Unease over nuclear plants in paradise: An 'accident' at a Brazilian reactor is worrying environmentalists. Phil Davison reports

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The Independent Online
IN THE Angra Lanchonete (lunch- bar) opposite the bustling harbour of this ragged Brazilian fishing village, the topic of the nearby nuclear power plant is sensitive, almost a taboo. The locals are aware that something is amiss, but the plant provides work for hundreds of people and a better living, indirectly, for thousands more. The passer-by who questions the nuclear plant's safety might just as well raise doubts over the fidelity of the lunch-bar's customers' wives.

An unexplained 'accident' last month at Brazil's only completed nuclear reactor, known as Angra-1, caused a mystery rise in radiation levels within the plant and forced its indefinite closure. Officials said the problem was in the core of the reactor, where uranium is stored, but that there was no leak of radiation beyond the plant. Environmentalists say there may be cracks in the reactor's primary container system - raising fears of a Chernobyl-style disaster - and that the plant should be shut down for good.

Even the slightest radioactive leak could be devastating. For reasons that no one, including plant officials, can explain, Angra-1, and a new reactor, Angra-2, still being built, are tucked in a picturesque cove in the heart of Brazil's 'Green Coast,' an up-market tourist paradise of golf courses and country clubs halfway between Brazil's two biggest cities, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

'It certainly was a pretty weird place to put a nuclear reactor,' said Alan Poole, a independent energy consultant in Rio. 'It looks like cracks may have appeared in the pressure vessel. That's not good news for the nuclear industry. One of the main problems is that of emergency evacuation. It's an area where the mountains plunge directly down to the sea. There are only a few narrow exits. How on earth could they get people out of these villages quickly?'

Adding to the concern of environmentalists is the plant's position in an earthquake fault zone, located in a cove known by local Indians for centuries as Itaorna (the moving rock). It has been forced to shut down about 20 times since it opened for business in 1985. When on line, it is supposed to supply about 20 per cent of the country's electricity.

In December 1988, two earth tremors cracked house walls in the village and startled residents. The mayor declared a state of alert, but the operators of the plant, the state-owned electricity company, Furnas Centrais Electricas, said the 626-megawatt Angra-1 reactor had not been damaged. It has since been shut down many times for 'repairs'.

What upset Brazilian ecologists this time was that Furnas did not at first admit, in line with previous agreements, that there had been a problem at the plant on 5 March. 'They told the mayor (of Angra dos Reis) that the plant had closed for maintenance,' said Ruy de Goes, coordinator of Greenpeace's anti-nuclear campaign in Latin America. 'This is extremely serious. They lied to the population.

'Then a worker called us and said: 'This is no maintenance job, there is a problem with the fuel elements and there has been an increase in radiation. They are doing an inspection and cooling the reactor.'

'When I confronted the Brazilian national nuclear energy commission with this version, they confirmed it,' Mr de Goes said. The commission's superintendent, Airton Caubi, then told reporters the plant had been shut down because of an as yet unexplained 'accident'.

Furnas continued to insist the stoppage was routine although inspection had shown 'an abnormal increase in radiation in the primary circuit'.

'There was an accident,' said a nuclear expert, Professor Luis Pinguelli of the University of Rio de Janeiro. 'Radiation became too high in the primary loop. Furnas is studying whether there is a problem in the fuel elements. But there is another problem. The steam generator is made of a material called Inconel-600, which suffers an accelerated process of corrosion. That will have to be changed.'