Brazil gives the U.S. a nuclear headache

Brazil is pursuing nuclear power in a big way and the US is not happy.

Just when the Bush administration thought it had turned a corner in the global campaign against the spread of weapons of mass destruction – with Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, of all people – we learn that Brazil has decided to begin enriching uranium in 2004 and now refuses to allow the kind of inspections being urged on Libya, Iran and others.

Brazil? Since when is the second-largest democracy in the Western hemisphere an aspiring nuclear proliferator? Should Brazil be on the shortlist for an updated axis of evil?

Brazilian government officials last week said the uranium enrichment effort was aimed solely at providing fuel for the country’s nuclear power plants. But they also maintain that Brazil should not be subject to unannounced spot inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Brazil has had nuclear ambitions for some time but was thought to have buried them about a decade ago. Its announcement last week suggests that Brazil’s nuclear aspirations lie in the fields of economics and status. Unlike most other potential proliferant countries, Brazil faces no threats to its territory or its sovereignty. In fact, Argentina, which also had a program that could be used to make nuclear weapons, signed a mutual inspection agreement with Brazil in 1991.

With this agreement Brazil seemed to have turned away from nuclear weapons. But some of Brazil’s current leaders, including President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, have made statements that raise doubts about Brazil’s long-term intentions.

Brazil’s uranium enrichment program remains a threat to the nuclear nonproliferation regime just as similar programs are – or were – in nations that, unlike Brazil, harbor hostile intent toward the United States. The program will give Brazil a basis for making nuclear weapons on short notice. Similar programs in Libya, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea have rightly been seen as either direct or indirect threats to international peace and security.

What should be done? The Bush administration’s policy is to block the acquisition of uranium enrichment facilities by states it deems unfriendly. Brazil presents the case of an undoubtedly friendly nation whose actions also will undercut efforts to prevent the further proliferation of nuclear weapons. The administration has to get this one right or all its antiproliferation efforts will come to naught. And, needless to say, preventive war is not an option in this case.

Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, recently put forward a plan for the multilateralization of uranium enrichment plants as a way of forestalling the possibility of nuclear “break-out.” In many parts of the world, that is not a realistic concept. As in North Korea, the only real option is to prevent the building and operation of uranium enrichment plants. But in Brazil’s case, ElBaradei’s idea might be practicable.

Brazil, Argentina and other Latin American nations might be able to form a consortium for running a uranium enrichment facility, with iron-clad agreements about the degree of enrichment and the conditions of export that would be permitted.

ElBaradei is also right to insist that the global nonproliferation regime needs strengthening, starting with closing the loophole in the 1968 nonproliferation treaty as regards nationally owned uranium enrichment facilities. Da Silva had a point when he reportedly said in his presidential campaign that the treaty is inherently unfair. The treaty recognized the unfairness of the have and have-not regimes but struck a bargain by urging nuclear-weapon states to reduce and eliminate their own nuclear weapons, as has indeed happened, albeit slowly.

Scrapping that bargain today is not a viable option. The nonproliferation treaty remains the best hope of preventing a nuclear-armed world in which, sooner or later, a nuclear weapon will fall into the hands of irresponsible and unstable states, or of international terrorists. Yet the Bush administration’s position on this issue is ambiguous, at best.

The time has come for the U.S. administration to speak with a clear voice about the undesirability of nuclear weapons – first, by silencing those in its own ranks who speak about developing new nuclear weapons for use in conflicts that are not wars of survival; second, by drafting a new United Nations Security Council effort to extend the writ of the nonproliferation treaty; and finally by ensuring that tighter rules against proliferation apply not only to distant enemies, but also to friends closer to home.

James Goodby was chief negotiator for cooperative threat reduction in the Clinton administration. He is affiliated with the Brookings Institution and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Kenneth Weisbrode is a councilor of the Atlantic Council of the United States.

2 thoughts on “Brazil gives the U.S. a nuclear headache”

  1. The biggest threat are the USA themselves. Until today, no other has dropped an atomic bomb on human beings! Bush is dangerous and the worst terrorist ever! He leads the US in an endless war against the whole World. And he wasn’t even elected!

  2. I think the biggest threat to US own plans is US itself. After all, the country try to forces other countries to stop developing atomic weapons while many politicians and army officers want to develop new nuclear weapons. Not to mention US blocks UN´s access to US nuclear facilities.

    Anyway, the reason why Brasil isnt allowing access to its facilities (in fact, it only dont allow inspectors to see the centrifugues, which are magnetic and a new technology not used in other countries) is for protecting its breaktrough technology. The inspectors have access to everything else, like checking how many uranium entered and left the facility, everything. I mean, the inspectors have all the way to know if Brasil was enriching uranium in the degree necessary for atomic bombs. Clearly, the intention of the american inspectors to see and research the brazilian centrifugues is to steal the technology (which is more efficient than mechanical centrifugues), not to check if we are producing WMD, because that can be checked in thousand of ways not needing to see the centrifugues.

    The article is wrong when says Brasil dont want to allow surprise inspections. The only thing Brazilian officials are denying the inspectors is access to sightseeing the centrifugues.

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