Brazil Moves Toward Nuclear Submarine

Serena Kelleher-Vergantini

Brazil is planning to develop a nuclear-powered submarine by 2023, the country’s Ministry of Defense said Feb. 28. The statement came a day before a ceremony in the state of Rio de Janeiro marking the inauguration of a key facility for building submarines.

The submarine-building effort is part of a larger Brazilian-French collaboration initiated in 2008, under which France is to provide Brazil with the technology required to build four diesel-electric submarines and a nuclear-powered one. The Brazilian navy has said the nuclear technology for the submarine reactor will be developed indigenously.

According to the navy, the development of a land-based prototype submarine reactor is underway and is scheduled to be completed by 2014. Brazil has the uranium-enrichment technology that is needed for producing nuclear fuel. It is unclear whether Brazil intends to use low-enriched uranium (LEU) or highly enriched uranium (HEU) in the nuclear submarine reactor. Uranium with an enrichment level of at least 20 percent is considered HEU.

Independent experts have reported that Brazilian officials say they currently are planning to use LEU, given that it is easier and less expensive to acquire, but do not want to restrict their fuel options and might decide to use HEU in the future. Brazilian officials did not respond by press time to requests for comment.

Only China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States currently possess nuclear-powered submarines. Those are the five countries that the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) recognizes as nuclear-weapon states. Brazil is party to the treaty as a non-nuclear-weapon state. India, an NPT nonparty, has developed a nuclear-powered submarine and is expected to begin sea trials this year.