home Latin America, national security, non-proliferation, sanctions, Western Hemisphere Proliferation of Nuclear Technology in Latin America Continues

Proliferation of Nuclear Technology in Latin America Continues

Brazil and Argentina to Build a Nuclear Sub, Latin America’s First 

On December 15, 2007 in the northeast Brazilian City of Natal, Latin America’s two leading nuclear power generating countries – Argentina and Brazil – made some history.   At Brazil’s space launch facility at Barriera do Inferno (e.g., Barrier of Hell), the two countries successfully launched a research rocket into outer space and retreived it after launch.   The nine minute forty second flight was hailed as a success by officials from both countries and there are plans for more launches.

Brazil has had a robust rocket propulsion program for many years and this was not the first time its space agency successfully launched a rocket.  Seeking to tap the growing commercial space launch market, Brazil has been pursuing a competitive edge in this arena for many years.  However, it appears as if it is the first time that two Latin American powers have co-launched a rocket that may have included military experiments.   The cooperation is rooted in a 1983 agreement between both countries that has undergone various phases and being implemented now.

Argentina reportedly has no active rocket propulsion program and its former ballistic program, Condor, was dismantled in the 1990s.   In fact, Argentina has had to depend on third party launch facility to put satellites into orbit for many years. 

Now all of this would not really be “news” if it were just about commercial launches.  Yet, if it were just about rockets and satellites why pen this piece?  While common knowledge in teh region and to those in Washington who follow these matter, both countries also operate several civilian nuclear power reactors.  Rockets, nuclear reactors, and adavnced nuclear research should be cause of highetened concern especially when in our hemisphere.  While both Argentina and Brazil are parties to various non-proliferation platforms and treaties, doubts remain in some sectors about transparency and overall commitment to these efforts. 

In a now well-known statement before he became President, Brazil’s Lula da Silva was asked after a speech before military officers if he would honor treaty commitments not to build nuclear weapons.  Da Silva’s response was that “if someone asks me to disarm and keep a slingshot while he comes at me with a cannon, what good does that do?”  He never clarified what he meant by “disarm”. 

While by most accounts Brazil appears to be honoring its non-proliferaiton obligations, every now and then a Brazilian official will say something raises red flags.  In November 2007 for instance a four star Brazilian General, the former head of the Brazilian War College, said on television that “if the government agrees, we need to have the ability in the future to develop nuclear weapons.”  Again, as with da Silva’s statement in 2002,  it is a not-so-subtle statement that the development a nuclear weapons program remains of interest within the Brazilian military. 

While it barely registered a blip in U.S. media, the announcement of the construction of Latin America’s first nuclear submarine could result in another Brazilian/Argentine milestone.  Just a few days ago, Argentina and Brazil announced a new program to develop the region’s first nuclear submarine.   According to Brazil’s Minister of Defense,  both countries have “agreed to create a bi-national company to develop the compact small-sized reactor” for use on board of a submarine.  The same official added that the cooperation will assist both countries to develop new nuclear power plants.   The French have some role in the project although it is not clear from public sources what that role shall be, if any. 

Fortunately, non-proliferation in the Western Hemisphere has not been a major issue in recent years although there are pockets of concern.  U.S. leadership, regional controls under the guise of the Treaty of Tlatelolco processes, and a seemingly genuine interest by a majority of the countries in the region to control the spread of nuclear weapons and technology has been the norm.   Without a dount, U.S. leadership in this arena has been a primary driver of ensuring that these weapons and its technologies do not become a problem for the U.S. and our allies. 

While the aforementioned items related to Argentina and Brazil should not set off alarm bells, it should be cause for some concern.  Some oberservers I’ve discussed this issue with suggest that beneath it all, the Argentine-Brazilian rivalry is always there and the two powers are just putting differences aside for larger, regional common goals such as a new seat for Latin America on the United Nations Security Council.   Possible.

While these recent and other related activites raise more questions about how serious these countries may be about non-proliferation, both countries appear to have complied with the letter of non-proliferation agreements and prouncements during the past few years.  But concerns remain no doubt and in a post-09.11.01 world closer attention may be warranted.

Consider the following facts.  Brazil has one of the largest uranium reserves in the world, and Argentina also has access to uranium albeit not at the scale of Brazil.   Both countries have refining capacity.  Brazil maintains relations with Iran and has received significant technical support for its propulsion program from China and Russia.  Most pointedly, in the recent past Brazil has blocked international inspections of all of its nuclear program. 

As clearly demonstrated by the cases of North Korea, Pakistan, and India, the U.S. cannot always take at face value the many promises made by developing countries that civilian nuclear programs are being used solely for civilian purposes.  A nuclear weaponized country in Latin America is clearly not in the U.S. interest, just think of the Cuban Missile Crisis minus the Soviets, except this time the weapons would be there to stay.   Recently, even Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez has hinted that Venezuela may begin to pursue a civilian nuclear program of its own.

If Brazil and Argentina want to pursue nuclear technology and space launch programs for commercial and civilian purposes, so be it.  It should clearly say so.  However, building nuclear submarines and denying international inspectors access to facilities, among other things, is a far cry from confidence-building measures.  Both countries should be called on it.  If they have nothing to hide, no problems right?

Copyright © Jason Poblete,  All Rights Reserved

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