Uranium, and who will mine it, is a hot topic
in Brazil. With the fight against carbon emissions gaining
strength, Brazil is one of several nations where nuclear energy
is emerging as an environmentally acceptable alternative to
both coal-based and hydroelectric power stations.
In mid-2007, the Instituto Brasileiro de
Mineração (Ibram) presented the Congresso
Nacional with a draft law to open up uranium mining, enrichment
and sales to the private sector, until now the exclusive domain
of the state. The proposal is now being considered by Brazil's
legislature, and prospects for its approval look good in view
of the need to ensure fuel for Brazil's Angra 1, 2 and 3
nuclear power stations. Angra 2, on hold for a long time, and
Angra 3, a new project, both recently gained the go-ahead from
President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, who is anxious to ward off
the threat of electricity shortages that are widely feared for
2010-12 if the country's gross domestic product continues to
grow at more than 5 percent a year.
Nuclear energy currently accounts for less
than 3 percent of Brazilian energy generation but is seen as an
answer to an increasingly complex energy equation in Brazil,
where opposition from a strengthening local and international
environmental lobby is stalling or dramatically slowing the
major new hydro-power projects proposed for Amazonia. The
opening up of uranium mining would play right into the hands of
Brazil's Vale (formerly Cia. Vale do Rio Doce), which is
already prospecting for uranium in Australia in a $6.5-million
venture and has started exploring for uranium in Canada.
Opening up the Brazilian uranium industry
would probably also interest Rio Tinto, which has iron ore and
bauxite interests in Brazil and is currently one of the world's
three largest uranium producers, with mining interests in
Australia. The other two big world uranium producers are Cameco
Corp., Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and Areva SAS, Paris.
Brazil holds the world's sixth-largest
uranium reserves, measured at 309,370 tonnes, but exploitable
only by state-owned Industrias Nucleares do Brasil (INB).
Measured world reserves are put at 4.42 billion tonnes, with
Kazakhstan weighing in with the largest reserves at 957,000
tonnes and Australia second at 910,000 tonnes.
Because of its state monopoly on uranium,
Brazil is one of the few producers that does not participate in
the world market. Its 2006 output of 360 tonnes was therefore
relatively low compared with world output of 46,499 tonnes,
putting it in 12th place worldwide in terms of actual
"One of the reasons that led Ibram to bring
uranium to debate is the sharp increase in prices for this
mineral. In three years, for instance, uranium prices have
risen to $110 per pound from $12," Ibram president Paulo
Camillo said. "Brazil's advantage is that as well as having the
ore, it also has the technology and facilities for both
concentrating and enriching uranium for electrical energy
production, although these processes are also today the
exclusive domain of the state, according to Brazil's current
Should the Brazilian uranium market be opened
up, Brazil would be able to sell not only the ore itself but
enriched ore, a value-added product that would boost export
revenue, Camillo said. The Ibram president noted that a more
flexible approach to uranium mining has been adopted by
Argentina and Uruguay, Brazil's neighbors in the Southern Cone
Common Market, also known as Mercosul, "due to the great
interest that has arisen in this mineral over the last few
years." "Uranium is experiencing an upturn in usage worldwide
. . . it's almost a global boom," Nelson Hubner,
Brazil's mines and energy minister, said in a recent interview.
Part of the boom is doubtless because of the interest the
Chinese are now taking in the mineral. The search for uranium
mining joint ventures and partners to construct and operate
nuclear power stations has become a preoccupation for Chinese
"Uranium also was the star at the PDAC
(Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada) in March,"
Camillo said. That was hardly surprising, given world trends
437 nuclear reactors in operation in the world, 30 under
construction, 74 planned and 162 proposed, according to an
Ibram study. According to the World Nuclear Association,
current world uranium demand of 67,000 tonnes per year should
double by 2030.
Confident of the probable privatization of
uranium mining in Brazil, which would be fully in line with the
country's current business trends, Vale is already in advanced
negotiations with INB should the opportunity emerge to launch a
joint venture or even a Vale-controlled uranium mining
The first new uranium mining project to
emerge in Brazil should be INB's Santa Quiteria project in
Ceara in the northeast, where production was halted when Angra
3 was put on hold. With the resumption of the Angra 3 project,
INB has already put out the word it is seeking a partner to
develop Santa Quiteria, the country's largest identified
reserve with 142,500 tonnes.
The next largest reserve is in Lagoa Real in
Bahia state, where the state government is currently putting
various mineral deposits up for privatization. The Caetite
deposit, which has estimated reserves of 100,770 tonnes of
uranium, is currently INB's only operational uranium mine.
Other Brazilian reserves so far untouched are at Pitinga in
Amazonas state, near Paranapanema's tin and rare earths mine,
and Rio Cristalino in Para state, near a Vale copper
"The uranium market has shown a lot of
demand," Roger Agnelli, Vale president and chief executive
officer, said about his company's uranium plans for Australia.
"Demand will only grow . . . the world has no
alternative, and Vale is very interested." However he would not
be drawn on the precise tone of the company's recent contacts
with Brazil's INB.