RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil inaugurated its first nuclear power plant Thursday, a reactor so plagued with engineering failures that the start of operations was delayed seven years.
Because of the delays, the cost for the 626-megawatt light-water reactor rose from an originally estimated $300 million to at least $1.5 billion. Final payments to Westinghouse, the reactor's maker, have been delayed pending the issuance of a license for regular commercial operation by the Brazilian Atomic Energy Commission.
After being shut down twice last year for leaks in the refrigeration system, the reactor has now been operating at full capacity for a month, and Energy Minister Cesar Cals led an official inauguration ceremony Thursday at Angra dos Reis, 50 miles south of this metropolitan area of 10 million people.
Program Is Controversial Brazil's nuclear energy program is a subject of major local controversy, spurred by criticism of the Westinghouse project and even more so by the heavy cost of the country's nuclear energy agreement with West Germany, under which two more reactors are under construction.
Just next to the Westinghouse reactor--which is called Angra I--the first two West German reactors, 1,300-megawatt plants designed by Deutsche Kraftwerk Union, are in the preliminary stages of construction.
Dario Gomes, president of Nuclebras, the state atomic energy company, has said that Brazil must spend $800 million a year through the rest of this decade to finish the two German plants by 1989 and 1990, respectively.
But with Brazil carrying the burden of a $100-billion foreign debt and with large investments in hydroelectric dams, such as that in Itaipu, the world's largest, now coming into the electric supply line, critics of the nuclear program say that it should be halted.
President-elect Tancredo Neves, a civilian who will take office March 15 after 21 years of military rule in Brazil, has said that the West German accord should be restructured but not abandoned.
Despite budget restrictions that cut heavily into spending on education, health and housing, the outgoing administration of President Joao Baptista Figueiredo allocated more than $800 million to the nuclear program. This was a reduction from $1.3-billion annual outlays until 1982, but it was still the highest single item in the government's investment program.
Argentina is the only other country in Latin America that has nuclear power plants in operation. Two reactors, one of West German design and the other Canadian, are generating power, and a third plant is under construction.
The Brazilian agreement with West Germany was reached in 1974 after negotiations broke down with the United States for a full-scale Brazilian nuclear program. Brazil had refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to accept U.S. demands for control over American-supplied fuel.
The funds allocated to the nuclear program are not only for construction of the two West German plants--called Angra II and III--but also for a uranium enrichment plant at Rezenda, about 50 miles north of here, where Brazilian yellowcake, a uranium oxide, is to be enriched by a joint West German-Brazilian process to provide fuel rods for the reactors. This process is still at the stage of a pilot project, but Brazilian officials said recently that enrichment on a commercial scale will begin in 1986.
The original agreement with West Germany called for construction of eight 1,300-megawatt reactors by 1995, but contracts have been signed for only two of the reactors because the cost of the program has grown too high for Brazil's depleted finances to support.