Brazil: INB Plans to Expand Nuclear Fuel Capacity

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Brazil is rousing its nuclear ambitions with plans to not only expand the Angra nuclear plant and identify new sites for advanced reactors, but to meet its own nuclear fuel demand and produce domestically at all front-end stages of the nuclear fuel cycle. Preliminary plans to expand uranium production, construct a conversion facility and expand enrichment capacity and capability, however, require funding from the private sector and legislative efforts to entice those investments. Brazil today requires some 750 tons of contained uranium annually to supply its two-unit 1,990 megawatt Angra nuclear plant, but with plans to complete the 1,350 MW Angra-3 by 2026 and to begin siting for advanced reactors, Brazil’s state-owned Industrias Nucleares do Brasil (INB) is preparing to meet new demand. INB in December announced it would begin producing uranium at the Engenho open-pit uranium mine at Caetite in the central-eastern state of Bahia, with expected initial annual production of 400 tU per year, ramping up to 800 tU annually (NIW Dec.4'20). INB is also moving forward with the long-planned development of its Santa Quiteria project in Ceara state in northeast Brazil, which is expected to produce up to 2,300 tU annually. INB is looking for private investors to help develop more mines and price signals that would justify conversion capacity. With an eye on the next generation of reactors, INB also hopes to increase enrichment levels to produce advanced nuclear fuels. Mining Potential INB hopes to develop more U3O8 resources by 2040, primarily in the state of Bahia, with a target of 21,000 tU of production annually, according to INB Mineral Resources Director Rogerio Mendes Carvalho, who spoke at the Nuclear Trade & Technology Exchange (NT2E) conference last week (related). But to do that, “we need to attract mineral investment in uranium,” Carvalho said. Enter the Geological Survey of Brazil (CPRM), which in 2020 resumed uranium research and plans to produce by the end of this year detailed information about the country’s uranium resources. CPRM Geology and Mineral Resources Director Marcio Remedio said in his NT2E conference presentation that using geochemical data, CPRM hopes to “identify areas that present the most important potential and lower risks to incentivize research in those places.” In addition to the Engenho mine, the Consortium Santa Quiteria (a partnership between INB and fertilizer producer Galvani) and the government of the state of Ceara are expected to begin project construction of a new phosphate and uranium mine pending regulatory approval. Licensing is expected to be complete by the second half of 2022. The mine is projected to produce 1 million tons of phosphate fertilizer and up to 2,300 tU of uranium as a byproduct by 2026, according to Rodolfo Galvani, Jr., who was key in developing the Santa Quiteria consortium. The project faces hurdles, however, notably a lack of available water in the region, and negative publicity around tailings dams after the spectacular failure of the BHP iron ore mine tailings dam in November 2015 that released millions of liters of mining waste and killed 19 people (NIW Dec.20'19). “Tailing dams became a very negative word that hinders any new project in the sector,” Galvani said. To reduce water consumption and the need for a tailings dam at Santa Quiteria, Galvani said the developer will use a process involving the “dry concentration of the mineral.” The technology developed “in-house” also improves uranium recovery by 85%, up from 65% with other processes, he said. Building Out the Fuel Cycle If Brazil succeeds in ramping up uranium production, it hopes to become a nuclear fuel exporter and not just of U3O8 (NIW Jun.12'20). INB is still evaluating plans to build its own conversion plant with help from nationalized companies, but those ambitions depend on rising conversion prices, which INB expects could come on the back of rising uranium prices (NIW Jul.16'21). INB is also notably looking to expand its existing enrichment levels. INB Nuclear Fuel Production Director Marcio Adriano Coelho da Silva told the NT2E conference that INB wants to accelerate its enrichment capacity from 50 tons to 70 tons of SWU per year with the installation of 10 cascades in four modules over 2021-22. INB expects to meet 70% of Angra's existing enrichment demand next year, he said, but caveated that "one of our limiting factors right now for the creation of cascades is the speed at which we can manufacture these other centrifuges. And so there's a lot of conversation about how we can make this process a little bit faster and more agile for creating the centrifuge." Beyond that, INB plans to eventually reach an enrichment capacity of 500 tons of SWU per year, requiring "30 or more cascades in 15 modules. And then we would see that we could supply 100% of the fuel to Angra-1, -2 and -3." INB is also evaluating the “possibility of increasing” enrichment levels, da Silva said, from 5% enrichment under the current operating license to "maybe seven or even 9%.” INB expects that it could work with Brazil’s Nuclear and Energy Research Institute (IPEN) to develop metallic fuels for use in small modular reactors (SMRs), like the NuScale SMR under development in the US. “I think that Brazil has all the resources to make this happen.” INB is also looking to eventually expand fuel pellet and rod production -- which is so far sufficient to meet demand for Angra-1, -2 and the Angra-3 newbuild. To do that INB is looking for a private partnership. "It depends on who is going to be the strategic partner of Brazil and if they have the proper nuclear technology," da Silva said. Jessica Sondgeroth, Washington

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