SAO PAULO, May 27 (Reuters) - Brazil is considering an expanded role for private companies in nuclear power generation, as it looks to meet rising electricity demand and provide backup for a hydro system pushed to its limits, Energy Minister Eduardo Braga said on Wednesday.
Braga, who calls nuclear power "a necessity but not a priority," wants up to four new reactors to provide dry season backup for huge hydroelectric dams being built in Brazil's Amazon region.
In response to environmental concerns, these dams have much smaller reservoirs than previous plants, meaning they can only operate at full capacity during wetter parts of the year.
The government wants to speed up construction of power plants and transmission lines after delays and a drought hit the country's generation system, which depends on hydropower plants for about two-thirds of its needs.
"The Angra 3 nuclear power station under construction west of Rio will be the last to be built as a public-works project," he told reporters at an energy conference in Rio. "The next power station will be built by the private sector."
The government would be willing to consider a possible role for private investors in the operation of nuclear stations, which is now the exclusive right of Eletronuclear, a subsidiary of state-run utility Centrais Eletricas Brasileiras SA , he said.
The government and Eletrobras, as the state utility is known, is investigating 21 sites as possible locations for the four planned nuclear reactors. It plans to allow private-sector companies to bid for the construction of those reactors with financing guarantees of future revenues.
The Angra 3 plant, the latest reactor at the country's only nuclear power facility west of Rio de Janeiro, is under construction after a more than two-decade delay.
Braga also said Brazil, which has one of the largest reserves of uranium in the world, can become self-sufficient in enriched uranium to fuel its future nuclear-power system.
Brasilia has distributed licenses for new projects of all types, including gas- and coal-fueled thermal plants, as well as wind and solar parks. (Reporting by Jeb Blount; Additional reporting by Rodrigo Viga Gaier; Writing by Marcelo Teixeira; Editing by Alan Crosby)