Nuclear Proliferation in Latin America: Is Brazil Developing the Bomb?

By Hans Rühle

Brazil has signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but experts suspect it may be working on a nuclear bomb. The country is allowed to legally enrich uranium for its nuclear submarines, but nobody knows what happens to the fuel once it is on restricted military bases.

Photo Gallery: Atomic in the Tropics Photos

In October 2009, the prestigious American periodical Foreign Policy published an article titled "The Future Nuclear Powers You Should Be Worried About." According to the author, Kazakhstan, Bangladesh, Burma, the United Arab Emirates and Venezuela are the next candidates -- after Iran -- for membership in the club of nuclear powers. Despite his interesting arguments, the author neglected to mention the most important potential nuclear power: Brazil.

Nowadays, Brazil is held in high esteem by the rest of the world. Its president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has become a star on the international stage. "That's my man right here," US President Barack Obama once said, in praise of his Brazilian counterpart. Lula, as he is known, can even afford to receive Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with all honors and demonstratively endorse his nuclear program, for which Iran is now ostracized around the world.

Lula da Silva's self-confidence is indicative of Brazil's claim to the status of a major power -- including in military terms. The military claim is reflected in the country's National Defense Strategy, which was unveiled in late 2008. In addition to the mastery of the complete nuclear fuel cycle -- which has since been achieved -- the document calls for the building of nuclear-powered submarines.

Close to Building a Bomb

It sounds harmless enough, but it isn't, because the term "nuclear-powered submarines" could in fact be a cover for a nuclear weapons program. Brazil already had three secret military nuclear programs between 1975 and 1990, with each branch of its armed forces pursuing its own route. The navy's approach proved to be the most successful: using imported high-performance centrifuges to produce highly enriched uranium from imported uranium hexafluoride, so as to be able to operate small reactors for submarines. At the appropriate time, the country's newly acquired nuclear capabilities were to be revealed to the world with a "peaceful nuclear explosion," based on the example set by India. The 300-meter (984-foot) shaft for the test had already been drilled. According to statements by the former president of the National Nuclear Energy Commission, in 1990 the Brazilian military was on the verge of building a bomb.

But it never came to that. During the course of Brazil's democratization, the secret nuclear programs were effectively abandoned. Under the country's 1988 constitution, nuclear activities were restricted to "peaceful uses." Brazil ratified the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean in 1994 and, in 1998, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. Brazil's flirtation with the bomb had apparently ended.

Under Lula da Silva, however, this flirtation has now been reignited, and the Brazilians are becoming less and less hesitant about toying with their own nuclear option. Only a few months after Lula's inauguration in 2003, the country officially resumed the development of a nuclear-powered submarine.

Even during his election campaign, Lula criticized the NPT, calling it unfair and obsolete. Although Brazil did not withdraw from the treaty, it demonstratively tightened working conditions for inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA). The situation became tense in April 2004, when the IAEA was denied unlimited access to a newly built enrichment facility in Resende, near Rio de Janeiro. The Brazilian government also made it clear that it did not intend to sign the additional protocol to the NPT, which would have required it to open previously undeclared facilities to inspection.

In mid-January 2009, during a meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a group of nuclear supplier countries that works toward nonproliferation by controlling exports of nuclear materials, the reasons for this restrictive policy became clear to attendees when Brazil's representative did his utmost to fight requirements that would have made the nuclear submarine program transparent.

'Open to Negotiation'

Why all this secrecy? What is there to hide in the development of small reactors to power submarines, systems that several countries have had for decades? The answer is as simple as it is unsettling: Brazil is probably also developing something else in the plants it has declared as production facilities for nuclear submarines: nuclear weapons. Vice President José Alencar offered a reason when he openly advocated Brazil's acquisition of nuclear weapons in September 2009. For a country with a 15,000-kilometer border and rich offshore oil reserves, Alencar says, these weapons would not only be an important tool of "deterrence," but would also give Brazil the means to increase its importance on the international stage. When it was pointed out that Brazil had signed the NPT, Alencar reacted calmly, saying it was "a matter that was open to negotiation."

How exactly could Brazil go about building nuclear weapons? The answer, unfortunately, is that it would be relatively easy. A precondition for the legal construction of small reactors for submarine engines is that nuclear material regulated by the IAEA is approved. But because Brazil designates its production facilities for nuclear submarine construction as restricted military areas, the IAEA inspectors are no longer given access. In other words, once the legally supplied enriched uranium has passed through the gate of the plant where nuclear submarines are being built, it can be used for any purpose, including the production of nuclear weapons. And because almost all nuclear submarines are operated with highly enriched uranium, which also happens to be weapons grade uranium, Brazil can easily justify producing highly enriched nuclear fuel.

Even if there is no definitive proof of Brazil's nuclear activities (yet), past events suggest that it is highly likely that Brazil is developing nuclear weapons. Neither the constitutional prohibition nor the NPT will prevent this from happening. All it would take to obtain a parliamentary resolution to eliminate these obstacles would be for Lula da Silva to say that the United States is not entitled to a monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Americas. If that happens, Latin America would no longer be a nuclear weapons-free zone -- and Obama's vision of a nuclear-free world would be finished.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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1. Manipulation and propaganda
Tomas Rosa Bueno 05/07/2010
From unnamed "experts" to the rehashing of old meaningless acts and words as suspicious "new" information, total absence of corroborating evidence, abundance of half-truths and even plain untruths, this articles has all the marks of a political propaganda piece.
GeraldoLino 05/07/2010
Zitat von sysopBrazil has signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but experts suspect it may be working on a nuclear bomb. The country is allowed to legally enrich uranium for its nuclear submarines, but nobody what happens to the fuel once it is on restricted military bases.,1518,693336,00.html
Herr Rühle’s remarks about the Brazil’s alleged intention to become a nuclear military power are preposterous, to say the least. It is indeed regrettable that a knowledgeable person like him, with his background and responsibilities, make use of his accessing to an important public space like Spiegel’s to mud the waters instead of helping to clarify his readers on the real dangers of the sensitive theme of the nuclear proliferation. First of all, Brazil has no use for nuclear weapons that are quite expensive and in any case useless for the kind of conflicts that may be reasonably expected in the next decades. Yes, like many other countries it has the know-how needed to produce them (that is available to good graduate students anyway). But anyone with a perfunctory knowledge of the country knows that, besides the constitutional prohibition of building nuclear weapons, the decision to “nuclearize” its defense strategy not only could not be taken solely by the military but also would be massively rejected by the Brazilian society as a whole. So, please, it is insulting to the readers to say that “it is highly likely that Brazil is developing nuclear weapons”. Second, to suggest that the Brazilian project of a nuclear powered submarine could be used as a disguise for the making of atomic bombs is something bordering bad faith. The uranium enrichment grade needed for submarine reactors is about 20% (the Brazilian one will function with even less than this); the enrichment grade for a nuclear bomb is about 95%. So, it is not correct to say that “because almost all nuclear submarines are operated with highly enriched uranium, which also happens to be weapons grade uranium, Brazil can easily justify producing highly enriched nuclear fuel”. In any case, as the country is a NPT signatory all the Brazilian enrichment facilities are open to the IAEA inspections that can easily detect any improper activity carried out there (unlike in the ones of countries like Israel, whose already enormous nuclear capability has been considerably strenghtened by the brand new Dolphin class submarines built for her by Germany and sold at bargain prices). Third, the real threats to the condition of Latin America as a nuclear weapons-free zone do not come from Brazil or any other country of the region, but from the fact that a nuclear power like the UK still maintains a first class military base in the Malvinas (Falklands) Islands, like a living symbol of a long overdue colonial inheritance. Fourth, Mr Obama’s “vision of a nuclear-free world” would be much better served by means of a serious approach to the dismantling of the vast nuclear powers’ inventory inherited from the Cold War, the abandonment of any attempt to install missile interceptors anywhere and a serious effort towards the total denuclearization of the Middle East, obviously including Israel. In short, such kind of opinions posed by people like Herr Rühle seem to be much more motivated by the old chauvinistic thrust from the powers that used to call the shots in the world stage in order to prevent countries like Brazil to obtain the full technological capabilities made possible by nuclear science and technology. Geraldo Luís Lino Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
3. Die Bombe? Natürlich!
casmaia 05/08/2010
Oh, sure Brazil is trying to get the Bomb. The funniest part was the "proof" of the whole argument: "Even if there is no definitive proof of Brazil's nuclear activities (yet), past events suggest that it is highly likely that Brazil is developing nuclear weapons." That's it, demonstrated, period. Journalism does not get more clueless after that. Maybe this nice piece of hard-fact-based analysis was inspired by the recent role of Brazil in the Iranian case. Or, more probably, it may be that this ex-German Defense Ministry got mad that the German lobby to sell submarines to Brazil (to be transformed in nuclear ones by the Brazilian navy) - the same ones he "denounces" in the article - lost to the France competition. What a pity. Not to mention that the only couple of nuclear power plants Brazil has were bought in the 70's from... Germany. Tell me about selective memory. Brazil is as likely to get the bomb as Germany: today our Constitution explicitly states that this is forbidden. Where does this information was given to the reader...? Oh, it was not. Of course, this is not important: how to trust the Constitution of such a bellicose country!? Tsc, tsc, Brazil gave so much bad examples in the last century...
4. Are you moving from serious journalism to propaganda?
rrtrop 05/08/2010
The last words of this article explain everything: "...and Obama's vision of a nuclear-free world would be finished". Who in this world still believes that Obama has any intention to move towards a nuclear-free world? Whom is it not yet clear that any such a speech just means "a nuclear-free non-USA world", that is to say: "USA as the only nuclear power in the world"? Clearly, the target here are Brazil's efforts towards a true multilateral world, or global democracy, overcoming the idea that the world needs to be led by any a state or folk. And we should never forget that 'leader' is the exact translation of 'Führer'. In Latin America we used to think that Der Spiegel meant serious journalism, contrary to the US press. Why are you putting your whole image at risk now, publishing such an obvious piece of propaganda?
5. The current VNA doctrine, or Voluntary Nuclear Abstinence is essentially flawed
Norberto_Tyr 05/10/2010
The current doctrine preventing nuclear proliferation (VNA or voluntary nuclear abstinence) is essentially flawed since it does consider neither: 1- the collapse of the world order engineered in 1945 at Yalta, nor 2- technological advances useful for building, delivering, sharing and deploying complete weapon systems to allies or potential allies or even partners. Then, VNA suffers from a few flaws that I would like to enumerate here. First, it does not address an obvious work-around, namely the possibility of using the ubiquitous ‘plug-and-play’ technology for nuclear deployment purposes. Lets say that a country that signed the NPT treaty and do not actively pursue uranium enrichment technology can still, having the proper agreements with countries that do posses the technology, legally build delivery weapons with bays and standard connectors to fit plug-and-play ready to use nuclear weapons that can be delivered and deployed in a mater of days or even hours. This hypothetical country would be able to train its personnel either overseas or using simulators. There is nothing in the UN anti nuclear proliferation strategy to prevent this happening. Second, lets call a spade ‘spade’, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a blatant violation of the Geneva Convention since a nuclear weapon is essentially a chemical (gas) one, now, the violators were the winners therefore, who is going to put the bell on the cat's neck? Third, the above digression reminds US that this ‘legalese’ cannot stop the ‘fait accompli’ approach, as demonstrated by Israel. The Iran affair, seems to me like hiding the rubbish under the Persian carpet, we are all entertained and thrilled by this singular case without seen the procession going behind our backs. In fact, a few years ago while, by chance, Israel was purportedly building a nuclear weapon, my daughter was given at primary school an intriguingly large green and white badge saying: “I ran in a race” (which I still posses) during a school carnival. I must tell, adding a bit of context information, that the school was public, and it is located in a Sydney area in which there are a large percentage of caucasian South African people of the Jewish faith enjoying a very high economic standard of living (I have never seen a black African man or woman there). Fourth, the illegal invasion of a compliant country like Iraq utilizing tramped evidence at the UN (Gral. Colin Powell ex Secretary of State of the USA) does not encourage others following the same path. Fifth, on the other hand, Pakistan is proving that nuclear weapons are not the magic solution to all problems since they are been hit by the CIA with impunity using conventionally loaded remote controlled drones on a daily basis, and the Pakistani government have no response to that. In my view, a non nuclear country should be much more alarmed by this trend than nuclear weapons in the vicinity since the closer they are the less likely are them to be used. This statement also poses a question regarding of the use of Israeli nuclear weapons, looking at them under the light of the recent outrage at Dubai in which foreign passports of ‘friendly’ nations were used to violate the sovereignty of a ‘friendly’ nation. None put publicly on the balance of public opinion the question regarding the possibly complicity of passport owners; I would like to do it now since it is relevant. Peaceful medical isotopes can be deadly if are smuggled into a country by rogue elements with internal and foreign support, there is no need for nuclear weapons or even sophisticated delivery systems; then, the question is: are we looking for the dropped keys only were we have light? Sixth, the ‘ouvert’ support of USA providing sensitive technology to non NPT signatories like India does not add much to one of the only two possible strategies regarding the enforcement of voluntary nuclear abstinence: 1- honorable; and 2- the unprincipled. The world, what a surprise, had already chosen the unprincipled strategy from the start, therefore, there is only one best solution: namely achieving a balance of power using what I call “practical politik” since the verb “uninvent” does not exist yet, although we have something similar called “to forget” but it takes either extremely long time to take affect (in the best case scenario), or a huge sudden collapse of a civilization Roman style, in the worst. Norberto
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About the Author
Hans Rühle, 72, was the director of the planning staff in the German Defense Ministry from 1982 to 1988.

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