Energy independence is a vital cornerstone of a nation’s economic security. So, when Brazil’s Mines and Energy Minister Edison Lobao said recently that Brazil aspires to build an additional 50 to 60 nuclear power plants in the next fifty years, it should not raise any flags or be cause for concern, right? Possibly.
Non-proliferation is not an issue usually associated with Latin America. Rather when policymakers in Washington, DC pay close attention to region, it is usually to discuss illegal drugs, thugs, financial crimes, illegal immigration, or U.S. taxpayer-funded foreign assistance programs. A Latin American country with a nuclear weapon? Will never happen, or so most experts counsel. Compared to other regions, the chances are quite low that a nation in the Americas would acquire or develop a nuclear weapon or an advanced program in that field. This does not mean that some will not try. One already has.
Brazil is one of a handful of nations in the Americas with nuclear power plants and an advanced research capability in this area. It also possess vast reserves of uranium, advanced refinement capabilities, trained nuclear scientists, and various nuclear research facilities. Yet while Brazil is a signatory of various international and regional non-proliferation treaties and agreements, including one of the oldest such treaties in the world, the Treaty of Tlatelolco of 1967 that declared Latin America and the Caribbean a nuclear weapons-free zone, it also used to operate an advanced covert nuclear program.
According to a report by Brazil’s Congress, that secret Navy program had developed various atomic devices and, in the 1980s, had exported tons of enriched uranium to Saddam Hussein in Iraq. When this matter initially went public, it fueled suspicions from neighboring Argentina, also an operator of nuclear power plants. Both countries have signed bilateral agreements since then and they have even cooperated, albeit minimally, in the fir nuclear and civilian propulsion field. However, should the world be asking if Brazil has ceased nuclear weapons research or advanced enrichment?
When he first ran for President in 2003, Lula da Silva made a now well-known statement that some observers attach to a small, but powerful and influential group of powerbrokers that long to see Brazil posses a nuclear weapon: “If someone asks me to disarm and keep a slingshot while he comes at me with a cannon, what good does that do?” The statement was made to a group of military leaders during a closed door session before the election. While the U.S. and Brazil signed a nuclear cooperation agreement in 2003, and Da Silva has stated repeatedly he has no interest in manufacturing a nuclear weapon, doubts remain regarding Brazil’s true intentions.
For example, Brazil has repeatedly refused to allow for full and unfettered inspections of all its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In 2007, a four-star general and senior defense official, Jose Benedito de Barros Moreira, said in a television interview that “[i]f the government agrees, we need to have the ability in the future to develop a nuclear weapon.” “We should be technologically prepared to produce a nuclear device … [n]o country can feel safe if it doesn’t develop technology that enables it to defend itself when necessary,” General Moreira said. Just last month, the Navy announced it was in discussions with France to build or purchase several nuclear-powered submarines.
Despite repeated assurances to the contrary, Brazil’s spotty record on transparency in this area should be cause for concern. Unlike Iran or North Korea, a Latin American nation with a nuclear weapon would have an immediate destabilizing effect in the Hemisphere. It will surely set off an mini-arms race with Argentina or, more likely, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Either Brazil is committed to a nuclear-weapons zone or it is not. Recent statements by high-ranking Brazilian military and civilian officials are not helpful.
The regional mechanisms in place to deal with non-proliferation in the Americas are inadequate. For example, the Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (OPANAL), headquartered in Mexico City, Mexico, is wholly unprepared to deal with these matters. For one thing, the U.S. is not a member, but an observer. The regional mechanism are in need of reform and are politically anemic. Neither OPANAL, or the Organization of American States, has ever voiced concerns when Brazilian military officials state that they should be “technologically prepared” to build an atomic weapon. If OPANAL is not willing to say anything, who will?
The U.S. should take a lead role in non-proliferation in the Western Hemisphere. The next administration should place this issue high on its agenda of Western Hemisphere priorities. It should start by working with Brazil to increase transparency by, for starters, allowing the IAEA complete inspection access to all of its nuclear programs. It should also seek to review all questions of proliferation concern in the hemisphere including nuclear, biological, and chemical. In a post-09.11.01 world, such a mindshift in necessary and, with a state sponsor of terror just 90 miles from our shore, an imperative.