Is Brazil trying to develop nuclear weapons?

Your war questions answered

When most of us think of Brazil, we think of soccer, steak, rainforests, tanned asses in thong bikinis, Carnaval, kidnapping people to steal their kidneys, and, if you’re me, tanned asses in thong bikinis again.

World leaders have more than that on their minds, though. In between bikinis and Carnaval, world leaders have been stressing about Brazil’s tall, tan, young and lovely nuclear program.

It’s not that the world is necessarily concerned about a nuke-wielding Brazil attacking or antagonizing its neighbors. Other than pummeling the hell out of their soccer teams and yelling at Colombia every now and then for playing its Shakira records so damned loudly, Brazil is relatively nice to its South American neighbors. Also, Brazil raised its right hand in 1990 and solemnly swore that it would not pursue nuclear weapons.

What’s gotten the international community’s metaphorical panties in a knot is Brazil’s evasive behavior with International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. Brazil signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in 1997, thus formally agreeing to allow IAEA officials to inspect Brazilian nuclear sites to check on what they’re doing and whether they’re doing it safely.

Despite the agreement, Brazil has been reluctant to allow inspectors into its Resende nuclear facility near Rio de Janeiro. Resende is a uranium enrichment plant. Enrichment is a technologically demanding process by which you can take uranium found in mines or for sale on eBay (yes, there is uranium for sale on eBay) and turn it into fuel for nuclear power reactors and/or weapons. Brazil is loaded with regular old natural uranium, but as of now, it needs to send its raw uranium overseas for enrichment in order to fuel its nuclear electrical plants.

Assuming that the facility works well, Resende could allow Brazil’s nuclear power program to become self-sufficient. Self-sufficiency could have economic benefits since Brazil would no longer have to pay to have its uranium enriched abroad. I say “could” because Brazil’s nuclear program is, by many accounts, so poorly managed that it would likely find a way to waste any money that domestic enrichment would save.

Domestic uranium enrichment also would be a boost to Brazil’s national self-esteem. With 180 million people and a landmass only slightly smaller than the U.S., Brazil fancies itself a world-power-in-waiting. Nuclear self-sufficiency is the international political version of standing up and telling the world that you’re all grown up. It’s sort of like graduating from diapers to Huggies Pull-Ups.

Self-sufficiency also has a downside. With a working enrichment facility, Brazil could start enriching uranium to weapons-grade and amass enough for several nuclear weapons before international inspectors were any wiser. The inspectors don’t monitor every facility 24/7. That would leave Brazil, not the most politically stable country in the world, just a decision and a signature away from becoming an active nuclear menace capable of building weapons for itself, or of selling weapons-grade uranium and technology to other less-friendly nations.

Remember, it was our supposed ally, Pakistan, that gave our enemies Iran and North Korea much of their nuclear know-how.

Brazilian officials say they’ve been reluctant to allow international inspectors into Resende — NOT because they’re hiding a weapons program but because their nuclear technology is so state-of-the-art and cost-efficient that they’re afraid the inspectors, many of whom are from nuclear-powered U.S. and Europe, will steal the technology.

If the very phrase “Brazilian efficiency” seems chuckle-worthy to you, you’re not alone. International observers think that Brazil’s real reason for reluctance to share Resende with inspectors is that a complete tour will reveal its black market sources for nuclear technology. For now, Brazil has agreed to let inspectors see most of Resende, just not its centrifuges.

The biggest problem with Brazil’s reluctance to open up all of Resende is the precedent it sets. Letting Brazil hedge on its Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty commitment to openness bolsters Iran’s argument that the international community is applying a double standard when it comes to inspecting nuclear facilities.