In the last quarter century, Brazil has engaged in back-door, even covert business arrangements to acquire nuclear technology on the world market by increasing its conventional weapons trade with rogue nations and evading inspections by international nuclear weapons authorities. In the 1980s, Brazil was a United Nations problem child due to its flirtation with nuclear proliferation. Now, however, the country has utilized its increasing diplomatic leverage to negotiate a deal that appeases the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) without exposing its unique nuclear technology that Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim claims the country possesses, and that Washington believes is only “producing enriched uranium for pacific purposes.” The exact reason for Washington’s recent strong support of Brazil, despite its past turbulent relationship with the emerging South American giant, is not fully clear, but Brasilia’s desire for a greater role in the global community is no doubt a contributing factor as is Washington’s relative deference to the hemisphere’s candidate for major power status. Even though lately Brazil has cost the White House a good deal of grief over trade-related issues, and in spite of U.S. accusations over Brazil’s nuclear intent and its past disputes with Washington over the issue, the fact that Lula agreed to head the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti and supply over 1,000 troops to the efforts—by far the largest contingent—has won the Brazilian leader a heavy draught of amnesia on the nuclear front. Critics would say that in this respect, Lula entered into a humiliating arraignment with Dr. Faustus.
Whether or not Brazil currently has the capabilities to develop nuclear weapons is unknown. The IAEA said, at the conclusion of its investigation, that a report on Brazil’s recent nuclear developments would be ready by the end of November, but no report as of yet has been released.
A Questionable History
During Brazil’s 1964-1985 era of military rule, episodic remarks, usually made off the record by both military and civilian figures, indicated that Brazil was attempting to develop nuclear technology for military purposes. In 1975, the Brazilian military government abandoned an UN-approved nuclear information and technology sharing agreement with the U.S. in order to receive nuclear technology from West Germany, which allowed for more Brazilian-made components to be incorporated in the nuclear power plants it was installing at the time. Although West Germany was a NATO ally, Washington was less than enthusiastic over the arrangement. Prior to 1975, Brazil’s nuclear technology was used solely to produce nuclear energy, but when Brazil began its association with the West German Kraftwerk Union—a Siemens affiliate that did not require IAEA safeguards until U.S. pressure forced the company to adopt them—the South American country began a secret program to conceivably develop an atomic device, which in 1987, observers foresaw as occurring by 2000.
In addition to its nuclear program, Brazil was a major conventional arms exporter during the 1980s. Because Brasilia was indiscriminate in seeking out clients for its military products, the country was arguably the world’s leading arms trader to human rights violators and rogue nations during this period. In 1984, Brazil’s arms sales hovered around $3 billion, which represented a 600 percent increase over 1980. Along with West German nuclear technology, Washington feared the ramifications of Brazil’s possible exporting of nuclear weapons to countries like Libya and Iraq, both significant customers of Brazil’s conventional arms trade. Even after the military government stepped down in 1985 and Brazil began the transition towards democracy, the selling of weapons to Iraq continued.
Recent speeches by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva are reminiscent of the country’s past dark days. During his 2002 campaign, he expressed his unhappiness over the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which lists Brazil as one of the world’s182 non-nuclear weapon states (non-NWS). Speaking in his man-of-the-people guise, Lula asked, “If someone asks me to disarm and keep a slingshot while he comes at me with a cannon, what good does that do?” As presidential candidate, Lula explained how developing countries who are signatories of the NPT are disadvantaged by its conditions. Whereas NWS are allowed to keep the nuclear technology they already possess, non-nuclear countries are prohibited from developing technology that covertly could be used in nuclear weapons programs, leaving them, in Lula’s words, holding a slingshot and looking down the barrel of a cannon.
Is Brazil Hiding Something?
During Lula’s campaign, a number of members of the U.S. Congress wrote to President Bush “to express [their] concern regarding Mr. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva … and his recent public statement criticizing Brazil’s adherence to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).” The U.S. legislators concluded by requesting that the president direct the State Department to investigate the “potentially serious national security matter” developing in Brazil. The Bush administration chose to ignore the letter, deciding instead to initiate a new diplomatic relationship with Lula centering on Brazil’s decision to lead the UN mission to Haiti.
Renewed suspicion about the nature of Brasilia’s nuclear aspirations arose in 2003 when the Brazilian president refused to allow a comprehensive IAEA inspection of the Resende nuclear facility. Lula said at the time that the denial was merely to protect his government’s coveted technological innovations from theft by outsiders, claiming that these facilities will enrich uranium more efficiently and will operate longer and more economically than other plants. In a November 17 report by National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, a number of specialists denied that Brazil had the means to develop its own advanced enriching technology. Furthermore, nuclear experts like Henry Sokolski, director of the Non-proliferation Policy Education Center, believe that Brasilia may have received its centrifuge from the black market and may want to conceal this. However, Brazilian nuclear scientists stand by their claim that their centrifuge is more technologically advanced than any other currently available, despite withering international skepticism that it is even Brazilian-made.
Brazil is Definitely Hiding Something
In October, after several months of negotiations, Brazil’s Ministry of Science and Technology finally reached an accord with the IAEA to allow for complete inspection of the country’s nuclear facilities, with the exception of the Resende Plant centrifuge. The plant at Resende enriches uranium that the Ministry says fuels Brazil’s two nuclear power plants, which together provide 4.3 percent of the country’s electricity. While Brazil does mine uranium, it is also home to an established reserve of oil and natural gas. These traditional fuels are providing an increasingly reliable source for much of Brazil’s energy needs instead of the interrupted power produced by Brazil’s first nuclear plant, the long-troubled Angra I, or “Firefly.” Despite the questionable virtues of Brazil’s alleged new type of centrifuge, the IAEA and Lula were able to agree on a plan that allowed inspectors to check the pipes leading into and out of the centrifuge, but not the facility itself.
Before IAEA inspectors arrived in Brazil, Secretary of State Colin Powell visited President Lula and Foreign Minister Amorim. In the meeting, Powell announced that they “talked about things having to do with the IAEA, the nuclear issue that has come up in the course of the day. And I reaffirmed to the President and to the Minister that the United States has absolutely no concerns about Brazil doing anything with its nuclear program except developing power in a most controlled, responsible manner.” Upon his return to the United States, Powell reiterated that: “We know for sure that Brazil is not thinking about nuclear weapons in any sense.” In its desire to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Brasilia seems to have won the favor of the United States with only limited kowtowing to the Bush administration through its welcomed role in leading the UN mission to Haiti.
At the conclusion of the inspections, Brazil’s Ministry of Science and Technology told the London-based online news source LatinNews that IAEA personnel had left the Resende plant “satisfied with what they saw.” That publication reported that the IAEA inspectors had finished their tour of Brazilian nuclear facilities and that IAEA would announce their findings by the end of November. But at the end of November, an official with the IAEA told COHA that “Brazil is a continuing issue” and that the agency will carry on its review of its findings until satisfied with the depth and scope of the result. However, the agency could not give a timetable for the release of the final report.
United States, France, Russia, China, the United Kingdom … and Brazil?
Controversy has surrounded Brazil’s nuclear power and research facilities since their inception in the mid 1970s, but given the current information on Brazil’s domestic and international goals, it is safe to assume that, as of now, Brazil is not producing nuclear weapons nor threatening regional stability. Nevertheless, theoretically, Brazil remains an excellent candidate to be a nuclear power, considering the availability of uranium, skilled personnel and the enrichment facility technology that it appears to possess. Fortunately, Brazil’s ambitions to become the Latin American hegemon and a leader of the development bloc in the UN have so far taken precedence over any covert plans to join the nuclear club.