Global Insider: Brazil’s Nuclear Program

After a 25-year hiatus, Brazil is resuming work on its third nuclear reactor. In an e-mail interview, Sean Burges, lecturer with the School of Politics and International Relations at Australian National University, discusses Brazil’s nuclear program.

WPR: What is the current state of Brazil’s civil nuclear program, in terms of enrichment capability and IAEA inspections regimes?

Sean Burges: Brazil has limited enrichment capacity and is currently pursuing the goal of self-sufficiency to meet the needs of the country’s small nuclear power sector.

Brazil is resistant to any sort of IAEA inspection regime on its nuclear activities for three reasons. First, development of nuclear weaponry is specifically forbidden by the Brazilian constitution, which in their view obviates the need for IAEA inspections. Second, Brazil is signatory to both the 1994 Treaty of Tlatelolco banning nuclear weapons in Latin America and the international non-proliferation treaty. Third, IAEA inspections are rejected as an imperialistic violation of national sovereignty by nuclear weapon-possessing countries seeking to ensure their continued hegemony.

WPR: What bilateral relationships are driven by Brazil’s nuclear program, in terms of fuel suppliers, reactor construction and technology transfers?

Burges: It is a bit of a stretch to say that Brazil has any bilateral relationships that are driven by nuclear programs. Brazil’s position on nuclear issues is clear, namely that all countries have the right to pursue pacific use of nuclear technology. The Lula administration has used this logic to support the Indian and Iranian nuclear programs. India-Brazil-South Africa Dialogue Forum events periodically discuss trilateral nuclear energy cooperation. On a regional level, Brazil has included Venezuela in its bilateral nuclear agreement with Argentina, which was established in 1980 to step back from the brink of a nuclear arms race. Cooperation with Argentina on the nuclear front has continued, including a February 2008 joint communiqué declaring an intent to work together to develop the full nuclear fuel cycle for electricity generation, including uranium enrichment.

Ministers in the Lula government have alluded to the desirability of exporting enriched uranium in the future, but any plan to do so would require changes to the national constitution, which currently bans any export of nuclear materials.

WPR: What are Brazil’s near-term and medium-term horizons for its civil nuclear program?

Burges: The most vibrant parts of Brazil’s nuclear program largely rest within the military, which continues to examine nuclear propulsion for aircraft carriers and submarines. On the whole, there is a shortage of detailed nuclear scientific and engineering expertise in Brazil.

It looks like the third and final phases of the Angra nuclear power plant at Angra dos Reis in Rio de Janeiro State is about to come online. This complex was built with imported technology and has had a somewhat stuttering contribution to the national power grid, although there are suggestions that the Lula government has larger future ambitions. Given Brazil’s enormous hydro-electric potential, over the medium-term further elaboration of nuclear technology in Brazil is more a question of national prestige than energy security.

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