The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has accepted Brazil’s proposal for resolving a dispute over how to carry out inspections at the country’s uranium-enrichment plant in Resende. With the IAEA’s approval, Brazil will soon begin operating the plant and will join the roster of about a dozen countries known to possess such a facility.
“We have been able to reach an agreement in principle with the Brazilian government” to verify the Resende facility, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei told reporters Nov. 25. He said he was confident that the arrived-at arrangement will allow the IAEA “to do credible inspections but at the same time take care of Brazil’s need to protect commercial sensitivity inside the facility.”
A statement released by Brazilian officials one day earlier stated that the agreement means that the plant “fulfills [international safeguards] conditions for the start of operations with the introduction of…uranium gas.” According to Brazil, only a security license for the facility remains to be obtained, which is to be issued by Brazil’s National Nuclear Energy Commission.
The IAEA’s acceptance of the inspections deal marks the end of a months-long dispute between the two parties over access to the Resende facility. Brazil has contended that the plant’s centrifuges constitute proprietary and novel technology that is commercially sensitive and warrants protection from industrial competitors. The IAEA, however, has requested greater visual access to the centrifuges in order to ensure that no nuclear materials are being diverted to an illicit weapons program.
IAEA inspectors visited the Resende plant Oct. 19 after having been barred from viewing much of the facility on a previous visit in April. (See ACT, November 2004.) During the October inspections, IAEA officials were reportedly allowed to view pipes and valves of the centrifuges but were still restricted from viewing other centrifuge components. Inspectors then returned Nov. 16 to confirm information supplied by Brazil concerning the next steps that would be necessary to begin enrichment at the plant.
Brazilian Minister for Science and Technology Eduardo Campos stated Nov. 24 that the plant would begin enriching small amounts of uranium by the end of 2004 as part of its initial phase of operation lasting between six and eight months, after which the plant may become fully operational. Brazilian officials could not be reached to confirm whether or not the plant had become operational late December.
A full-scale enrichment program at Resende would allow Brazil to become self-sufficient in the development of nuclear energy, relying less on foreign governments for supplies of enriched uranium to fuel its two nuclear reactors. The U.S. government has supported Brazil’s efforts to develop a peaceful nuclear program, as voiced by Secretary of State Colin Powell in a visit to Brazil in early October. (See ACT, November 2004.)
Brazil insists that it is seeking nuclear fuel only for peaceful purposes and that it has no weapons program. Nevertheless, the dispute with the IAEA had raised concerns because of Brazil’s nuclear history: It began developing a covert nuclear weapons program in 1975 but abandoned it in the late 1980s under a new government, which also included a prohibition on such activities in its 1988 constitution.
Brazil’s ambassador-at-large for disarmament affairs, Sérgio de Queiroz Duarte, who is set to head the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty’s 2005 Review Conference in May, defended Brazil’s nuclear program and reaffirmed the normalcy of the inspections negotiations during an interview with Arms Control Today Nov. 4. (See ACT, December 2004.) “If you have a new facility to which safeguards have to be applied, you have to discuss with the IAEA the modalities of the safeguards,” the ambassador said. He added that “it’s a question of protecting the industrial technology and at the same time giving satisfaction as to the complete, peaceful use of the facility.”