Farmer Luiz Paulo Souza (34) lived and studied in big Brazilian cities for a while, but after several years abroad he decided to settle in his birthplace, the quiet community of Morrinhos in the northeastern state of Ceará. There is no better place in the world, he says… at least until a recent energy project knocked on his door.
Paulo’s dream was to invest in his own land, build a well and expand the beekeeping project that he and his family had just started. But today the farmer is changing his mind. Not only him but several residents in the region are giving up investments in Morrinhos.
The reason for their fear is a proposed project that intends to extract uranium from the Itataia mine, which would be the largest uranium mine in Brazil and would be located just four kilometers from Morrinhos.
After 13 years of speculation around the proposal, the region’s residents express fears over social and environmental impacts linked to the mine, such as toxic chemicals polluting water. Some even express their desire to leave for other municipalities.
“I’m afraid to build something here because I might lose, right? The companies involved in the project say that there will be no impact, but we know that there will be. Can you imagine me taking out a bank loan of R$ 18,000 (US$ 3,600), building an artesian well and then finding out that the water is contaminated?”, said Paulo.
Uranium mining in the region has been discussed since 2009 and is part of the Brazilian Nuclear Program, which seeks to extract nuclear fuels and use them to power reactors in other parts of the country. Eventually, the country also seeks to export nuclear fuel to other countries, government officials said.
A particular type of uranium called U-235 is often used as fuel inside nuclear energy reactors, because of its ideal chemical properties. The waste produced from this type of electricity generation, however, is highly radioactive.
Worldwide, nuclear energy contributes to approximately 10% of the world’s electricity production. According to the World Nuclear Association, uranium supplies 90% of the requirements of power utilities, and its demand is key for nuclear growth.
Demand is expected to increase. During this decade, the increase in demand for uranium could reach 27%, estimates The Nuclear Fuel Report. For the decade from 2031 to 2040, the estimated increase in this demand is 38%.
More than half of uranium mine production comes from state-owned companies. The main producing countries today are Kazakhstan (accounting for 45% of the world supply), Namibia (12%), and Canada (10%). Brazil is 15 in the ranking of producers. Among the largest buyers are Russia and China.
Nuclear energy in particular is often promoted as a climate solution, because of its low greenhouse gas emissions. However, more than 150 villages like the one in Morrinhos fear that mining nuclear fuel could bring environmental and social impacts.
Fear of Uranium
Morrinhos is located in the semi-arid northeast of Brazil, and is basically composed of 52 families. The place has a dry climate, almost no rainfall and a stark 47% starvation rate in 2021, according to data from the Brazilian Research Network on Food Sovereignty and Security and Nutrition (PENSSAN).
This was the setting selected for the Itataia mining project, proposed by the private mining company Fosnor – Fosfatados do Norte-Nordeste S.A and the state-owned Indústrias Nucleares do Brasil (INB).
The goal is to produce a yearly 1,600 tons of uranium concentrate —used in nuclear reactors— and 1 million tons of phosphate derivatives, which are often used in fertilizers and animal feed.
The uranium concentrate, in particular, will belong to INB, according to INB website. The state-owned company intends to use it as fuel for two nuclear power plants in the country: Angra 1 and 2, located in the southeastern state of Rio de Janeiro. Another one, Angra 3, is currently under construction in the same region.
The expectation with the project is that there will be a 10% increase in the production of phosphate in the country and that Brazil will eventually increase the exportation of nuclear fuel. The intention is to explore the area for 20 years, with an expected investment of USD $350 million.
In Brazil, there is only one similar mine in operation, in the neighboring state of Bahia, in a city called Catité. There, a smaller uranium extraction and processing project took place between 2000 and 2015, then resumed at the end of 2020.
The Mission Caetité report shows that there were more than ten accidents in the first 15 years of mining in the city, with overflows of uranium liquor, fuel oil and sulfuric acid into water bodies.
Currently, the Brazilian government is evaluating environmental permits for the plant. If approved, it will start operating between 2024 and 2025. The companies in charge promise to create more than 5,000 jobs during the life span of the plant.
The residents of local communities, however, are not convinced by the employment numbers, as they still fear for their environmental safety. Souza says that, in the community where he lives, he knows only of two residents who are in favor of the project. His community was consulted on the project in June, 2022.
Around the area planned for exploration there are three water basins and more than 150 villages. One of the resident’s main concerns is the contamination of the water with radioactive material and, consequently, impacts to food production.
“One question that must be answered is: who will guarantee our food sustainability in case of contamination? Who is going to monitor it? Who is going to pay in case of loss of our food?” he says.
Water consumption is also a concern. Even though local communities don’t have piped water, the project would require four times more water than what is used in the entire region, according to the Articulação do Semiárido Brasileiro (ASA).
“For sure, the water justice of Santa Quitéria and neighboring municipalities could be affected by the lack of water”, said Erivan Silva, activist from the Movement for Popular Sovereignty in Mining (MAM) and the Antinuclear Articulation of Ceará.
MAM activist Josy Sena, who works in two local farmers’ organizations, said more than 95% of people in the region work in agriculture, which could be affected by the uranium mining activities. “They say that uranium is not radioactive in its raw stone. But we know that this is a lie”, says Josy.
Uranium found in nature is not very radioactive, according to Heitor Scalambrini, retired professor from the Department of Electrical Engineering of the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE). The greatest danger to health is through inhalation or ingestion. However, it can be enriched, increasing its radioactive potential, he added.
Josy did not want to, but has already begun preparations to leave Santa Quitéria, one of the villages near the mine. “I started to study, to pass federal competitions and move together. This land represents my roots, a little piece of heaven for us. Today I feel obliged to leave”, she laments.
For over a decade, Brazil’s nuclear programme tried to build six nuclear reactors in the city of Itacuruba, in the interior of the state of Pernambuco. It would be a project capable of generating three times as much energy as the two plants in operation in the country, Angra 1 and 2. Its water use would be just as huge.
In 2011, the project was shelved, after the nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, but was reconsidered during the government of Jair Bolsonaro. Residents of the city were apprehensive.
After being affected by the construction of a hydroelectric dam in the 1980s, indigenous communities in the area opposed a new energy project in the region. They began a massive mobilization to prevent the construction of the plant.
In January this year, the Brazilian government said it would no longer build the venture in the region.
The movement that managed to halt construction in Itacuruba is held up as an example to the residents of Morrinhos, in Ceará. There, social mobilization was crucial to pressure the government to give up the idea.
Based on this experience, the residents of Ceará hope to implement some of the same strategies to achieve their goal of stopping the project. Both cases are part of the same national movement, the Brazilian Antinuclear Articulation.
The nuclear fuel projects in Caetité and Santa Quitéria are part of the Brazilian Nuclear Program, which was activated in 2006, still during the government of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, but then cooled down. In 2020, there was a new resumption and investments in the program.
Brazil now plans to build up to eight new nuclear power plants by 2050, while also expanding exports of nuclear fuel. This is considered a priority of President Jair Bolsonaro’s government and part of Brazil’s decarbonization efforts.
For researchers, there is no need for Brazil to install new nuclear power plants, due to rich natural resources available to develop cheaper and cleaner renewables.
“To get an idea, the nuclear power plants Angra 1 and 2 only contribute 2% in the Brazilian electricity matrix. If all the other plants are built, this potential increases to 5%. Today, wind energy alone contributes 12%”, said Heitor Scalambrini, retired professor from the Department of Electrical Engineering of the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE).
According to the professor, the cost of nuclear energy today is five times higher than solar and wind energy. “And who would pay this cost, would it be passed on to the energy bills of the population? Not to mention the possibility of an accident, which is remote, but exists,” he says.
One of the places where it is speculated to install a plant is in the basin of the São Francisco River, also in the Northeast Region. The river supplies around 1,000 Brazilian municipalities.
“There is a discourse that nuclear energy is a source that would contribute to mitigate the impact of climate change, because it does not produce greenhouse gases. But this is a half-truth, because it doesn’t produce while it’s working, but the nuclear fuel cycle starts in mining, which is highly polluting”, says Heitor.
The UFPE professor added that if the country diversified the generation of electric energy through renewables, it could keep a stable energy source without the need to bet on nuclear power.
Government officials and private companies sell these projects to impoverished communities by offering job generation, said researcher from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), member of the Pernambuco nucleus of the Nova Cartografia Social Project, Whodson Silva.
“They arrive in regions that they consider to have regional backwardness and offer income and employment generation, in addition to infrastructure improvements, as part of the strategy to build the plants”, he added.
In the end, what locals fear could occur is the expulsion of many residents and the destruction of traditional communities and their territories.
Luiz Paulo Souza says that he will resist while he can. “They come saying that this is progress, but in my view, it is not. It may leave disease, misery. I am very proud of where I live. It is not an option to go to the city,” he says.