The Brazilian government continues to refuse to allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to eyeball equipment at its uranium enrichment plant, citing the need to protect its industrial secrets.
IAEA inspectors who have recently visited enrichment facilities at Resende have arrived to find portions of the site and its equipment concealed. Brazilian officials acknowledged that portions of the plant had been hidden, arguing that Brazil was not required to disclose every detail of the process. They said that inspectors would be allowed to conduct tests on uranium entering and leaving the facility as well as on the surrounding area.
Brazil claims that their enrichment equipment is up to 30 percent more efficient than previously possible and that allowing visual inspections of the equipment will allow competitors to steal its trade secrets. Brazil, which has the world’s sixth-largest natural uranium reserve, hopes that a domestic enrichment facility will allow it to save between $10 and $12 million every year on fuel for its own nuclear reactors and, eventually, to export surplus fuel.
Brazil’s actions have annoyed IAEA officials and other diplomats, who say that, although Brazil is not suspected of developing nuclear weapons, its refusal to allow unfettered access sets a bad precedent at a time when the international community is trying to compel Iran and North Korea to accept similar inspections.
The controversy comes after statements by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and former Minister of Science and Technology Roberto Amaral raised doubts about Brazil’s commitment to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). In a speech last year, Amaral said that Brazil needed to maintain scientific research capabilities in all fields, including the knowledge necessary to produce nuclear weapons. Lula quickly distanced himself from the remarks and Amaral was among the first to resign during a reorganization of the government this year. But Lula’s own nonproliferation credentials had been tarnished when he criticized the NPT as a discriminatory treaty during his campaign for the presidency in 2002. (See ACT, November 2003)
Indeed, Brazilian diplomats have echoed Lula’s earlier remarks in the controversy over inspections of the enrichment facilities. They have taken particular umbrage at President George W. Bush’s February proposal that countries which did not already possess such enrichment technology be prevented from acquiring it. (See ACT, February 2003)
A Brazilian diplomat told The Washington Post, “We don’t like treaties that are discriminatory in their intent.” He said that Bush’s proposal was “unacceptable to Brazil, precisely because we see ourselves as so strictly committed to nonproliferation, to disarmament, to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.”
In addition to the impasse over inspections, Brazil has refused calls by the IAEA, the United States and others to sign an Additional Protocol to its safeguards agreement with the IAEA under the NPT. An additional protocol expand the IAEA’s authority to detect clandestine nuclear programs and increase the number of nuclear-related activities that a signatory must declare to the agency.
The United States has avoided intervening in the dispute, beyond expressing a desire that Brazil should agree to inspections and sign the Additional Protocol. “It’s a very sensitive subject but I believe our government has a terrific amount of confidence in Brazil,” said Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, “We believe they (Brazil) are committed to meeting their international obligations and this is a matter that is best handled by the IAEA in a multilateral way. We do not want to make this a bilateral issue, because quite frankly the U.S. has confidence that Brazil is a responsible actor.”
The United States also said that it would support Brazilian diplomat Sergio Duarte to chair the 2005 NPT review conference, although Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton used the opportunity to call on Brazil to resolve its differences with the IAEA so that “it doesn’t cast a pall over the review conference next year.”