself has defined new safety standards. But it was not enough: seven years later it happened in Chernobyl, in the then Soviet Union, a new accident of the same type and as serious as Mayak's. “Multiple faults” led to explosions. Anyone who saw the TV series about Chernobyl certainly remembers the episode in which the operators disagreed on how to avoid the uncontrolled increase in heat in the reactor, and in seconds the plant explodes. This just didn't happen in Three mile island because the melting was not complete.

But Eletronuclear, builder and operator of our nuclear power plants, did not take this very seriously, because of the insufficient safety culture that characterizes us (let's remember the ruptures of the Mariana and Brumadinho dams). It was when Sidney Luiz Rabello, one of CNEN's safety engineers – now sadly deceased and to whom I pay homage here for his courage and righteousness as a public servant – saw that Eletronuclear was evading the MP. And he published an article in Newspapers in Brazil, on February 5, 2010, with the title “The anachronism of Angra III”.

He was not against nuclear power plants (see your blog). He believed in them and in nuclear fusion, which he said would one day solve many of the problems created using nuclear fission. That's why when Eletronuclear published a reply in the same newspaper, he replied on March 31, again by Newspapers in Brazil, with the article “Angra III is really an obsolete project”.

As a result, he suffered an administrative inquiry – in which he defended himself with the support of the Association of Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety Inspectors (AFEN). And it was between the first and second articles that Fukushima happened, a third accident with melting of the plant's fuel. The issue of security then became even more evident, leading Germany and other countries to decide to eliminate nuclear power from their energy matrices, which I have already mentioned.

Sidney Luiz Rabello then continued to raise more and more precise questions, such as the need to direct the melting fuel. The French company AREVA, which builds plants in France, had done it in the new European model of nuclear power plant, the EPR, calling the container that would receive the molten mass of fuel an “ashtray”. Sidney Luiz Rabello was an enthusiast of this project. Its construction, however, in Flamanville, France, has already lasted 16 years, with a cost several times higher than projected, so many are the safety problems that arise (See here). But he was indignant with AREVA, for proposing a new, safer project but not caring about the countries to which it provided technical assistance, such as Brazil, which continued with obsolete projects.

All of Europe had been hit by the Chernobyl radioactive cloud. The radioactivity dispersed in the Pacific, with the Fuksuhima accident, reached the coasts of the United States. Naoto Kan, Prime Minister of Japan when that accident occurred, feared that the fourth reactor and its full pool of fuel would explode, and a radioactive cloud from these explosions would reach Tokyo. In that case, the country's capital would have to be evacuated, which, according to him, would be the end of his country. (The Diplomatic World, France, August 2019).

The cities of São Paulo or Rio, depending on the whim of the winds, could be reached by radioactive clouds created by explosions in Angra dos Reis. For Sidney Luiz Rabello, therefore, it was also necessary to redo the project of the Angra III containment building, where the nuclear reactor is installed, in order, among other things, to avoid the formation of pockets of hydrogen that lead to explosions.

I also raised other doubts on these topics, such as the thickness of the reinforced concrete walls of the containment building, which continued to be built with the same 60 cm thickness as the Angra II building, although it was already advised that they were one meter and fifty thick, to withstand internal explosions and external shocks. If he were still alive, Rabello would certainly be today denouncing the problems of Angra I if its useful life was extended for another 20 years – analyze what he was committed to when he died. Hopefully your co-workers are continuing it.

I stop here, on this plot of a horror movie about nuclear power plants.

It would be a long film, because it would have to show the close relationship between the history of power plants and the history of atomic bombs, which explains why the military commands this sector, in all countries, and why the current President of France recently said, justifying his plan to build more plants, against the will of the majority of society, that civil nuclear power “is closely linked” to military nuclear power.

It would also have to deal with the question of the destination to be given to the used fuel of the plants, the main part of the so-called “atomic waste”, of which few people are aware that it is kept still hot in the plants themselves, for forty years, in permanently refrigerated pools and monitored. It is the biggest headache for countries that have nuclear power plants, which experiment with the most varied provisional solutions. Germany and the United States have already unsuccessfully tried to build definitive deposits, and Switzerland is looking for a place, but must submit the project to a referendum.

France is currently facing social resistance to this work, especially from residents of the region where it would be built. Only in Finland is the problem on the way to being solved. There will end in 2120 the construction, started in 2004, with 35 km of tunnels – with an expected life of 100.000 years – 450 meters deep in granite rock, at a cost of 850 million dollars.

Here, meanwhile, tons of that chilling legacy are bound to create hard-to-solve problems for many future generations. A great work to “hide it” would be unthinkable in Brazil. So, just now – again without any public consultation – it began to be transferred from the already crowded pools of Angra I and II to 15 large armored steel cylinders 2 meters wide and 4,6 meters high (expected to need for 72 cylinders like these). ( Imported from the United States, will be temporary dry deposits of what's left of the cracked uranium and other even more dangerous radioactive elements.

But instead of placing them in tunnels dug in the mountains, as they do in some other countries, here they are being irresponsibly implanted in the open air on the same “rotten stone” beach where our two “monsters” sleep. We have to hope that the predicted sea level rise and oxidation don't deteriorate them and start leaking radioactivity.

But to whom should one cry out for help, in Brazil, in the disinformation and deceit in which the nuclear issue is wrapped up here? Angra III's novel leaves several questions in the air. Let them be placed where they fit, by whom they are entitled. Among others:  

– When the Federal Prosecutor Fernando Lavieri was transferred from Angra dos Reis, what conclusions did the Civil Inquiry he initiated reach? And why was he transferred?

– What concrete modifications were introduced – if at all – after Three Miles Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, in the 1970s project of Angra III and in Angra II itself, already built?

– Because the outer walls of the Angra III Containment Building Are they being built with the same thickness as the external walls of the Angra II Containment Building, against safety recommendations?

– How will the dry deposits of “nuclear waste” on Itaorna beach in Angra dos Reis be protected from the expected rise in sea level?

– How could the Association of Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety Inspectors (AFEN) honor post mortem its associate, Safety Engineer Sidney Luiz Rabello, for his efforts in favor of nuclear safety?

In France, after the Fukushima accident, its parliamentarians summoned the President of its National Nuclear Safety Agency for a direct question: what happened in Japan (and had happened in Three Miles Island and in Chernobyl) can happen in one of our 56 plants ? His answer was a very clear “yes! We just don’t know where or when!” But the parliamentarians did not reach the heroic decisions that would then be demanded...

It's in Brazil? Our deputies and senators would summon the president of Eletronuclear – and the Attorney General of the Republic – to ask them, at the very least, where is the Civil Inquiry 51-2009 of the Federal Public Ministry of Angra dos Reis?[1]

*Chico Whitaker is an architect and social activist. He was councilor in São Paulo. He is currently a consultant to the Brazilian Commission for Justice and Peace.


[1] The series was recently released on Netflix Fukushima. While it's a little too long (eight episodes) with a lot of repetitive scenes, it's still worth watching in my opinion. It shows the accident as it was experienced, from the inside, by those who worked in the intricate operation of the plants, facing unexpected problems and the anguishing search for solutions. But it fails in the conclusions: it does not point to the imperative need to interdict this very dangerous technology. And it does not clearly denounce its misleading propaganda and its absurdity: all the complex technology of atomic bombs is not used to transform nuclear energy into electricity, but only to heat water.

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