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Posted: 12/28/2003 6:53:40 AM EDT

Published: December 28, 2003

BRASÍLIA, Dec. 27 — Brazil has announced that by mid-2004 it expects to join the select group of nations producing enriched uranium and that within a decade it intends to begin exporting the product. But it is balking at giving international inspectors unimpeded access to the plant that will produce the nuclear fuel.

Officials here describe the uranium enrichment effort as entirely peaceful in purpose, aimed at providing fuel far short of weapons grade for the country's nuclear power plants. But they also maintain that as a peaceful nation, Brazil, which has the world's sixth-largest known deposits of uranium, should not be subject to the same regimen of unannounced spot inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran and Libya have recently accepted.

"All we've got are a couple of itty-bitty reactors," Roberto Amaral, the minister of science and technology in the left-wing government that took office in January, said in an interview this month. "It is necessary to be worried about what goes on out there, not here."

The issue has come to a boil now because work has concluded on a uranium enrichment plant that officials say will be ready to begin production as early as next May.

Mark Gwozdecky, a spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in a telephone interview from the organization's headquarters in Vienna, "We are working and have been working for some time with the government and authorities in Brazil to develop an appropriate verification regime for this new facility," but the agency otherwise declined comment.

After years of resistance, Brazil adhered to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1997 and has since permitted limited, controlled visits to its nuclear facilities. But it has refused to approve the so-called additional protocol that authorizes spot inspections. Diplomats here say the international agency earlier this month sent a letter asking for a clear, prompt and definitive response.

During Brazil's military dictatorship, from 1964 to 1985, the government clandestinely pursued a nuclear weapons program. In 1981, Brazil and Iraq signed a nuclear cooperation agreement that, according to an I.A.E.A. report issued last year, led the government to ship 26.7 tons of uranium dioxide to Baghdad. In 1989, the former head of Brazil's nuclear weapons program worked in Iraq as a consultant until American pressure forced his recall.

With the return of democratic civilian rule, Brazil and its historic rival Argentina jointly renounced the manufacture of nuclear weapons and set up a mutual inspection system. But the Brazilian program continued secretly, and when a new government came to power in 1990, it found and destroyed a 1,050-foot-deep shaft built by the Air Force in the heart of the Amazon that scientists said had all the characteristics of a nuclear test site.

In addition, the Brazilian Navy has long been working on a program to build nuclear-powered submarines, which would require a degree of enrichment higher than that needed for a power plant.

During the presidential campaign he won last year, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva criticized the Nonproliferation Treaty as unjust, saying it favored countries that already have nuclear weapons.

Then, during the new government's first week in office in January, Mr. Amaral caused a furor when he argued that Brazil should acquire the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon. He backed away from that position after he was severely criticized here and in Argentina.

This month Mr. Amaral publicly criticized the I.A.E.A.'s position on spot inspections as "idiotic" and "foolish." But he also said, "We're not interested in a bomb and we've never made a bomb or ordered it used in a war against Argentina, so we have the moral and ethical authority to talk about this subject."

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