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Brazil and Nuclear Proliferation, Shhhhh!

“During the past few years the Bush Administration has demonstrated that the U.S. is willing to work with Brazil as an equal partner. It is time that Brazil reciprocated in this all too important area …”

When you ask most Americans what comes to mind when discussing Brazil, it would be things such as Rio, soccer, or carnival. Regrettably, not too much more. And depending who you ask in Washington, DC, you may get trade and a whole host of other important policy issues; however, nuclear proliferation will not be one of them. Nuclear proliferation has never really been something normally associated with one of the world’s largest democracies. Sometimes, even suggesting the latter in polite company will likely land you much derision, a guaranteed removal from social guest lists. In a post-09.11.01 world though, no matter the country, nuclear proliferation concerns should be discussed openly and without reservation.

A few years ago then-Secretary of State Colin Powell said that he was “sure” that Brazil had no intent to manufacture a nuclear weapon. He made this statement presumably after consultation with his Brazilian counterparts and making reasonable assumptions about Brazil’s commitment to non-proliferation. For example, like other countries with civilian nuclear programs, Brazil is a party to various treaties and agreements that it will not produce nuclear weapons or conduct research to manufacture such weapons. Indeed, Brazil’s constitution even bans nuclear weapons. Brazil’s leaders have insisted that Brazil is only committed to the peaceful development of nuclear power for civilian purposes.

Yet, if all of this is so, why does Brazil continue to deny international inspectors complete and unfettered access to all of its nuclear facilities? Keep in mind that during the late 1970s Brazil started to a secret nuclear weapons research program parallel to its civilian program.

With regards to Da Silva’s track record in this area, the matter is mixed. Da Silva, when running for office the first time, said why should developing countries fight with a “slingshot” when neighbors, i.e., the United States and others, have atomic bombs? While Da Silva cooled this rhetoric after his election in 2002 and is no longer making this argument on behalf of developing countries, on or about mid-2000s Brazil announced it was expanding its refining capacity. In 2007, a Brazilian four star General, 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.” Da Silva has also continued to criticize the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as do most leaders of developing countries, as an agreement tilted in favor of the U.S. and other advanced powers.

Despite U.S. officials’ lack of concern, there remains a patchwork of words and deeds that show, at a minimum, that Brazil has left the nuclear research door somewhat open for both the civilian and military sectors. In addition to legitimate civilian research, as part of its overall military modernization program, Brazil plans to purchase several nuclear-powered submarines. This year Brazil’s foreign minister announced cooperation with Russia to expand Brazil’s existing civilian nuclear power program.

In 2006, Brazil re-started its uranium enrichment using some technologies that Iran is suspected of using and, some experts believe, is technology that can be easily reconfigured to produced highly enriched uranium. It is this latter act that should have raised some red flag at Foggy Bottom, but it was not even an issue, at least in the public agenda, of the 2007 meetings between our two countries. In fact Bush and Da Silva have had seven bilateral meetings and there is no public record that the nuclear issue has ever been a serious subject of discussion.

Brazil, an ally of Iran, has repeatedly denied International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors complete and unfettered access to a new nuclear facility, Resende, that experts estimate could produce enough highly enriched uranium to produce close to six or more warheads in its first year of operation to close to 70 warheads by 2015. Enough enriched uranium to manufacture just one warhead is one too many.

Rather than a full-access inspection, Brazil eventually relented and agreed to allow the IAEA to take gas samples, but no more access than it deemed necessary because it needed to protect its proprietary nuclear technology. In other words, in many ways Brazil set the inspection “standards” by which Iran and North Korea will plan its responses. As Iran and North Korea have done, Brazil promises not to enrich beyond civilian-use levels. The Bush Administration appears to have no issues with Brazil’s assurances that it is not seeking a nuclear weapon or the technology to build weapons of mass destruction. The goal appears focused on maintaining the international leverage through the IAEA. Officials argue that this latter approach is the best means possible to effectuate cooperation with a regional power.

Yet even if Brazil does not harbor ill will to U.S. or our interests, in contrast to Iran and North Korea, it is not in the U.S. national interest for Brazil to possess a nuclear weapon or to be secretly exploring ways to enrich uranium to achieve that end, even if it never decides to build a weapon of mass destruction. Unfortunately, Brazil’s transparency record in this field is not good. Recent comments by Brazilian officials, cooperation with Iran, and expansion of its military submarine fleet to include nuclear subs require more from the U.S. than reliance on the IAEA and other international processes.

The capability or hint of the capability to produce such a weapon, or the technology required to build one, could set off another arms or technological race with the other nuclear power in Latin America, Argentina. Argentina has been brought in to the fold by the U.S. in this area, but there is no telling how its leaders or military would react if it knew for certain that Brazil was advancing in the nuclear research field. Then there is the question of Venezuela. Who knows how neighboring fellow traveler Hugo Chavez would react? In fact, Venezuela has already hinted that it wants to begin its own civilian nuclear power program. From a regional perspective, Brazilian nuclear adventurism would also weaken an already anemic regional non-proliferation regime. It could set off an arms race unlike any other in the history of the Western Hemisphere.

The U.S. is not alone in its silence with regards to Brazil, regional silence also exists. The Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (OPANAL) has said nothing about Brazil’s nuclear research programs or Brazil’s failure to allow complete and unfettered access to the Resende facility. In fact, OPANAL has very little to say about anything except hold conferences and programs or issue declarations about things happening in other parts of the world. Regrettably, OPANAL is much like the Organization of American States (OAS) and the inter-American system, a process and institution in much need of update and reform. In the case of the OPANAL, things were so dire recently that in 2007 it had to issue a statement that it was running out of money because members were not paying dues. A key official had to resign over it.

Transparency is one of the cornerstones of non-proliferation efforts. The U.S. needs to talk in clear, non-equivocal terms about the proliferation of nuclear technology in the Western Hemisphere. Besides the U.S. and Canada, only Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil operate civilian nuclear reactors. Mexico’s program is small and there are no indications that it is anything but a civilian effort. Argentina has come around and its cooperation rewarded by the U.S. and other powers. Brazil, on the other hand, has not been fully forthcoming. Where we should have a clear picture, there is fog.

The U.S. should urge Brazil to come clean on its nuclear program. A good first step to re instill confidence in the non-proliferation process would be for Brazil to allow IAEA inspectors complete and unfettered access to the Resende facility. The U.S. Congress should also use its oversight and appropriations powers to place Brazil on notice that there can be consequences if it fails to open up its nuclear program to international inspectors. During the past few years the Bush Administration has demonstrated that the U.S. is willing to work with Brazil as an equal partner. It is time that Brazil reciprocated in this all too important area. You may not want to talk about it, but it is a problem and the American taxpayer deserves a better return on its investment.

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