Ep 240: Marcel Biato - Permanent Representative of Brazil, IAEA
From Diplomat to Nuclear Representative (0:48)
0:48-7:18 (Marcel Biato explains how a career in diplomacy prepared him for work in the nuclear industry and the unique challenges that come with it)
Q: Where did you learn about nuclear energy to begin with?
A: Marcel Biato is a career diplomat, which holds the fundamental challenge of being an observer of the dynamics of the politics of things and of people. Marcel has worked on such issues related to war and peace, promoting development, military affairs, international law, and human rights. In the nuclear field, one can use their professional experience as a catalyst in helping to bring about fundamental changes in the industry. Some changes needed in the nuclear industry are in perception, making people appreciate what has been achieved, and in risks, and how they can be overcome to the benefit of the population. Marcel’s diverse background as a diplomat prepared him well for his current role as the Permanent Representative of Brazil to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Marcel’s father was a diplomat, but Marcel has always been interested in history, culture, and language. He was born in Argentina, but moved around the globe frequently while growing up and throughout his career, including places such as South Africa, Brazil, the United States, Holland, Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Bolivia.
At this moment, one of the fundamental challenges that Brazil is facing is making the economy more competitive. Gas in Brazil is about six times as expensive in the U.S. and three times more expensive than Europe because of the cartels. The idea that the state accumulates resources and dishes it out in a strategic mechanism is common in Latin America, but it must be open to society and entrepreneurs are needed to get things done. The current system focuses resources and decides where they go, which is very inefficient. Nuclear in Brazil is one of the first industries attempting to open up to the public. Mining is going to be open to the private sector and Angra 3 is going to be finished with foreign corporation resources.
Brazil’s International Nuclear Relationships (7:18)
7:18-14:50 (How Brazil is opening up the previously State-run nuclear industry to private companies and the history between Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear programs)
Q: What are some of the things that structurally need to change? Because nuclear has previously been the domain of the State. Do laws need to change in order to make it more open?
A: Marcel Biato’s first step to making the Brazilian nuclear industry open, which has already been taken, is identification of the gaps and structural constraints. A fundamental challenge in Brazil is to make good on the fundamental advantages the country has. Brazil is ranked in the top ten countries in the world for available uranium resources and the country has mastered the fuel cycle. However, there is difficulty getting uranium out of the ground, through the fuel cycle, and into Brazilian power plants. Most of the gaps are structural, legislative, and related to financial or public opinion difficulties. The fundamental challenge is to make the nuclear fuel cycle commercially viable. The first step is to open up the mining and deal with the environmental and institutional issues related to making the mine work. Infrastructure must be built to deal with the gasification, which requires funding, so the mining must work, and Angra 3 is required to provide enough demand to the whole cycle.
Brazil currently exports low enriched uranium to Argentina. Argentina is well-developed in producing research reactors and is helping Brazil in the design phase of Brazil’s multipurpose reactor. Argentina exports its research reactor knowledge to other countries as well. Both Argentina and Brazil do a lot of trade, but also has a lot of cooperation in the nuclear industry. Brazil has The Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC), a bilateral safety regime under the IAEA. Brazilian technicians go do inspections in Argentinian nuclear facilities and provide oversight of its nuclear facilities, and Argentina does the same of Brazil. These two countries were economic and military rivals in the past, but the process of regaining democracy in both places was an accommodation of this rivalry. There was an agreement between the two regimes that nuclear would be developed for peaceful purposes only, with joint oversight. This was a fundamental plank on which democracy could consolidate.
Applications of Small Modular Reactors (14:50)
14:50-21:16 (Marcel shares the current state of Brazil’s Naval nuclear propulsion system and how new nuclear technology can provide base load power across the country)
Q: Do the relationships and infrastructure that come with the spread of nuclear power discourage nuclear weapons?
A: Brazil is developing a nuclear Navy propulsion system. Some people see this as a proliferation risk, but Marcel Biato sees this nuclear energy technology for global governance. The U.S., as a global power, provides global maritime trade protection. The global good Brazil can offer with this nuclear propulsion technology combats privacy, provides support, safe travel, research of the sea bed, and other applications. Nuclear industry needs to be developed in Brazil so it can continue to be constructive. This technology started with the Navy, but can branch out and spin off into other possibilities. The Brazilian Navy is developing a small modular reactor as a nuclear propulsion drive system. Brazil as a country has continental dimensions in which significant parts of the country are sparsely populated. This makes it very expensive to provide energy.
Russia has a similar problem, so it started exploring oil in Siberia. It is too far to build gas pipelines, so they are putting floating nuclear plants in the area, using nuclear energy to extract oil. One advantage of this model, from Brazil’s point of view, is that it would provide sustainable energy in remote areas without long transmission lines. Brazil also, in a way, follows the German model of pursuing alternative fuels like solar and wind. This has created an integrated, continental-sized grid and in certain parts of Brazil with lots of wind have created modules around wind generation. However, wind generation is not base load; it is intermittent and fluctuations have been noticed in the grid. These sources currently make up around 15% of the country’s energy and are concentrated in certain areas, which has become a problem. These sources can be combined with nuclear to provide base load and intermittent renewable power. Because of the innate advantages and flexibility of small modular reactors, they are able to ramp up and down to accommodate fluctuations in other sources. In the short term, a triad of these energy sources of energy could provide generating capacity in an integrated platform.
Future of Nuclear Energy in Brazil (21:16)
21:16-31:48 (Why small modular reactors are attractive to Brazil and how the country is focusing on making the technology accessible)
Q: I heard the other day Brazil is at 2-3% nuclear power right now with plans to double. Why not make it ten times as much since it is that base load power? A stable grid normally has 40, 50, 60% of its power as base load power.
A: Politicians must be prudent when planning the future of the electrical grid. Solar and wind energy can be combined with nuclear to provide base load and intermittent renewable power. Because of the innate advantages and flexibility of small modular reactors, they are able to ramp up and down to accommodate fluctuations in other sources. In the short term, a triad of these energy sources of energy could provide generating capacity in an integrated platform. Ultimately, an electrical grid has to be transitioned and go through processes. The plan must be sold to a varied audience. If Brazil can aim for 6% in the next ten, fifteen, or twenty years, that will be very good. Small modular reactors will eventually come off a conveyor belt and be small, industry-made products. This will reduce the problem of decommissioning, capital will be smaller, and risks will be smaller, similar to the trends seen when wind and solar energy generation went to a manufactured model.
Going back to the 17th century, knowledge became science, but there was a fragmentation of knowledge which turned into individual sciences, including the hard sciences and soft sciences. What’s happening now is the reverse, a process of recrystallization or reunification of all knowledge because everything is nuclear in origin. Scientific knowledge today brings one back to the nuclear atomic energy of everything that is. In a way, we are shrinking back to the essential of nuclear science.
Marcel Biato believes that people are pragmatic and, when results are there, people will reluctantly give up their prejudices and preconceptions. Nuclear energy is moving at a significant rate and new applications of nuclear energy are inevitable. The challenge today, in a country like Brazil, is to make sure the nuclear applications are available to so many people. It is unacceptable that, today in Brazil, only 20% of the population has access to nuclear medicine, because it is expensive and people don’t know about it. A conversion process of nuclear applications becoming more widely available allows people to gain a broader understanding of what nuclear actually is and the wider implications. Also, kids need to be educated about nuclear energy. Children learn values early in life and the fear of nuclear can be overcome by starting at young ages. There is a whole other range of issues that have to do with disarmament and safeguards. Globally, there has not been any progress in terms of multilateral cooperation regarding safety and defense. The only significant international agreement promoting global peace and stability in the nuclear field is the JCPA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), or the Iran Deal, which is now in a challenging state. While peaceful uses for nuclear must be at the forefront of the agenda, the need for disarmament is so important.