Brazil’s new uranium enrichment and old bomb

Brazil’s new uranium enrichment plant, refusal to sign an IAEA Additional Protocol, current military research on nuclear weapons designs, and its new nuclear submarines should clearly be seen as having nuclear weapons  implications as strong or stronger than Iran’s nuclear plans. The enrichment technology was developed as part of Brazil’s  secret nuclear weapons program, abandoned in 1990.  Coincidentally, Brazil is the US’s first choice for a new permanent seat on the UN Security Council;    currently all permanent members are the NPT’s nuclear weapons states, and vice-versa.

Uranium enrichment: In 2006, an industrial enrichment plant of 120,000 SWU/yr  opened in Resende, near Rio, to produce 3.5% enriched uranium for Brazil’s 2 reactors and nuclear submarines, with future plans for 200,000 SWUs by 2015.  The Brazilian  nuclear company, INB  says ‘The big breakthrough is that in future we do not depend on external services for an important technology”, and that  economic advantages would be minor ($25m per year).

Before this, uranium was sent to Camenco for conversion to UF6 gas, which was then sent to Urenco for enrichment, and returned as UF6 to Brazil for fuel fabrication.

Brazil’s  old nuclear weapons program: Globalsecurity.org has an extensive piece on the Brazilian Navy’s weapons “Parallel program” which started in 1975 with jet-nozzle enrichment technologies from  Germany:

West Germany did not require IAEA safeguards, and following the 1975 agreement Brazil transferred technology from its power plant projects to a secret program to develop an atom bomb… the secret program was started in 1975 and eventually came to be known publicly as the Parallel Program. In the beginning of the eighties, the Navy Nuclear Parallel Program began to expand, especially after the uranium enrichment process named jet nozzle… turned out to be infeasible.   During the decade, the civilian nuclear program lagged behind. Meanwhile, parallel research for obtaining fuel cycle know-how was intensified…

In 1987, José Sarney (president, 1985-90) announced that Brazil had enriched uranium successfully on a laboratory scale to 20 percent. At that time, some observers predicted that Brazil would have a nuclear-weapons capability by the turn of the century…

President Fernando Collor de Mello took bold steps to control and restrict Brazil’s nuclear programs… [in October 1990] …  he formally exposed the military’s secret plan to develop an atom bomb.

In April 2004 the Brazilian government and International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear inspectors were at odds over inspections of an under- construction, uranium- enrichment facility near Rio de Janeiro [Resende]. Brazil refused to allow IAEA inspectors to see the facility’s equipment in order to protect proprietary information. They insisted that the facility will only produce low-enriched uranium, which is legal under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, so long as it is safeguarded. They also refused to fully cooperate with the IAEA’s investigation into the nuclear black market operated by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Kahn.

In June 2004 Brazil’s Ambassador reiterated his country’s intent to limit the access of the International Atomic Energy Agency to Brazil’s uranium enrichment plant. One rationale he used was Brazil’s unhappiness that the Bush administration would consider using nuclear weapons against non-nuclear countries.

Colin Powell hoped in 2004 that Brazil  “will see the wisdom” of signing an  “Additional Protocol” to expand the IAEA’s authority to detect clandestine nuclear programs, but as of 2010 Brazil has not  (see the IAEA list here and note that Iran signed  its Additional Protocol in 2003 but later stopped implementing it in protest at what it said was denial of its NPT rights by Western powers).

2009 research on nuclear weapons:

In Septmber 2009, the Brazilian army’s Miltary Institute of Engineering  published a  doctoral paper saying it had worked out the mathematical principles of a weapon similar to the ubiquitous W89 nuclear warhead used in US and UK missiles.

According to the article’s Google transation:  the researcher, Dalton Ellery Girão Barroso “confirmed that Brazil already has knowledge and technology, if you want to develop the atomic bomb. ‘No need to make the bomb. Just show that you know’  ”

Barroso  also published a book helpfully entitled “The physics of nuclear weapons”. As the Federation of  American Scientists report:

According to the Jornal do Brasil… the IAEA “wanted the book to be recalled” and demanded more information on the author’s work.  The government of Brazil refused to censor the book and rejected what it described as IAEA interference.

“One presumes that many of the specific results presented here have never been published in the open scientific literature,” he [Barroso] wrote in the Preface to the book.  “However, such results are based on well-known physical and mathematical models.”

Brazil’s nuclear submarines: As far as I know, the only countries with nuclear submarines originally built them to deploy nuclear weapons safely underwater as survivable “deterrents”.   (Israel does the same, but with modern fuel-celled subs) .  India is buying one from Russia.  Brazil has not been at war for over a century, so a June 2009 article in the US Naval Institute’s UNSI Proceedings asks “Why does Brazil need nuclear submarines?”.  A long and interesting article, it  concludes

The National Defense Strategy the government of Brazil released on 17 December 2008 provides little plausible military justification for the recently accelerated nuclear-powered submarine project.

The long UNSI article politely never refers to Brazil’s past secret bomb program; oddly enough, it says the opposite:  “Brazil has a long-established, responsible, and peaceful nuclear power program”, and amongst the possible justifications it analyses, it does not consider the submarines could be housing for nuclear missiles.  It points out “the  navy had begun a program in 1979 to build a dual-use nuclear reactor suitable to propel a submarine and generate electricity for civilian consumers”.  It does not mention the navy simultaneously started a bomb program.   Sarkozy has agreed to provide designs for a nuclear submarine hull.

The US Naval Institute  reports that Brazil’s president Lula said of the subs in December 2008 that  “in a few years, Brazil will be one of the select group of nations that possess this indispensable capability for effective deterrence”.  This form of words must be worrying:  military analysts don’t consider a handful of extremely expensive nuclear attack submarines much of a deterrent  – on the other hand, nuclear-armed submarines are always referred to as deterrents.  Even more worryingly  Brazil is anyway buying state of the art conventional-powered submarines for the attack-submarine role, and has no conceivable naval rival that could be any threat.

Security Council seats: Brazil, India, Japan and Germany are the main candidates for new permanent member seats on an expanded UN Security Council.   Other South American countries are not keen on Brazil’s taking up the ‘South American’ seat;   and India’s candidacy is backed by its huge population and unofficial nuclear weapons status.  Japan has no declared bomb programme, but it is clear to everyone that they have done enough research to build one in a matter of weeks.   If Brazil were to follow suit and  develop a clear bomb-capacity and a nuclear-powered-submarine delivery platform, its UN candidacy would be considerably enhanced.

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