Dr. Gordon Edwards on "Brazil Nuclear Leader's Arrest May Stymie Atomic Ambitions"
August 5, 2015
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Dr. Gordon Edwards, President, CCNRDr. Gordon Edwards, President of Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility (photo, left), has prepared the following backgrounder in response to the Reuters article, reprinted at Voice of America, about the the arrest of the longtime head of Brazil's nuclear energy utility, Othon Luiz Pinheiro da Silva. A retired admiral, Pinheiro da Silva was arrested on corruption charges on Tuesday for allegedly taking 4.5 million reais ($1.35 million) in bribes from engineering firms working on the long-delayed Angra 3 nuclear power plant. The arrest could disrupt a plan to revive Brazilian nuclear ambitions whose roots go back to its atomic-bomb program in the 1980s.

Background:                     August 5, 2015

The head of Brazil's nuclear energy utility, a retired military man, has been arrested on corruption charges. This will delay further the construction of Brazil's third nuclear power reactor, Agra-3, which is already about 2 billion dollars over budget.  Total cost is currently estimated at $7.6 billion; it will no doubt continue to climb. Power from existing nuclear plants in Brazil is about 50% more expensive than from other sources. 

Brazil's civilian nuclear program has close historic ties to the military. Alone among non-nuclear-weapons-states, Brazil is developing its own fleet of nuclear submarines; the nuclear shipyard was inaugurated in 2011. The Brazilian military has developed its own uranium enrichment facility using high-efficiency ultracentrifuges of indigenous design.  This capability, developed in secrecy, was only announced to the world in 1987. The Brazilian ultracentrifuges are unique, based on electromagnetic rather than mechanical bearings, and are not subject to direct inspections by the IAEA. The civilian nuclear utility in Brazil acquires its nuclear reactor fuel from the enrichment plant that is owned and operated by the military.

Brazil supplied uranium to the US Bomb program during the Manhattan Project -- and beyond.  The first Brazilian research reactor was built in 1957 with US assistance. When the military regime wielded power in Brazil (1964-1985) a secret "Parallel Program" was adopted to acquire total domestic control over the complete nuclear fuel cycle -- uranium enrichment, reactor operation, plutonium extraction, and nuclear explosive manufacture. Ostensibly devoted to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, the military worked clandestinely on nuclear weapons-related matters throughout this period.

When India exploded its first atomic bomb in 1974 using plutonium from a Canadian-designed research reactor, Brazil and Argentina were ruled by rival military regimes. Both countries had nuclear ambitions which included a nuclear weapons capability. The Argentine Generals were responsible for the kidnapping and secret murder of tens of thousands of "undesirables", including journalist and trade unionists. With the help of German scientists, some of whom worked under the Nazis during WWII, Argentina had already built a heavy-water nuclear reactor of German design and an experimental reprocessing plant for separating plutonium from irradiated nuclear fuel.

Canada sold a CANDU nuclear reactor to Argentina in 1978, despite the brutal nature of the regime and its obvious military ambitions. In 1979 longshoremen in Saint John, New Brunswick, refused to load heavy water onto a ship bound for Argentina because of the atrocities being committed on a daily basis in Buenos Ares.  The Trudeau cabinet decided to have the heavy water trucked in great secrecy to Mirabel Airport in Quebec where it was flown to Argentina. A cabinet briefing document stated that Canada's reputation as a reliable supplier of nuclear materials would be in jeopardy if the heavy water were not delivered....

(As it turns out, Canada lost $130 million on the Argentian sale, and tens of millions of dollars were diverted from Atomic Energy of Canada Limited to a numbered swiss bank account. An investigation by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee concluded that this money was used for illegal or corrupt purposes and that AECL officials were uncooperative and unresponsive when questioned by Committee Members.  The head of AECL, John Foster, was subsequently fired.)

Following the Falklands War in 1982, both the Argentinian and the Brazilian military regimes collapsed, and by 1990 both countries had renounced nuclear weapons.  However, neither country has endorsed the IAEA's "Additional Protocol" (endorsed by 129 other countries) that would provide much greater access to IAEA inspectors.  To many outside observers, it seems evident that the military roots of the nuclear programs in these two South American superpowers have never entirely disappeared. 

Gordon Edwards.
Article originally appeared on Beyond Nuclear (http://www.beyondnuclear.org/).
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