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Radiation accident turns spotlight on Brazil's nuclear program

Brazil's nuclear program has come under intense scrutiny in the wake of an accident earlier this fall that was the world's worst since Chernobyl. The nuclear-related accident also pointed out some of the dangers of use of nuclear technology in the third world, where poverty and lack of education can increase safety risks.

The accident occurred when Wagner Mota Pereira, a junkman, broke into an abandoned cancer clinic. He had never seen anything like the huge radiotherapy machine he found there. Mr. Pereira and a co-worker broke up the machine so they could carry it off and sell its parts.

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Inside a one-ton lead capsule they found a cylinder of cesium 137, a highly dangerous radioactive substance. Fascinated by the cylinder's bluish glow, they broke it open. Over the next several days, family, neighbors, and friends played with the ``magic'' powder.

The result: 42 people are suffering the effects of intense radiation, more than 100 have had to leave their homes permanently, and two people have died.

``They were like kids,'' says Roberto Hukai, a Sao Paulo energy consultant. ``When I was a child, growing up in the country, we killed fireflies to rub their liquid on our clothes, because it was beautiful. It shone at night. This is what they did.''

Mr. Hukai, who grew up to become the second Brazilian to receive a degree in nuclear engineering (from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), noted that the money Pereira probably thought he could get for the machine might have been more than half his monthly income.

What probably motivated the junkmen's theft was their poverty, a condition shared by the bulk of Brazil's 130 million people.

Pereira did in fact sell machine parts to junk dealers around Goi^ania, a city of more than 1 million. As a result, the radiation spread so much that helicopters had to be used to map the dangerous sites. During the two weeks before anyone guessed the source of the symptoms Pereira and others were suffering from, hundreds of people were exposed to radiation.

Worse, even when it was clear that radioactivity was the problem, government technicians and health professionals did not have the proper training or equipment to protect themselves. Basic materials, such as plastic gloves and head and foot gear, had to be bought on the spot.

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Brazilian scientists say the accident has damaged Brazil's image, an image already tarnished by the country's inability to pay its foreign debt and the woes of its unstable economy.

``The world was forgetting that Brazil is still an underdeveloped nation, with lots of poverty ... that the power of Brazil resides among [a small percentage] of the population, who have made Brazil the eighth economy of the world,'' Hukai says.

Brazil's nuclear program is coming under renewed scrutiny. In September, just before the accident, President Jos'e Sarney proudly announced that Brazilian scientists have mastered the full cycle of producing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. A low-profile program is also developing technology for a nuclear-powered submarine. But now there are fresh doubts.

``We will need a big effort on the part of the Brazilian government to create [new] confidence in Brazilian technicians, that they can deal with the equipment in a competent manner,'' says Jos'e Goldemberg, a nuclear physicist and dean of the Univeristy of Sao Paulo. That effort, he and others suggest, should include the creation of an independent national regulatory commission, such as exists in the United States. Now the National Nuclear Energy Commission is responsible for regulatory compliance and for the development of nuclear technology.

Brazil doesn't need nuclear technology for energy, because it has lots of hydroelectric power. Nevertheless, the recently ended military government began installing a series of foreign-built reactors in the 1970s, in Angra dos Reis, not far from Rio de Janeiro.

Opposition to the single completed reactor, nicknamed ``firefly'' because its now obsolete equipment only works some of the time, has gained a bigger voice after the Goi^ania accident. Environmentalists and the mayor of Angra dos Reis have long said that an emergency evacuation of the reactor would be impossible. And the country has only 12 hospital beds designated for victims of nuclear accidents.

After Goi^ania, the state government of Rio de Janeiro asked for federal funds to improve the transportation network near the rural seaside reactor site.

The accident has brought on a dispute over where to dispose of the growing amount of material that has come into contact with the cesium, the lead pieces, or the victims themselves.

Brazil and most other countries are very careful when it comes to the radioactivity of nuclear reactors, Brazilian scientists say. Personnel are trained in Europe or the US. But this is not the case for other areas where nuclear energy is used, such as medicine, industry, and agriculture.

It is unclear who is to blame for the Goi^ania accident - the junkmen, the clinic's owners, the state government, the National Nuclear Energy Commission, or all of these. But Brazilian scientists agree that the use of nuclear energy must be taken more seriously.

In Goi^ania, the doctors who owned the clinic had moved to another location. They left the machine behind because it was obsolete. But there were guards, and locks on the doors. Apparently the National Nuclear Energy Commission didn't know about the existence of the machine, or didn't do anything to remove it to a safer place, as regulations require. At some point, the guards weren't there any more. And Pereira broke the lock.

``Human life doesn't have the same value as in the United States,'' says Mr. Goldemberg. ``There are so many poor people that ... survival is more important than obeying small rules. ... You can be tolerant of people who don't stop at red lights in traffic, but not with something as dangerous as radioactivity.''