Behind Brazil’s Nuclear Dream Is a Perceived Call to Be a Super Power

    Brazil's Navy model for a nuclear submarine

    Brazil's Navy model for a nuclear submarine

    On July 10, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced his
    intention to fulfill one of the Brazilian Navy’s ultimate dreams: to launch a
    nuclear-powered submarine. This idea was originally hatched during the era of
    military rule from the 1960s to 1980s but floundered due to a lack of funds and
    priority status.

    It resurfaced at a time when there are disturbing signs that much of the subcontinent is moving towards an unintentional arms race. Criticism is mounting both within and outside of Brazil regarding whether it would be wise for the nation to go ahead with this plan, and what does this say about the Lula presidency.


    Will it deed itself over to engaging in rhetorical vertigo about becoming one of the world’s dominant sea powers, rather than decide to come forth with a serious plan that it intends to implement a naval expansion program that will not break the bank and not ignite an arms race. .


    As the international community tries to blunt North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Brazil (long rumored to be ready in its campaign to fight an all-embracing effort to obtain a permanent seat on the United Nations’ Security Council), has put forth a plan to construct a nuclear-powered submarine by 2015.


    What is surprising about this situation is that Brazil’s apparent decision could risk having a highly probable destabilizing impact on the hemisphere because it doesn’t factor in the grave consequences it could generate.


    Brazil’s Nuclear History


    The genesis of Brazil’s nuclear ambitions can be traced back to the 1960s, a time when military governments were a hemispheric plague, with the South American giant being, if anything, a pathfinder for this process.


    Nevertheless, the Brazilian military junta that ruled from 1964-1985 never managed to nurture concrete plans to construct this super category of sophisticated weapons. According to one AP story, the navy’s nuclear program, which actually had begun in 1979, already had mastered part of the uranium enrichment process, but it had lagged in developing and constructing a reactor entirely from Brazilian technology, said Navy Admiral Julio Soares de Moura Neto.


    According to a July filing by Deutsch Presse-Agentur, the nuclear submarine project was part of a 1975 agreement between Brasília and the then Western German government in Bonn.


    Meanwhile, it should be noted that, in a recent article, the Latin American Weekly Report acknowledged that Brazil has been found to be far behind other regional countries in terms of economic support for its armed forces: “Brazil’s armed forces are now far behind, by any aspect of comparison apart from troop numbers, the armed forces of Chile, Peru, and Venezuela.”


    This begs the obvious question regarding what will happen to the country’s citizens if Lula decides to allocate the country’s economic resources more toward the country’s military operations and away from the people’s direct social welfare needs.


    During the period of military rule, Brazil’s neighbor Argentina (if anything, under an even more Draconian military regime), was also heatedly developing a nuclear program at its remote facility near Bariloche, Argentina.


    A Spring 1981 Foreign Affairs article by Gerard Smith (Chief of the U.S. Delegation to the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT) from 1969 to 1972) and George Rathjens (a Professor of Political Science at MIT) discussed nuclear non proliferation, touching on Latin America.


    The article mentions the Brazilian-Argentine nuclear arms race which was thought to exist at the time, explaining that “despite U.S. pressures and the expenditure of considerable political capital, the Federal Republic of Germany insisted on going ahead with its previous commitments to assist Brazil in acquiring reprocessing and enrichment facilities. And the FRG and Switzerland have recently agreed to provide Argentina with a power reactor and a heavy-water plant.”


    Ironically, Lula protested the construction of the nuclear submarine during the military regime, at a time when he was a fiery union leader with solid leftist credentials, protesting that the country had more important needs for its citizens than something so expensive. It seems now Lula, along with new obsessions, has had a dramatic change of heart.


    Lula Revives Nuclear Plans


    To the surprise of only a few, whose knowledge of Lula’s value system was formed in the past and who now see him as a parody of the system to which he once so passionately subscribed, the Brazilian leader is a pro-nuke submarine enthusiast, who now emphasizes his intention to pursue his military predecessors’ nuclear ambitions.


    He plans to have the submarine operating by 2015. A July 11 wire story by Agence France Presse quotes the Brazilian president as saying during a visit to the Brazilian navy’s Technological Center in São Paulo, “Brazil could rank among those few nations in the world with a command of uranium enrichment technology, and I think we will be more highly valued as a nation – as the power we wish to be.”


    In essence, the new Brazil that Lula ululates over has a different kind of author with a vastly different script than the one he once daily authored as the leader of the metallurgical union in the São Paulo industrial belt.


    Lula’s references raise several very tantalizing questions about the nuclear submarine project. Among them are: will it be constructed solely by Brazilian scientists and technicians? Or will scientists by recruited from abroad as consultants?


    Does the Brazilian navy possess the necessary skill to design, construct, test and operate a vessel which goes far beyond the admirable design and construction technology capacity it has evinced up to now, even after factoring in all of its engineering successes and its commercial triumphs in the fields of aircraft and weaponry fabrication?


    Will the crew be sent abroad to gain training on how to operate this kind of super-sophisticated equipment? What kind of design principles will the submarine feature? Will it be a replication of another country’s nuclear submarines or will it be a totally new design?


    While Lula is jaunty, other Brazilians are desperate, according to daily O Estado de São Paulo, as cited by the Latin American Weekly Report: “‘For a long time the government has abandoned the armed forces to its own luck, in a display of disinterest in national defense and the way of life of Brazilians.’


    The newspaper goes on to say that the pitiable situation of Brazil’s armed forces ‘does not match the ambitions’ of President Lula da Silva to lead South America in an ‘increasingly instable regional strategic environment.'”


    O Estado zeroes in on musings now taking place in the Brazilian armed forces: “Two-thirds of the air force’s planes are grounded due to lack of replacement parts. The air force does not have any medium-range-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, attack helicopters or the so-called ‘intelligent bombs’ which are part of the equipment of its Chilean, Peruvian and Venezuelan counterparts.


    Furthermore, only half of the navy’s combat ships are fit for their intended purpose. In the army the situation is no different. There is no money for ammunition, Brazilian tanks are all secondhand and most over 30 years old.” Does this sound like a country that could spend almost a billion dollars on nuclear submarine project?


    Nuclear Power for Several Applications


    The Brazilian president also is saying that his government will complete the long-suspended Angra III nuclear plant in Rio de Janeiro state. “We will complete Angra III, and if necessary, we’ll go on to build more (nuclear plants) because it is clean energy and now proven to be safe,” Lula ebulliently noted.


    The plant will cost 3.5 billion dollars over five and a half years, he said. But he did not mention the nuclear waste disposal issue which has been deviled Washington in recent years and still defies easy solution, as seen in the Feral Yucca Mountain debate.


    Going Nuclear All the Way


    A June article by Nuclear Engineering International explains that Brazil has always strived for self-sufficiency in nuclear power, but the ambitious plans of the 1970s were never fully realized, leaving Brazil with just Angra I & II and the equipment and technical skills required for a third, all sited at Angra Dos Reis in Rio de Janeiro state.


    The construction of Angra III was originally contracted out to the German firm KraftwerkUnion (KWU), now part of Siemens, which was taken over by Framatome ANP (now Areva). At the end of 2001, Brazil’s National Energy Policy Council (CNPE) was asked to make recommendations on Angra III and authorized preliminary steps to restart the project, with Lula ultimately deciding to go ahead with it.


    Brazil’s two operating nuclear plants, Angra I and Angra II, have an installed capacity of about 2,000 megawatts. Angra III would raise its capacity to 3,300 megawatts, at an estimated cost of about US$ 3.6 billion. According to several costing engineers, they would be surprised if the plant construction didn’t come in at least 50% higher than the current estimated figure, with the same being true of the projected costs for the submarine.


    An October 2004 article in Science by Liz Palmer, entitled “Brazil’s Nuclear Puzzle” reported that in 2004 Brazil had plans for a uranium enrichment plant, which, it if configured to do so, could fuel several nuclear weapons annually. It went on to explain that “Brazil has pledged to enrich its uranium to only 3.5% 235U, the concentration required by its two power reactors. This would be too weak to fuel a bomb, which typically requires a concentration of 90% or above.


    If Brazil should change its mind, its stockpile of uranium already enriched to 3.5 or 5% will have received more than half the work needed to bring it to weapon grade. This would confer what is known as “breakout capability” – the power to make nuclear weapons before the world can react, rendering it a fait accompli. Such a capacity is what the United States and some European countries fear Iran is aiming at.”


    While it is true that Brazil wants to build a nuclear submarine, not a nuclear weapon, the feeling remains about Brazil’s potential to become a global nuclear power incrementally, if it chose to do so at all. It certainly has the resources and the personnel to carry out nuclear projects, and if you take Lula’s words to heart, he also seems to have the will.


    But most of the most source of energy currently fueling Brazil’s nuclear dream does not derive from nuclear fission as much as it comes from Brazil’s growing sense of ultimate grandeur – that it is destined to be a super power this century.


    And who is the amiable Jingoist stoking the line of “über alles”-well, no other than Lula. Yet there is still another chapter to the Brazilian story, and that consists of the corruption that infuses the nation’s public life, the inefficiency, the hypocrisy, the environment chicanery and the unspeakable violence of both the street criminals and their prosecutors, and the drug-trafficking Mafia that renders Brazil a hellish state in which to reside, if you are not well to do and strategically positioned.


    Interestingly, on June 8 there was an article in the International Herald Tribune about the Russian nuclear power company, Atomstroyexport (a former branch of the Soviet atomic energy ministry) and how Russia is becoming an important exporter of nuclear energy and engineering skills.


    The article explains how the company is currently constructing reactors in countries like China, India and Bulgaria. The core of the article is based on declarations by Sergei Shmatko, chief executive of Atomstroyexport. The business executive speaks of a “nuclear renaissance,” with Moscow emerging as a global exporter of nuclear technology for developing nations.


    He added that his company is already producing a new design for emerging markets; it has a line of mini-reactors more typical of the power plants required for nuclear submarines or ice breakers, then ostensibly for nuclear power plants. Moscow already has proven that it has very few qualms about exporting military technology, as exemplified by the multi-billion dollar deals with Venezuela over the past couple of years, even though it hasn’t quite overtaken the U.S. as a world leader in the export of weaponry.


    It is only logical to assume that the Kremlin would be more than willing to provide a nuclear reactor to Brazil for its nuclear submarine if it has the money for it. And, as Lula boasts, Brazil has the cash, even though his admirers and generals claim that only penury is to be found in the Palácio da Alvorada.


    A Nuclear Brazil: Is this Wise?


    Lula appears to be resorting to the traditional waving the “bloody flag of nationalism” in order to increase his personal popularity and confirm the support of the nation’s powerful military establishment, although all is not sound here, and his placating is probably doomed to not be enough. This call to arms comes at a time when his administration was sent reeling by almost daily corruption scandals in his political party and his administration.


    In the latest round of nationwide discontent, landless workers blocked an iron ore railway (with ore being a key ingredient for the production of steel) owned by Companhia Vale do Rio Doce SA. The company claims only 300 individuals protested, while the Landless Workers Movement insists they were as many as 2,600, according to the Associated Press.


    Lula’s critics insist that, instead of allocating hundreds of millions of dollars to a nuclear submarine program, why not address the multiple social problems pressing Brazil. These include environmental and anti-poverty initiatives to constructively impact Brazil’s current social ills.


    Instead, Lula has decided to turn to acquiring a trophy military weapon that couldn’t be less relevant to Brazil’s future as a great nation and Latin America’s current concerns. But this is unwise and will only further provoke regional tensions.


    Among others, one must wonder what will be the reaction in Buenos Aires, with an Argentine military still nursing its wounds over its defeat in the Falklands. If Brazil’s nuclear submarine actually becomes operational, might this immediately invoke the concerns of the Argentine navy?


    One might reply that during the Falkland War with Britain, the Argentine cruiser ARA General Belgrano was doomed by the U.K.’s nuclear-powered submarine, HMS Conqueror. The Belgrano was the second largest ship in the Argentine navy at the time and was sunk by two Tigerfish torpedoes from the Conqueror, killing 323 sailors.


    This was a critical point in the war as it proved to the Argentine navy that it could not compete against the British fleet, including its nuclear submarine. What will the Argentine navy have to say about Brazil obtaining a nuclear submarine of its own?


    Finally, it is still illogical that Brazil even thinks for a moment that it must have its submarine. The sub-continent, in spite of the arms race it has experienced in recent years, has not had an inter-state war since the Peruvian-Ecuadorian border conflict in 1941.


    Brazil itself fought a war against Argentina in the 1820s when Argentina was known as the United Provinces of Rio de la Plata. The last armed conflict (not counting its involvement in World War II) in which Brazil fought was the War of the Triple Alliance when Brazil allied itself with Uruguay and Argentina against Paraguay from 1864 to 1870.


    If anything, Brazil’s security threats today come from drug cartels, the possible infiltration of the Colombian guerrillas known as the FARC into its territory, and the widespread occurrence of gang violence, and not from Argentina or Paraguay (a landlocked border country)


    Military Politics


    By deciding to build a nuclear submarine, Lula is reviving the old dreams of the Brazilian military. At the same time, he has certainly given reason to the Argentine navy to push for even a bigger defense budget at a time when the country is still recuperating from the 2001 economic meltdown.


    Both the Brazilian and Argentine security forces have dark pasts that have sullied their countries’ good names. The possession of a nuclear submarine would provide both militaries with an increased status that would be prejudicial to their still not completely stabilized democracies and would allow them to question their subordination to the civilian government.


    It is ironic that Lula has declared his intention to build a nuclear submarine. While he was a union leader before becoming president, Lula had protested against such nuclear aspirations, but it seems he has now had a change of heart. Why has this occurred? Can this be explained by the growing pressure coming towards Lula from the country’s military that never has quite regained the prestige that it had when it ruled the country with an absolutist style?


    According to a report by the Deutsche Presse-Agentur, Lula has emphasized repeatedly that he sees the use of nuclear power as a source of energy as a bread and butter issue for his administration, and that down the road such power will be essential to meet the country’s energy requirements; according to estimates, building the nuclear submarine will cost an annual disbursement of 68 million dollars over eight years, so it will be ready (ideally) not before 2015.


    Curiously, the aspiration to acquire a nuclear submarine comes at a time when the Brazilian military is going through a process of upgrading. During a September trip to Spain, in spite of the obvious disenchantment with many of his senior military colleagues over the poor condition in which the Brazilian military finds itself, Lula told the Spanish daily El País “in the 1970s, we had modern factories that built tanks […] But they have been dismantled. Brazil must return to what it had. To rebuild our weaponry factories, we must buy.”


    According to various reports, Brazil plans to raise military spending by 50% next year and is planning to modernize its submarines, build missiles in cooperation with South Africa and purchase second-hand aircraft.


    Logically, Lula has the enthusiastic backing of the Brazilian military establishment for his drive to upgrade the military. But this is not necessarily the case. On October 13, there was an article in the Brazilian daily Correio Braziliense, regarding Brazil’s military, which included declarations by General Barros Moreira, a former commander of the War College (Brazil’s military intelligence service) and who currently serves as head of the Political, Strategic and International Relations Secretariat at the Defense Ministry.


    On the question of the nuclear submarine, General Moreira declared: “What is going to happen to a country where 95% of international trade takes place by sea? And our oil, where is it? If we had a nuclear submarine, we would be more secure. If the Argentine navy had had a nuclear submarine, England would not have attacked during the Falklands conflict. A peaceful country such as ours, that has no intention of attacking anyone, has every right to defend itself, because it is growing increasingly richer and more tempting.”


    Of course, it remains somewhat obscure as to which country, if any, would be inclined to attack Brazil for its resources.


    Opponents of the nuclear submarine and the nuclear plant programs include Lula’s Environment Minister Marina Silva. The minister declared that “in the last 15 years, no country has built nuclear power plants because of the problems with the waste […] We have other sources of power: a great potential in hydroelectric, and clean energies in which we should invest.”


    In addition, the construction of the Angra 3 power plant is potentially dangerous because it is located in the state of Rio de Janeiro, near a natural reserve, where the soil is unstable and has included a history of landslides.


    Angra already was a subject of considerable controversy because of a flawed geological survey which was originally done on the site, which did not include fault problems that should have been ventilated in public discussion. Lula has ruled out solar or wind plants, arguing that they are more expensive than a nuclear plant.


    Taking the Arms Race to the Next Level


    Brazil’s renewed coveting of a nuclear submarine comes at a time when the sub-region is already moving towards an arms race. Among other regional countries, Venezuela and Chile are engaged in major military purchases. Most recently, Venezuela has ordered the purchase of five Kilo-636 submarines from Russia.


    Peru has contracted a number of naval purchases a couple of years ago during the Alejandro Toledo administration, including the purchase of four Lupo-class frigates from Italy. Last year, Bolivian president Evo Morales declared his plans to build a number of military outposts, with Venezuela’s help to parallel Bolivia’s borders, including one facing its border with Brazil.


    It is unlikely that other countries, including Argentina, will not feel compelled to follow suit at some point in the near future as a result of pressure coming from its own armed forces


    With Brazil’s neighbors now interested on increasing their military capability, Brasília arms specialists claim that the country has adopted a posture on its prospective acquisition of a nuclear submarine that, from a strategic point of view, would give it a definite advantage over potential attackers when it comes to naval warfare, even though the strategy is somewhat provocative.


    An additional issue regarding Brazil’s nuclear submarine has to do with the de facto violation of the spirit, or even the letter of the Treaty of Tlatelolco. Signed in 1967 and entered into force in 1969, the Treaty was drafted in Mexico City to make Latin America and the Caribbean into a nuclear-free zone. Brazil is also a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. It seems clear that obligations to these treaty regimes would seem to prevent some problem for Lula’s ambitious plans to significantly upscale the navy.


    And Washington’s Reaction Is….


    At a time when the drums of war are beating regarding Washington’s tough stand against Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and while negotiations continue with North Korea, how will Washington policy makers react to Brazil possessing a nuclear-powered submarine?


    In 1991, Presidents Fernando Collor of Brazil and Carlos Menem of Argentina signed an accord with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna that provided for IAEA inspection of their respective nuclear programs.


    At the time, the U.S. State Department praised the decision by both leaders, by issuing a statement issued on December 13, 1991 saying that: “The two South American presidents have demonstrated exceptional statesmanship in moving to free their continent from the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation.” What will the State Department say now?


    Other institutions that have yet to declare themselves about Brazil’s plans include the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (OPANAL), based in Mexico City.


    Also of note, the other members of the India-Brazil-South Africa Dialogue Forum (IBSA) (who have or have had nuclear ambitions of their own in the past and present), one of the newest cross-continental alliances, has yet to play a large role in the process or come out conclusively for or against Brazil’s nuclear plans.


    The Nuclear Nightmare


    It could be persuasively argued that Brazil’s proposed nuclear submarine is an imprudent foreign policy move for Brazil to take. Conventional weaponry, in addition to the country’s geography, which features broad land buffers, should serve, as they have in the past, as a sufficient deterrent to dissuade other countries from attacking Brazil under any conceivable scenario.


    Some unkind soul might even accuse Lula of engaging in a good deal of hypocrisy for considering to carry out the plans that basically echo the aspirations of the military junta which was responsible for numerous human rights abuses when it held power and which Lula himself once fiercely opposed.


    Brazil is regionally and globally respected and would be the natural Latin America representative in the UN Security Council should it ever be reformed and expanded. In addition it is presently besieged by a host of domestic problems, including widespread criminal violence and drug trafficking, aside from increasing gang warfare.


    This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Fellow Alex Sánchez. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) – www.coha.org – is a think tank established in 1975 to discuss and promote inter-American relationship. Email: coha@coha.org.

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