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Brazilian Regulator Denies Uranium Claims

William Huntington

Odair Gonçalves, president of Brazil’s Nuclear Energy Commission (CNEN), told Arms Control Today Sept. 28 that reports that a foreign source had once supplied Brazil with uranium enriched to the point that it could fuel a nuclear bomb were inaccurate.

In an interview with Brazil’s Globo TV in August, a former CNEN president, José Luiz Santana, claimed that the military had acquired enriched uranium from a foreign source and had hoped to test a nuclear device in September 1990. The military program only ended, Santana maintained, when CNEN managed to gain control over the enriched uranium in August 1990, seven months into his tenure as president of the agency.

But Gonçalves told Arms Control Today that Brazil never possessed weapons-grade material. He suggested that Santana had instead been talking about an imported stock of almost 20-percent enriched uranium. Gonçalves could not say from where this stock of enriched uranium had been imported, but did say that the material was known to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and was under safeguards. Although weapons-grade uranium is generally considered to be at least 90 percent enriched, crude nuclear weapons can be fashioned from somewhat lower-grade uranium.

Santana’s claims came as Brazil’s one-time nuclear weapons ambitions again became the subject of speculation after comments made by former Brazilian President José Sarney in August. Sarney, whose entrance into office in 1985 ended a 19-year-old military government, said that he terminated a secret nuclear weapons program with his ascension to power. Nonproliferation experts have long considered the existence of such a program indisputable, but Sarney’s comments are the first confirmation to come from a senior Brazilian source. Later in August, Santana told Globo TV that it was not until 1990 that the nuclear weapons program was definitively cancelled.

Saying that no documentation can be found within CNEN confirming that a nuclear weapons program ever existed, Gonçalves acknowledged that the secrecy imposed by the former military government could prevent such conclusive proof from ever coming to light. However, Gonçalves contended that had such a program ever existed, it could not have continued past the adoption of the 1988 constitution, which contains a clause specifically outlawing nonpeaceful uses of nuclear energy.

“We can’t guarantee anything from the old government,” Gonçalves said. “Even our constitution was different. But since 1988, it’s possible to say that there’s nothing going on.” Brazil did not sign or ratify the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) until 1998, although by 1994 it had accepted international scrutiny of its nuclear activities by the Argentine-Brazilian Accounting and Control Commission.

Asked about the possibility that Brazil might sign a version of the 1997 Model Additional Protocol, Gonçalves said that Brazil had been waiting to see the outcome of the May 2005 NPT Review Conference before making a decision. Additional protocols give the IAEA added inspection authority, including the ability to inspect undeclared nuclear facilities, and to date, Brazil has resisted signing one. Now that the review conference has passed, Gonçalves said, Brasilia is studying the issue anew. More than a year ago, Brazilian Ambassador to the United States Roberto Abdenur made a statement similarly indicating that Brasilia is not closed to the idea of an additional protocol. (See ACT, June 2004.)

Still, Gonçalves suggested that Brazil, in the context of debating an additional protocol, may raise questions about other countries’ compliance with their commitments under the NPT. In particular, he suggested Brazil would like to see the five NPT acknowledged nuclear-weapon states ( China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) meet their obligation to make good-faith efforts toward nuclear disarmament.

Brazil’s uranium-enrichment facility under construction at Resende has generated international concern, as it is the first centrifuge facility to come online since the revelations surrounding a black-market enrichment technology network headed by Pakistan’s Abdul Qadeer Khan and Iran’s pursuit of similar technology. Confirming that the first of four centrifuge cascade modules at Resende is now operational, Gonçalves said that Brazil could complete construction on the remaining three modules in seven years if the project is fully funded. At full capacity, Gonçalves stated that Resende would produce half of the fuel necessary for Brazil’s two nuclear power plants.

Downplaying concerns to the contrary, Gonçalves also maintained that Resende could not be used to produce fuel for the navy’s nuclear propulsion program because the facility is only licensed to enrich uranium to 5 percent, while the submarine reactors require 18-19 percent enriched fuel.

Last year, the Brazilian National Energy Policy Council was commissioned by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to issue recommendations on the future of Brazil’s nuclear energy program. Gonçalves told Arms Control Today that Brazil has not yet made a final decision on the fate of Angra-3, its planned new nuclear reactor. Some outside experts believe that the Resende facility will not be commercially viable without the construction of Angra-3 or the export of enriched uranium fuel abroad.

But Gonçalves suggested that more than economic considerations were at play. “It depends what you call commercially viable,” Gonçalves said. “Because when you are speaking about energy, to have some complete cycle, a closed cycle, completely independent from other suppliers and so on, could be very important.”

Click here for a complete transcript of the interview.