Interview with Odair Gonçalves, President of Brazil's Nuclear Energy Commission

Interviewed by Miles A. Pomper and William Huntington

Odair Gonçalves is president of Brazil’s Nuclear Energy Commission (CNEN), the agency responsible for regulating and licensing all nuclear activity in Brazil. On Sept. 28, Gonçalves spoke with Arms Control Today Editor Miles A. Pomper and Arms Control Association Scoville Fellow William Huntington about Brazil’s nuclear programs in the wake of new revelations about his country’s nuclear past.

ACT: As you know, the former president of Brazil, Jose Sarney, confirmed in August what many around the world have long believed: that Brazil once had a secret nuclear weapons program.[1] What is your estimate of when this program was dismantled?

Gonçalves: Sarney said that, but it is not completely clear that that program existed. For example, the CNEN has made a scan of our documents to see if there is something related to a nuclear weapons program or something like that. But there was not. So, it’s a question because we had a military regime during a certain time. And in any regime, not just in a military regime but in any regime, there are a lot of things that are secret. If there were such a program it was secret and there is no document, in our institution at least. So, we are not quite sure about this thing. But if it were [true], our constitution from 1988 said that such a program is forbidden. So from 1988 to now I don’t believe that there was anything related to a nuclear weapons program.

 ACT: As you know, one of your predecessors, Jose Luiz Santana, said in August that when he took office [in 1990] the Brazilian military was in fact still working on a nuclear bomb.[2] Was he wrong about that?

Gonçalves: Again, we don’t have any documentation. But, I may say that he also said that we had some highly enriched uranium (HEU). In this case, I may say that it’s not true. That is very clear to me. We know exactly what he was talking about. It was about a stock we have of around 20 percent enriched uranium, which is for sure not possible to make an atomic device with.

ACT: So you had HEU, but not weapons grade uranium.

Gonçalves: Oh, no. Weapons grade uranium must have at least 90 percent enrichment. So, since this was not true, I’m not quite sure about the other statements. And this I know for sure was a lie.

ACT: You say that there was some 20 percent enriched uranium. One of his claims also was that this was not uranium that Brazil had produced itself.

Gonçalves: No, it was imported, clearly.

ACT: Where was it imported from, and when?

Gonçalves: Well, that is not quite clear but we have it under [International Atomic Energy (IAEA)] safeguards. So, it’s public, the quantity. Where was it imported from? We are not quite sure and perhaps it is not clear how the old government obtained it, or under which agreement it was possible to acquire this uranium. But for sure, it’s now under safeguards. It’s about 20 percent enrichment, which makes it clear that it’s nothing related with any kind of bomb. It’s below 20 percent.

ACT: And it’s now, all the material, all the enriched uranium is now under safeguards.

Gonçalves: Under international safeguards, yes.

ACT: An August 29 CNEN statement maintained, as you’ve said here as well, that there are no documents or information that can confirm Santana’s claims.[3]

Gonçalves: Yes, exactly.

ACT: But that denial did not definitively contradict his claims, on the other hand. Do you possess any definitive proof that his statements are false?

Gonçalves: What we may say is that now there is no such plan. There is nothing that is hidden or not under safeguards in Brazil. We can’t guarantee anything from the old government because it was a different regime. Even our constitution was different. But since 1988, it’s possible to say that there’s nothing going on. Everything in Brazil is very clear. Our program is completely under safeguards. It’s difficult for any country to say completely what happened in a former government. Especially if you have some kind of military regime underway.

ACT: So it sounds to me that you would dispute his characterization that from 1988 to 1990 the program continued.

Gonçalves: Yes.

ACT: Either before 1988 or after that was the military preparing for a nuclear test explosion?

Gonçalves: We have a hole, as you know.[4] It was just a hole. That is what it is. There was a lot of media notice about that. From our point of view, some things are very easy to guarantee. If the military regime intended somehow to make an atomic device, it was just a plan because there is no way to get the fuel, the uranium, the nuclear material to make such a device. So that’s completely clear now. Even if there was something, it was just in the way of plans or studies or something like that. Even though we don’t have any kind of document attesting such a thing. It is clear, our position, because we are the regulator institution so we know quite well what is going on in the country.

ACT: But as you know, technically, if you could make 20 percent enriched uranium you could make 90 percent enriched uranium.

Gonçalves: We could not. It was not ours, it was imported. That’s clear. We now are able to perform enrichment, and just to 5 percent. And if you can enrich uranium, even if you could go until let’s say 20 percent, it’s not the same thing to enrich to 90 percent. We have to have another design, another approach, and so on. We have a license to do these things and the licensing in Brazil is just for 5 percent for the new plant at Resende.

ACT: Brazil has not yet signed an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement.[5] Why not?

Gonçalves: Because our position was that we were waiting for the results from the review meeting of the [nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)] some months ago, and now we are studying the thing to see what we are going to do. But until now, we were waiting for the results of the conference.[6]

ACT: So you’re considering signing a protocol now?

Gonçalves: We are studying the thing.

ACT: Some outside experts might believe that one of the reasons you have not signed an additional protocol is that it would require additional disclosures about, for instance, these early programs. Are they linked in any way?

Gonçalves: No, it’s not true. They have nothing to do with each other. The position is that we also think there are some issues about other countries’ compliance with the traditional NPT. For example, about disarmament.[7] So, we understand that it’s not just a question of providing compromises but you have also to commit yourself to disarmament. We are arguing about that. But it’s not a closed position, anyway. There is nothing in the additional protocol about disclosing former programs.

ACT: But when the South Koreans, the Taiwanese, and the Egyptians signed their additional protocols, additional information about their past programs was released.[8] And I assume that was because an additional level of disclosure was called for then.

Gonçalves: No, but we were not part of the NPT before 1994. And we are not committed to give any information before that date. That’s the date when we signed the NPT.

ACT: I see. This may be somewhat of a speculative question, but since you acknowledge that perhaps from 1985 to when the civilian government came in in 1988 the military might have continued with a program, why might they have done that? After all, there was an agreement in 1985 with Argentina to end these programs.

Gonçalves: Let me understand exactly what you said. You are talking about some involvement in constructing a bomb or something like that, that’s what you said?

ACT: Right.

Gonçalves: The military developed, for example, centrifuges.

ACT: Well, it made some efforts to take the steps that are needed to construct a bomb.

Gonçalves: You are talking about the statements of Santana?

ACT: Right. As you said, you can’t really answer the question from 1985 to 1988 because you don’t have documentation.

Gonçalves: Oh, no, no. It’s hard to believe that after the constitution, something happened. But before the constitution, there were no restraints. But we don’t know about any project since.

ACT: Concerning the Resende facility, reportedly the first of its four modules is now operational.[9]


ACT: Does Brazil still intend to complete the construction of all four modules?

Gonçalves: We intend to, naturally. And when everything is constructed, the provision is that we will be able to provide at least 50 percent of the necessary fuel for the two power plants in Brazil.

ACT: Do you have any idea of what the timeframe for finishing the construction of the last three modules might be?

Gonçalves: If we have the money, which is still not clear, in about seven years.

ACT: Does Brazil plan, or are there discussions at all under way, on ever using the Resende facility to enrich fuel for use in the Navy’s submarine reactor program?

Gonçalves: It is not possible because the license is just for 5 percent [enriched uranium fuel], and the submarine will need about 18 percent to 19 percent.

ACT: President Silva commissioned the National Energy Policy Council to make recommendations on Brazil’s nuclear program, and as far as I understand, he asked for those recommendations by April 2005. Has the Council issued its recommendations?

Gonçalves: Yes, and it was a study not just from CNEN, but the industries and everyone involved in nuclear activities in Brazil, and with other ministers and so on, including the foreign minister.

ACT: I know that one of the questions under discussion was construction of the Angra-3 reactor. Is that happening, or not?

Gonçalves: That is the first step in our proposal.

ACT: So that’s been agreed to?

Gonçalves: Not yet.

ACT: There are reports that the Angra-3 reactor is somewhat controversial between different Brazilian ministries because of its potential cost. Is that true?

Gonçalves: Well, it’s not exactly a controversy. It’s natural that different ideas come out and we discuss them. But it’s not agreed completely at all, to answer your question.

ACT: Is it true that the Resende facility will not be commercially viable without the completion of the Angra-3 reactor?

Gonçalves: It depends what you call commercially viable, 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. And how to appraise that, it’s not very easy. So it depends on what you are saying. We could also export some uranium. Not just enriched uranium, but perhaps the yellowcake.[10] But these are only possibilities to think about in the whole context of the program.

ACT: I don’t know if there was something that we didn’t touch on that you thought was important to get across.

Gonçalves: It’s important to say that we are completely in accordance with the NPT. We are one of the only countries in the world that has also the military installations under safeguards. That’s very important to say. And everything we do is according to our constitution, which says that every and all nuclear activities must be for peaceful purposes.


1. “Ex-Leader Says Brazil Pursued A-Bomb,” Associated Press, August 8, 2005.

2. “Brazil Nearly Built Bomb in 1990’s, Scientist Says,” Associated Press, Agust 30, 2005.

3. “CNEN clarifies information about the Brazilian Nuclear Programme,” Comissāo Nacional de Energia Nuclear (CNEN), August 29, 2005.

4. In September 1990, Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello revealed and publicly shut a deep shaft, purportedly dug for a nuclear test explosion, at an Air Force base in the Cachimbo Province in north-central Brazil.

5. In 1993 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) began an effort to strengthen the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). That effort resulted in the voluntary 1997 model Additional Protocol, designed to strengthen and expand existing IAEA safeguards for verifying that non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to the (NPT) only use nuclear materials and facilities for peaceful purposes. See “The 1997 IAEA Additional Protocol at a Glance,” ( Arms Control Association, January 2005.

6. The May 2005 NPT Review Conference ended without the states-parties able to reach a consensus on how to strengthen the treaty. Many governments expressed disappointment and frustration with the Conference outcome. See Wade Boese, “Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Meeting Sputters,” ( Arms Control Today, July/August 2005, p. 22.

7. Brazil is a member of the New Agenda Coalition (NAC), which holds that the slow pace of disarmament by the five recognized nuclear-weapon states undermines the NPT. The other NAC members are Egypt, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, and Mexico.

8. See Paul Kerr, “IAEA Probes Seoul’s Nuclear Program,” ( Arms Control Today, October 2004, p. 33, and Paul Kerr, “IAEA Investigating Egypt and Taiwan,” ( Arms Control Today, January/February 2005, p. 38.

9. Brazil commissioned a new centrifuge uranium-enrichment plant, called Resende, in 2004. See Sharon Squassoni and David Fite, “ Brazil’s Nuclear Vision,” Arms Control Today, October 2005, p. 13.

10. Yellowcake is a concentrated form of uranium that results from the milling process of uranium ore. Ore typically contains 0.1% uranium oxide while yellowcake contains about 80% uranium oxide. Yellowcake can be converted to uranium hexafluoride gas for centrifugal enrichment.