Accidents, cancer and radioactive contamination: the cost of nuclear energy in Brazil

The mining of uranium in the city of Caetité, in Bahia state, is resumed after five years inactive

São Paulo (SP) |
The Engenho mine is located in a region where the river basins of the Rio de Contas and the Rio São Francisco are integrated. - Brasil de Fato com imagem de Acervo INB

“Resumption of Uranium Production in Brazil”: the phrase was printed on a banner behind the ceremony in the city of Caetité, Bahia state. The city’s population has cancer incidence above those in other parts of Brazil. The story of this region emphasizes that the endanger of health and the contamination of soil and water are inherent to uranium mining. However, these issues were not mentioned at the event. 

On the stage, eleven white men, including the minister of Mines and Energy, Bento Albuquerque; Caetité’s mayor, Valtércio Aguiar (Democratic Labor Party); and the president of the state-owned company Nuclear Industries of Brazil (INB, in Portuguese), Carlos Freire. After a black woman – representative of INB employees – speak, all the men pressed a button. A siren is heard. Nearby, in a deforested and excavated area, explosives are detonated. Applauses. 

The event made the first day of December 2020 the date on which uranium extraction was resumed in the country, as part of a federal government's billion-dollar investment plan in nuclear energy, intending to build eight new plant facilities by 2050 with public-private partnerships. 

"This resumption represents President Bolsonaro's firm commitment to transforming national resources into wealth," said minister Bento Albuquerque. The region where the minister's feet were trampled and whose natural resources are of interest to the federal government includes the cities of Caetité, Lagoa Real and Livramento de Nossa Senhora, in southwestern Bahia. 

The communities there – including 15 quilombola communities, as Passagem de Areia, Cangalha, Riacho da Vaca, Contendas, Pau Ferro, among others – know very well what mining means in the region. 

INB's Uranium Concentration Unit (URA, in Portuguese) has already carried out the extraction and processing of ore in that region between 2000 and 2015. The resumption of mining activities, now in a new area – the Engenho Mine –, takes place after only five years of interruption. 

The mineral extracted in Caetité (at the INB unit, which occupies 1,700 hectares) is used as fuel for the nuclear plant facilities in Angra dos Reis (Rio de Janeiro state). With the world’s sixth largest uranium reserve, Brazil discovered uranium anomalies in the 1970s some areas of the Serra Geral region, which integrates the hydrographic basins of the Contas River and the São Francisco River. 

In an interview to the Brazilian Nuclear Energy Association, the INB director of Mineral Resources, Rogério Mendes Carvalho, announced that the goal is to produce 800 tons of uranium concentration per year in Caetité by 2027. 

The Engenho Mine, according to Carvalho, "will have a life of 16 years": "Obviously, to increase the scale of production, we will need to open, over 30 years, another 13 new mines". 

To Camila Mandrek, from the Movement for Popular Sovereignty in Mining, the Bolsonaro government's decision to prioritize this energy model has "the leading role of conservative sectors of the Armed Forces, which historically keep the Brazilian nuclear project in a black box and align to the US strategic interests in the context of geopolitical disputes with China". 

Therefore, Caetité is – with its past, present, and expectations designed by the federal government for its future – an accurate portrait of what it is like, with the resulting impacts, a practical and territorial implementation of the National Energy Plan 2050. 

Between 2000 and 2015, while the Cachoeira Mine was active, 3,750 tons of uranium were extracted. On the one hand, INB's activities mark the region's history by generating jobs, mostly outsourced and low-paid. On the other hand, accusations of leaks of radioactive material, accidents, contamination of the land and groundwater, illnesses among the population, and lack of transparency are accumulating. 

Radioactive trace 

Among the more than ten accidents involving the overflow of uranium liquor, sulfuric acid, and fuel oil from INB's facilities in Caetité, there is one that stands out: a few months after the opening of the Cachoeira Mine, five million liters of uranium flowed into the environment. 

According to the Mission Caetité Report from the Dhesca Brazil Platform, this accident happened in April 2000, but the population and inspection bodies were not informed. It was confirmed only with a procedure from the Federal Public Ministry six months later. As a result, the mine's Installation License was suspended until July of the following year. 

Another remarkable episode happened on October 28, 2009. Lucas Mendonça is an INB worker and was there. In the district of Maniaçu, a cell of solvent charged with a high concentration of uranium leaked into the rainwater system. "I helped to try to contain this material", says Lucas, who is also a member of Sindmine (Union of Miners of the city of Brumado and Microregion). 

At the time, INB called the press. "The coordinator then tells reporters that the material that fell was contained in a hole, which had only kerosene. He also said that 500 liters had leaked", says Mendonça. "I went public to deny it. It was 40,000 liters of radioactive material leaked and around 30,000 into the environment", he emphasizes.  

One day, in 2012, Lucas arrived at the company and found it strange that his supervisor tried to direct him to a different sector from where he used to work. "And then I found out that there had been a huge fuel leak. As soon as I took over, I picked up the radio and called the last sector. We stopped the company's activities," he says. 

At the end of that morning, Mendonça was informed that he had been transferred to another sector. "I was isolated from all the other workers. The company is charging me 400,000 reais in court because of production losses. At the end of that year, I was suspended. I was out of the company for two years with no salary", he says. 

On June 26, 2013, an outsourced worker who carried out night surveillance at INB dozed off and fell into a basin with a radioactive liquid composed of uranium, sulfuric acid, and other products used in the ore processing system. He survived and is still working at the company. 

According to Mendonça, on another occasion, a worker unblocked a uranium precipitation reactor tube with a rod. After releasing the material, the rod remained hooked, preventing the valve from being closed. He took a shower of highly radioactive material from head to toe. He also survived. 

According to the Movement for Popular Sovereignty in Mining, INB accumulates about 1,200 labor suits in the Labor Court.  

Brasil de Fato contacted the company, who informed that they follow the 1989 Environmental Monitoring Program and that "comparing the data between periods", no alterations were detected "in the levels of chemical and radioactive substances found naturally in the region". 

“Any unusual event that happens at the Unit is reported to licensing bodies (CNEN and Ibama), and the appropriate security and control measures are taken", said the INB in ​​a statement. 

The company also said that the National Nuclear Energy Commission (CNEN, in Portuguese) "has an office within the facility for the agency's resident inspector to work, which demonstrates INB's transparency in these situations." CNEN, a federal agency, is INB's main shareholder: it holds 99.9968% of its shares. 

In 2016, due to complaints made by Sindmine to the Office of the Comptroller General (CGU, in Portuguese), the Federal Public Ministry, and the General Accounting Office, civil servants in important positions at INB were dismissed due to corruption. Among them, was the then Superintendent of Engineering and Quality, Hilton Mantovani Lima. The union denounced that those purchases were being made on behalf of INB for private purposes, such as the paving of the street where the superintendent himself was living. 

Lucas Mendonça received death threats and, until the beginning of the Bolsonaro government, he was in the Program for the Protection of Threatened Victims and Witnesses. "I went through complicated situations. There was a period when I couldn't go out on the street," he explains. 

Public health issues 

Compared to other cities of Bahia state, the cancer rate among the population of Caetité – which has 51,000 inhabitants – is much higher. In November of last year, a hospital specialized in oncology was opened in the city. 

The Federal University of Bahia, working in partnership with the French Commission for Independent Research and Information on Radioactivity, carried out an extensive study on the risks of environmental and human contamination related to uranium exploration in the region. The report was published in 2019. 

The research points out that, annually, women in Caetité die 6.27 times more from lung cancer than in other parts of Bahia. Deaths of men under 50 due to gastrointestinal cancer rose 19 times higher than in other parts of the state. 

The ethnographic part of the research found that there is a great "lack of knowledge about the risks of ionizing radiation", a result of "the lack of information from the mining company". 

The study also analyzed water from 19 wells for human consumption in the communities surrounding the INB: 26.6% had uranium levels above the maximum value allowed by the National Environment Council. 

"The communities of Caetité and Lagoa Real continue to consume contaminated water. The State must take care of the population's health, and its omission involves loss of lives", warns Camila Mandrek. 

For Lucas Mendonça, it is necessary to consider that there are at least 38 uranium anomalies in the region. "Wherever you drill the ground, there's uranium. There's radiation in the ground," he argues. "The cities are old, so the stones in the streets and houses likely have radon. People breathe that material", he considers. 

"Did the company come and make the problem worse? For sure. It opens the rock, takes it out of the bottom, liberates radiation - radon cloud and radioactive material go outside. It got worse with the extraction. The soil where the plant facility is located is completely contaminated by leakage. Does it contaminate groundwater? Yes." he says. "But we have a problem that is not just the company's problem. It's a matter of public health. It's not for anyone to live here, but the government stays far away, just watching," he adds. 

 "May this nuclear program not be made viable"  

Renato Cunha, from the Environmentalist Group of Bahia (Gamba), believes that with the current water crisis in Brazil, the resumption of the Brazilian nuclear plan could gain more strength. For Cunha, the problems in Caetité are "surreal". 

Despite the Bolsonaro government placing "more emphasis" on nuclear energy production, Renato sees the continuity of previous governments' activities. In addition to the resumption of mining in Caetité, for him, the novelty lies in the government's intention to establish nuclear public-private companies. 

“We are part of the Brazilian Anti-Nuclear Articulation, which was created almost 15 years ago. We are in this movement so that this nuclear program does not become viable", says the environmentalist. "We work to prevent them from continuing the exploration in Caetité, the building of plants on the banks of the São Francisco River and the conclusion of Angra 3", he defends: "It's a fight, resistance. Let's see what happens." 

Edited by: Vivian Fernandes