Magazine article Arms Control Today

Brazil's Nuclear History

Magazine article Arms Control Today

Brazil's Nuclear History

Article excerpt

Over the last 60 years, political and military rivalry with Argentina colored Brazilian politics and national identity. In the nuclear arena, mastery of all applications of the atom was equated with political mastery of the Southern Cone and beyond.

In August 2005, former Brazilian President José Sarney confirmed that more than two decades ago the Brazilian military had sought to develop nuclear weapons to counter political and military competition from Argentina. More surprisingly, a former president of the Brazilian atomic energy agency recently claimed that the military allegedly continued to develop a nuclear bomb after the program had been terminated by Brazilian President Fernando Col lor de MeIIo. He said the military had even obtained sufficient enriched uranium from an unspecified source, a claim vehemently denied by the current Brazilian government.1

Brazilian scientists began experimenting with nuclear fission in the 1930s, but efforts began in earnest after Argentina's president, Juan Perón, made the stunning and false claim in 1951 that his country's scientists had mastered thermonuclear fusion in the laboratory.2 In response, Brazil created a nuclear research program under Conselho Nacional de Pesquisas (CNP), its national research council.

Two years later, a CNP agent secretly persuaded several West German scientists to manufacture several centrifuge machines clandestinely, an operation reminiscent of the Abdul Qadeer Khan nuclear black-market network. Delivery of those centrifuges was thwarted by British occupation authorities acting in concert with the United States.3 However, some sources report that Brazil acquired three German centrifuges in the 1950s.4 Brazil also reportedly sought but did not obtain uranium gaseous-diffusion assistance from the French.

Like Iran today, Brazil had an ambitious vision for developing nuclear energy. A 1955 nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States under the Atoms for Peace Program facilitated the purchase of several research reactors. In 1971, Brazil obtained its first power reactor, the 626-megawatt Angra-1, from Westinghouse, which began commercial operation in 1985.5 It was a 197S agreement with West Germany for a complete nuclear fuel cycle, however, that stunned the world. The West German deal included two power reactors and plans for six more, as well as plants for uranium processing, conversion, enrichment, and reprocessing. Brazil's determination to obtain a complete nuclear fuel cycle quickly can be traced to the oil shocks of 1973, military and technological competition for prestige with Argentina, and the Nixon administration's announcement that it would soon shut the order books for future supply contracts for enriched fuel.

The West German deal, however, provoked a strong negative U.S. reaction, particularly in the wake of India's 1974 "peaceful" nuclear test. Although the United States was unable to prevent the deal entirely, it persuaded West Germany to require bilateral safeguards on the technology it transferred. By 1978 the U.S. Congress passed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act, which made full-scope safeguards a prerequisite for sigi nificant nuclear transfers, thus closing off U.S. supply.6

In the end, the Brazilian-West German deal produced modest results compared to its original scope. Construction of Angra-2 and -3 fell monstrously behind schedule and overbudget. The German "Decker jet-nozzle" enrichment technology, experimental at best, proved unworkable in practice; and a pilot cascade at Resende was ultimately shut down before uranium was enriched. Only Angra-2 was completed, which began operating in 2000. By 2002, nuclear power provided just 4 percent of Brazil's total electricity production.7

Brazil's Parallel Program

Brazil's increasing dependence on foreign equipment and material and the restrictions of international safeguards attached to the German transfers, as well as the suspicion that the jet-nozzle process would enrich little but German pockets, worried and frustrated the military leadership. …

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