The Dirty Little Secret: Nuclear Security Issues in Latin America and the Caribbean

Globally, nuclear power has become an increasingly important source of energy, accounting for about 15% of the world’s electricity supply. When it comes to Latin America, 3.1% of electricity comes from this source. However, the nettlesome security issues resulting from utilizing nuclear energy sources largely have been ignored. On March 2008, Colombian authorities discovered that the FARC insurgent movement managed to obtain (it was never clarified from where) 9 kilograms of depleted uranium. Then, in early 2009, the Argentine media reported that an employee of the Baker Atlas Company oil-drilling operation in Neuquen had stolen a canister of nuclear substance Caesium-137, demanding up to US$500,000 in ransom payments from Baker Atlas.

Meanwhile, if Brazil successfully completes the construction of a nuclear-powered submarine — a national security goal since the era of the country’s brutal military junta (1964-85) — the repercussions for regional geo-security could be profound. Reports suggest that countries such as Venezuela and Chile are also currently assessing the benefits of nuclear energy. One can add to this growing list of nuclear issues the ongoing transshipment of nuclear waste from Europe to Japan via the Caribbean and Panama Canal.

At the recently concluded December 2009 Copenhagen Summit, world leaders focused on pressing issues such as deforestation and climate change. Unfortunately, nuclear energy, which is closely linked with environmental issues, was not adequately addressed, especially in regards to Latin America. Nevertheless, the development of nuclear energy is primed to make a significant impact in the region and beyond. Nuclear security, as well as its impact on geopolitics, geosecurity and the dangers of illegal nuclear trafficking, will have to be addressed more directly as Brazil works to realize its plans for its nuclear submarine, and particularly if criminals and insurgents continue to be successful at getting their hands on radioactive material.

Washington seems to be catching on to the likely prospects of nuclear trafficking as proven by its Megaports Initiative, which is aimed at detecting attempts to smuggle potential nuclear and radioactive material through major regional ports. Nevertheless, as inter-state tensions and high levels of violence persistently plague the region, vigilance is required of all nations interested in keeping the use of nuclear energy limited to peaceful ends.

Nuclear Security Incidents and Their Aftermaths

The development of nuclear energy in Latin America could present dramatic security issues, particularly taking into account the potential accidents and incidents that could occur within nuclear plants and other facilities that possess radioactive material. An October 2009 article in the Wall Street Journal reported the ease with which two criminals, one of them a former employee, stole Caesium-137, a radioactive material, from the Baker Atlas Company oil-drilling operation in Neuquen in February of last year.

According to the article, it took “two armed men no more than three minutes to break into an underground bunker in Argentina, swipe a canister of radioactive material and [stage] a quick getaway after tying up the lone security guard on duty at the facility.” Diario Perfil, an Argentine daily, reported that law enforcement officers found the pilfered material and subsequently charged a former Baker Atlas employee with orchestrating the plot. Although the perpetrators demanded $500,000 in return for the canister, ultimately, it seemed that the individuals were more interested in discrediting the company than being part of a grand plot. Nevertheless, the incident raised the question of whether facilities that possess radioactive material have appropriate levels of security.

Before the Argentine incident occurred, on March 1, 2008, the Colombia military raided a secret FARC base, just within the Ecuadorean border, where the second in command, Raul Reyes, was hiding and eventually killed. Files found in Reyes’ laptops made mention of the acquisition of uranium. Some weeks later, informants told the Colombia police the precise location where the material had been stored, outside of Bogota. According to National Police Chief Oscar Naranjo, “FARC are taking crucial steps in the world of terrorism to make themselves known as a great international, global aggressor.”

The newswire Agence France Presse later speculated about the numerous ways the depleted uranium could have been used: “[it] can be used in a ‘dirty bomb’ to disseminate cancer-causing radioactivity […] it has a low-level of radioactivity and can be used to make anti-tank ammunition and aircraft cannons capable of penetrating armor.” However, the experts interviewed by the Spanish news agency EFE maintained that it was highly unlikely that the FARC had the technological equipment and expertise to actually create a dirty bomb. OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza has been quoted as saying, “[the] FARC don’t have the missiles [with the un-enriched uranium] that other groups have. I would doubt that they have the capacity to enrich uranium. But we will look into the matter, of course.” Most importantly, the FARC’s uranium source has yet to be revealed, or the issue resolved.

These incidents in Colombia and Argentina highlight the importance of safeguarding installations where radioactive material traditionally is kept, from nuclear plants to hospitals and mining operations. Any discussion of nuclear security in the region also will require a lengthy inquiry into the security standards of nations with such programs. In an interview with COHA, Pedro Valdivia, a Peruvian nuclear engineer and former employee of the Peruvian Institute for Nuclear Energy (IPEN), explained that nuclear power plants are not the only concern: “several industries and entities (industries, hospitals, mining operations) that use radioactive material which, if combined, would reach enough amounts to make a ‘dirty bomb’ (not from uranium but from other materials).” Valvidia explained that in Peru, “there is not enough security. Many times the radioactive material is treated without enough security and transported by unqualified personnel, it would be all too easy to obtain radioactive material as several staff members, like drivers and security personnel, do not understand the risks.”

On the other hand, experts like Carlos Ampuero, also from IPEN, are more optimistic about the prospects for safeguarding the use of nuclear energy in the region. In an interview with COHA, Ampuero explained that “[for example] the Peruvian nuclear center has worked since the 1980s, during the period of terrorism, and we never had any problems. Physical security is effective and reassuring […] for example, alarms don’t only go off within the installation but also alert friendly forces that can arrive in a few minutes by land and air.”

Is Nuclear Security Catching on?

A July 2008 article in the newswire service Marketwire highlights how Puerto Cortés, the largest port in Central America, located on Honduras’ Caribbean coast, “is the only port in the Western Hemisphere and one of only three in the world currently scanning all inbound and outbound shipments for nuclear substances.” The report quotes Vilma Sierra, Executive President of the Foundation for Investment and Development of Imports (FIDE) of Honduras, as saying, “Honduras is roughly four years ahead of the U.S. congressionally-mandated July 2012 deadline requiring 100 percent of all U.S.-bound containers to be scanned before entry, established by the Security and Accountability for Every Port Act (SAFE) of 2006.”

Washington has taken some positive steps regarding nuclear security in both Latin America and the Caribbean. A November 2008 press release by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced that the agency has provided the Dominican Republic detection and communication equipment for the island’s port of Caucedo. The equipment will be used to detect nuclear and other radioactive materials in vessels passing through the port. Deputy Administrator William Tobey stated, “I am pleased to count the Dominican Republic as another partner in the worldwide effort to prevent nuclear proliferation and terrorism.” Under the umbrella of its Megaports Initiative, the U.S. began similar operations in Port of Kingston in Jamaica in May 2009, and in Mexico’s Port of Veracruz and Port of Lazaro Cardenas in March and July of 2009, respectively.

Nuclear Energy and Plants in Latin America

Though not yet widespread throughout the region, a number of countries including Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico possess reactors that provide their citizens with electricity; Peru and Colombia, the other countries in the region with nuclear capabilities, have not aimed their reactors at energy production, but are currently carrying out low-level research.

Following is a brief description of some of the most relevant developments in Latin American nuclear states.

For a time during the country’s last period of military rule (1976-1983), there were reports that Buenos Aires launched a major nuclear research effort in the southern part of the country, possibly paving the way for a nuclear weapons program. In recent years, after a prolonged period of antagonism, Argentina and Brazil have grown increasingly close when it comes to collaborating on nuclear energy projects. In “Brazil and Argentina’s Nuclear Cooperation,” a January 2009 report for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Argentine security expert Irma Argüello explains that, “this strategic alliance could also turn Brazil and Argentina into global suppliers of enriched uranium and advanced reactors of intermediate power.”

Of course, Buenos Aires is not solely dependent on Brasília for its nuclear initiatives. According to a February 2008 report in Latin America News Digest, Argentina had launched an ambitious nuclear program in 2006 with a budget of approximately $2 billion. The program aims to complete the construction of Atucha II, Argentina’s second nuclear plant, and includes studies on the construction of a fourth nuclear plant, upgrades to the Embalse nuclear plant and the resumption of enriched uranium production.

In 2008, Argentina and Algeria agreed to boost their state cooperation on civil nuclear energy matters during Argentine President Cristina Kirchner’s visit to Algiers. In October 2009, Deutsche Presse-Agenteur reported that Argentina and India signed an agreement based on their mutual cooperation. Jordan, Russia, and Canada, through Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, have all reached comparable agreements during this period. Finally, a May 2009 press release in Marketwire reported that the Argentine government plans to reactivate the Pilcaniyeu uranium enrichment plant, in the province of Río Negro in the southern part of the country.

As a rising global power, Brazil’s nuclear intentions are of particular importance. The country presently has two operating nuclear stations, Angra 1 and Angra 2, and plans for a third. A Business News Americas report in 2009 mentioned that Brasília expects construction for Angra 3 to be completed by May 30, 2015. The country has focused on a partnership with Argentina, including a February 2008 agreement between Brazilian President Lula da Silva and Argentina’s Kirchner to build a uranium enrichment plant. With French help, Brazil is seeking to build its own domestic-made nuclear submarine. Peruvian nuclear engineer Carlos Ampuero explained that “the size of the submarine will depend on the size of the reactor, which will depend on how enriched will the power source be. The consensus is that Brazil on its own can enrich uranium to the standards necessary for a small reactor to function.” It is still unclear how much assistance Paris will provide Brasília for the submarine, both in terms of general design and the reactor itself, but the extend of the cooperation is likely to be considerable.

In 2007, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei, visited Brazil and declared that “our inspectors are here all the time, and they are working in close cooperation with the Brazilian authorities,” stressing that the country’s history of the nuclear program has not been anything like Iran’s and does not present a security threat. “Lately, we see a lot of interest into the expansion of nuclear power because of concerns about climate change, because of the competition for gas and oil, because of the increased need for energy to develop,” ElBaradei told the Associated Press as he toured the plant in Resende, 100 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro.

While Brasília’s decision not to pursue a nuclear weapons program is demonstrably a positive development, the security issues in the Angra plants as well as the pressing possibility of accidents must be addressed. In 1987, a Caesium-137 source (the same type that was stolen in Argentina) was improperly removed from an abandoned clinic in Goiania, Brazil and subsequently ruptured. As a result, four individuals died and 28 suffered radiation burns.

The closest Latin American country to the U.S. has already developed nuclear energy with its Laguna Verde plant, located in the southern state of Veracruz. While there have been plans for expansion, Laguna Verde remains the country’s sole nuclear plant. As early as November 2009, Eugenio Laris, a senior official for Mexico’s state power company CFE, asserted that there is space to build a twin nuclear power plant to further meet the country’s energy needs. Ruben Camarillo, a PAN Senator, made similar statements in March, corroborating such plans.

While Lima possesses a small reactor in Huarangal, the facility is limited to support small research projects rather than provide energy on a large-scale. Peru has ambitions to further develop its nuclear energy capacities, however, and there have been plans to construct additional nuclear facilities. Under an agreement signed during the 14th APEC Leaders’ Meeting in November 2006, Russia pledged to help Peru make advances in areas such as agriculture, health, and nuclear energy, among other sectors. In 2007, the Peruvian Nationalist Party (PNP) submitted a bill to Congress declaring the development and use of nuclear energy as a “necessity” and of “public interest.”

More recently, the Peruvian Institute for Nuclear Energy drafted a bill promoting investment for the generation of nuclear power. According to the president of IPEN, Conrado Seminario, the country is rich in uranium and could begin exporting the ore as early as 2011. Indeed, the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development and the IAEA sponsored an International Uranium Resources Evaluation Project Mission to Peru in 1984. The mission estimated that the country’s speculative resources ranged from 6,000 to 11,000 tons of uranium, though experts interviewed by COHA point out that it may turn out to be more.

Regarding Peru’s rich uranium deposits, Solex Resources Corp., a Canadian-based exploration company, explained in a press release last May that it has purchased all the shares of Minera Frontera Pacifica S.A., meaning that the company “will control 100% of operations taking the place over 904 square kilometers of uranium concessions on the Macusani Plateau in south-eastern Peru.”

The country’s energy agency, Ingeominas, possesses one nuclear reactor called IAN R-1 which was constructed with U.S. help in 1965 and modernized in the 1990s. However, the reactor is only used for research purposes and not for energy production. In June 2008, reports from Bogotá pointed to Colombia’s newfound interest in developing this energy source. At a meeting with Turkish investors, former President Ernesto Samper explained that, “nuclear energy is something we are thinking about. Environmentalists are against this plan, but the increase in fuel prices does not leave many other choices. We are also working on developing biofuels, which today account for 18 percent of all fuel consumed in Colombia.”

Experts estimate that Argentina, Brazil and Peru hold the most uranium deposits in the region. In 2007, Buenos Aires passed a bill which designated an $8 million budget for the country’s atomic energy commission (Comisión Nacional de Energía Atómica, CNEA), to carry out upgrades to the San Rafael uranium complex in the province of Mendoza. According to experts, policies to extract and exploit uranium deposits hinge on cost effectiveness. A Business News Americas report explains that the San Rafael mine, which was opened in the 1970s and produced nearly 1,600 tons of uranium, was shut down in 1995 due to low uranium prices.

Interested States

Several other countries have expressed a desire to develop nuclear energy in Latin America. In May, the Associated Press published a report explaining that the IAEA will aid Ecuador in the exploration of its territory for uranium deposits from 2009 to 2011. Following the trend of other countries, Ecuador signed an agreement with Russia in mid-2009 regarding civilian nuclear cooperation. According to the Colombian news network Caracol TV, the Ecuadorian Minister for Renewable Energy, Esteban Alvornoz, stated in August 2009 that, “cooperation with Russia cannot be measured in monetary terms, but with the benefits of this transfer of technology and science for countries like ours.”

Chile has expressed interest in developing its own nuclear plants, but due to the country’s seismic instability, it is regarded as unsafe to depend upon nuclear energy. In September, Chile’s Energy Minister, Marcelo Tokman, stated that Chile could reduce the costs of its central electricity system by 8.5-10% towards the end of the 2020s by switching to nuclear power. In August, presidential candidate Eduardo Frei announced his intention to have a nuclear plan in place by 2020, and stated, “during my government we will have to create a Nuclear Energy Commission.” Frei is currently a contender in the final run-off election for the presidency.

Venezuela, Brazil, and Iran

While still unclear as to the extent of their exchange of nuclear information, the evolving Brasília-Tehran-Caracas triangle has the potential to become an issue for other Latin American states. This is likely to occur as these countries gain a collateral advantage for carrying out traditional warfare, even if nuclear weaponry remains banned in the region. Hugo Chávez repeatedly has stated his desire to construct a prospering nuclear program. The Venezuelan President, who has made his affinity for Iran no secret, believes the Middle Eastern country’s expertise will allow Venezuela to achieve its nuclear ambitious. An Agence France Presse report notes that, during a visit to Tehran, Chávez stated that Venezuela was working on a preliminary plan for the construction of a “nuclear village” in Venezuela, with Iranian assistance, “so that the Venezuelan people can count in the future with this marvelous resource for peaceful uses.”

Venezuela is not alone in seeking aid from Iran, as neighboring Brazil is also looking for Iran’s support in developing a more ambitious nuclear program. In late November, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Brasília and met with his colleague, President Lula da Silva, where both leaders defended Iran’s right to develop civilian nuclear energy. The debate now rages over the motive behind Lula’s reasoning for defending Iran’s nuclear program. On one hand, it could be that, contrary to the U.S., Lula does not perceive Iran as a global security threat. On the other, he could be seeking technical and productive support from Tehran for Brazil’s own nuclear program, especially regarding the implementation of the French-backed nuclear submarine projects.

Nuclear Waste in the Caribbean

A final nuclear security issue regarding Latin America deals with the ongoing shipment of nuclear waste through Caribbean waters. Occasional shipments originating in countries like France and the United Kingdom carry industrial nuclear waste as they traverse the Caribbean or the Panama Canal on their way to Japan to have it processed. In February 2007, Panamanian environmentalists protested the passage of the ship Sandpiper, owned by the British Nuclear Group, Areva NC, and the Overseas Reprocessing Committee, through the Canal en route to Japan.

These protests, however, still pale in comparison with the turmoil generated by the Pacific Swan, which, on its December 2000 voyage, was carrying eight shipping casks holding 192 half-ton logs of glassified nuclear waste, a byproduct of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel to remove weapons-grade plutonium. The vessel departed from Cherbourg, France for Japan via the southern route around Cape Horn, South America, due to fierce protests by Caribbean basin governments. This routing represented a considerable success on the part of Caribbean mini-states and environmental groups, as they managed to force this vessel and its dangerous cargo from sailing through their local waters. In addition, the publicity resulting from its detour around Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America, brought a heightened awareness of the dangers of such shipments to the Southern Cone nations of Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile, which also began to voice their concern over the Swan’s proposed route through their adjacent waters.

Should Tlatelolco be Revisited?

The continued applicability of the Treaty of the Tlatelolco is another important aspect of nuclear security to be considered. Signed and ratified in 1967, this treaty between Latin American and Caribbean nations created a nuclear weapons-free zone in the region. The treaty also established a monitoring agency, the Agency for Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (OPANAL) with headquarters in Mexico City, to ensure that the signatories abided by the treaty’s stipulations. Should nuclear plants begin to expand throughout Latin America and eventually be used to power military equipment, Tlatelolco would have to be revisited in order to update the pact in line with ongoing, and at times fast-breaking, developments. At a November 2009 meeting between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his Chilean counterpart Michelle Bachelet, the two leaders issued a joint statement declaring, “the presidents noted the important role of the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean.” While such rhetoric carries little weight, if any at all, the treaty has not being completely ignored by policymakers. Not all Latin American countries are signatories to the treaty, with Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago, Dominica, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Guatemala all declining to sign to date, and with Venezuela ratifying it only in 2002.

If the nuclear-powered submarine project comes into being, this could provide a major advantage to the Brazilian military should a conflict occur with a neighboring country. In contacting OPANAL, the author was advised to instead contact the Argentine-Brazilian Agency of Accountability and Control of Nuclear Weapons (Agencia Brasileño-Argentina de Contabilidad y Control de Materiales Nucleares, ABACC) and the Regional Cooperation Agreement for the Promotion of Nuclear Science and Technology in Latin America (Acuerdo Regional de Cooperación para la Promoción de la Ciencia y Tecnología Nucleares en América Latina, ARCAL). Neither ABACC nor ARCAL responded to requests for interviews.

Peruvian nuclear engineer Valdivia maintains that while a nuclear-powered submarine would be a heady boost to the Brazil’s national ego, it would be enormously expensive to maintain, particularly if the country does not currently face a credible outside threat. He argued that because a nuclear submarine is not necessarily a nuclear weapon, no revision to the Tlatelolco Treaty is required. He added, “Furthermore, new technology will allow for the detection of such silent submarines, which will take the ‘edge’ off their importance […] one lonely nuclear submarine without nuclear weaponry is simply a an insupportable luxury for the Brazilian military.”


The Copenhagen Summit itinerary indicated that only two meetings focused on nuclear energy: a discussion by the European Nuclear Society and “False promises of nuclear energy,” organized by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. It seems that none of the attending countries and organizations see nuclear security issues as a compelling issue confronting the international community, particularly as they pertain to Latin America.

Given the extensive history of unfulfilled nuclear plans in the region, it is far from clear that the possible construction of a nuclear submarine by Brazil should be regarded as the dawn of a new nuclear century for Latin America. If all goes according to plan, the submarine will be fully operational in 2015, at the earliest. Countries like Venezuela, Chile, and Ecuador have expressed varying degrees of interest in developing their own nuclear energy projects, but it remains to be seen if they can harness their natural and human resources and gather the massive funds required to carry these ambitious plans to fruition.

Latin America today is a region with dangerous levels of violence, and though inter-state warfare remains mercifully scarce, developing nuclear infrastructure may not merit the security risks or potential for accident. The Argentine and FARC incidents appear to have been isolated events, though there is always the concern that they could become more common place, particularly in view of plans for more nuclear energy plants and more nuclear waste passing through the Caribbean. Washington seems to be realizing the magnitude of these potential dangers, as exemplified by its efforts to ensure nuclear security in the region through the Megaports Initiative. The question remains, however, whether regional governments are prepared to deal with minor but still dangerous nuclear incidents, such as the detonation of a Caesium-made dirty bomb or the incorporation of nuclear-powered vessels into the next wave of military acquisitions.