Uranium in Latin America

Who is Doing What, Where is it Going? 

I received several calls last week from reporters and colleagues recalling past conversations regarding nuclear proliferation and related concerns in the Western Hemisphere.  Folks skeptical when they first heard of this issue as it relates to the sleepy Americas, were now scratching their heads.  Prompted by reports by Colombian authorities that the FARC sought uranium for bomb-making, uranium trafficking was the last thing these people thought a group of jungle-based terrorists in South America would want or need.  Never underestimate the lengths to which the enemies of freedom will go to make a point, especially in a post-09/11/01 world.

Once U.S. authorities decipher and authenticate the materiel seized from the FARC, we should have a better understanding of the FARC’s use and interest in such things.   But what of the uranium in Latin America and how did FARC officials almost manage to come about 50 kilos of the stuff?   Will we ever know if they did?  We should.   It is not as if we can control every region where you can mine it, but are the safeguards in place to ensure that we have a general idea who is doing what and with whom?  Let’s take a quick tour through the region and point out several countries of interest. 

In May 2006, Brazil opened its first uranium enrichment plant and is reportedly producing the same type of fuel that Iran needs in its for its nuclear weapons quest.  Blessed with vast uranium reserves, Brazilian officials claim that it is for peaceful purposes and that the fuel will supply Brazilian and Argentine civilian nuclear reactors.   While Brazil’s Constitution bans nuclear weapons and the export of enriched uranium; and the country is also party to various non-proliferation agreements, words and deeds also inform a debate.  To this end, Brazilian officials have recently stated that weapons research in this field should be available to the military.  And, as the Ecuador and Venezuela cases illustrate, constitutions in Latin America are somewhat easily amended these days. 

Another potential uranium hot spot is Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela.   Since about 2005, Chavez and the military have allegedly sought nuclear technology from Argentina, Brazil, and, logically, its staunch ally Iran.  While no were near Brazil’s numbers,  Venezuela has uranium deposits and reportedly, a few operable mines.  Venezuelan officials have denied that there are any reserves but, in the same breath, say they are “not excavating these deposits for enrichment purposes.”  Fortunately, Venezuela does not possess the capability to enrich any uranium.  Is it selling any of it to Iran though and what are their future plans to develop that market in Venezuela?

Some of the the other countries in the region with uranium mining projects include Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Guyana, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay.  It stands to some reason that just because a country mines uranium, does not make it a problem.  Processing weapons-grade uranium is not easy or cheap.  Yet why was the FARC allegedly trafficking in it and who was the supplier? If they are exporting any of it, who was the ultimate end-user? 

And what of Iran? In the larger scheme of things the more likely uranium enrichment partner in the region for Iran is Venezuela.  There have been allegations for about two years in this town that something is amiss in this relationship, including the uranium matter, but nothing concrete has ever really surfaced.   For now, we know that Venezuela gave the FARC $300 million and the FARC purchased uranium.   We also know that Cuban intelligence services have been supporting the FARC.  If the FARC was going to make a dirty-bomb or similar device, it was doing so with the support of state sponsor of terror Cuba, and Cuba’s ally, Venezuela.

As I said previously, never underestimate the lengths to which the enemies of freedom will go to make a point, especially in a post-09/11/01 world.  This includes the leaders of countries in the Americas on quixotic crusades such as supporting terrorist groups that seek to overthrow the government of a staunch U.S. ally, Colombia.  This may not pose a direct threat on the U.S., but the detonation of a nuclear device in the Western Hemisphere by such a group will have devastating consequences beyond the immediate threat to human life.  

We need to ascertain with reasonably certain the origin of the uranium sale to the FARC and, for future purposes, work with countries to control or track the sale of such items.  It is in cases such as these that the importance of expanding cooperation under such programs as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and the Container Security Initiative (CSI) take on a whole new added urgency.   The U.S. cannot wait for the Organization of American States (OAS) to lead or regional power to take control, we will have to lead this effort.   Recent events in the region reinforce this latter point.

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