For four years, a corruption scandal has kept Brazil down for the count on some of its biggest projects, including a third nuclear energy plant. Now, however, things appear set to change as the country emerges from the graft probe and stalled construction work resumes on nuclear facilities — particularly the third nuclear plant. Boasting the world's sixth-largest uranium reserves, Brazil is also eager to attract investments to its uranium-mining industry, including the Caetite mine in the northeastern state of Bahia. In all, Brazil hopes to meet the demand for nuclear plants, construct a multipurpose nuclear reactor and further harness atomic energy for medicine and agriculture. But in turning its face once more to nuclear power, Brazil could also leave the door open to the production of nuclear weapons — a development that could elicit far more pushback at home and abroad.
This year was the 50th anniversary of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which monitors the development of nuclear weapons and associated technologies. Now, with Brazil — a treaty signatory — considering an expansion to its nuclear program, its actions are bound to attract global attention.
A Program to Worry Washington
The history of Brazil's nuclear energy program has been one of ups and downs. Scientists began developing the country's atomic program in earnest in the late 1960s, receiving a boost the following decade thanks to a partnership with West Germany that resulted in the construction of two nuclear energy plants in the state of Rio de Janeiro. The cooperation flourished at the beginning, but Brazil was subsequently forced to embark on a more autonomous nuclear program because of strong opposition from its Cold War ally, the United States, which feared Brasilia could also develop atomic weapons. Brazil pursued its program until the late 1990s, when it signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1998 — three years after its major regional rival, Argentina. Nevertheless, Brasilia and Buenos Aires had established a binational agency to monitor and control nuclear materials so as to increase transparency over their respective nuclear programs as early as 1991.
But the decision to sign the NPT was not the only reason Brazil's nuclear energy program stalled. During the 1990s, Brazil implemented a series of economic liberalization reforms to dampen inflation, resulting in a gradual reduction in the amount of government funds to continue the nuclear energy program. Come 2003, however, the nuclear program began once more under the aegis of then-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who sought to construct more nuclear energy plants as well as reactors for the country's navy.
From the very beginning, Brazil has strived to control the entire nuclear fuel cycle — inevitably causing misgivings in Washington. But unlike the Middle East, where regional powers like Saudi Arabia have vowed to construct nuclear weapons if rivals like Iran do so first, there is currently no security threat in South America compelling regional countries to develop such arms.
The disagreements with the United States notwithstanding, it was a graft scandal that ruined Brazil's most recent nuclear plans in 2014. The revelation of a major corruption scandal involving kickbacks to politicians in contracts between major state-owned companies, such as Petroleo Brasileiro (Petrobras) and Eletronuclear, and the country's largest engineering companies halted the construction of a third nuclear energy plant, even after the country had already invested billions of dollars in the project. (The fallout from the scandal even led to the arrest of Eletronuclear's president.) At the same time, Brazil's submarine project also suffered major delays, as one company involved in the project, Odebrecht, admitted to bribing politicians as part of the scandal.
Entrusting the Military
But now that it has emerged from the corruption scandal — as well as a major political and economic crisis from 2014 to 2017 — Brazil's nuclear program is set to enter a new cycle. The Brazilian government, which is expected to inaugurate its seventh centrifuge to enrich uranium by the end of August, plans to submit a new nuclear energy policy proposal to Congress to construct new nuclear plants and allow the private sector to participate in uranium and radiopharmaceutical production — two industries currently under the sole control of the state-owned Industrias Nucleares do Brasil.
At the same time, the revival of Brazil's nuclear energy program is not limited to the resumption of investments or alterations to regulations. Last year, President Michel Temer's administration stripped the energy minister and chief of staff minister of the decades-old responsibility to formulate new nuclear energy policy, endowing the military with the task instead. Putting the military in charge of the nuclear energy program, however, is unlikely to lead Brazil to withdraw from the NPT in the near future because the country's constitution bans the production of nuclear weapons, meaning only a change to the national charter would permit a Brazilian president to expand the atomic program beyond peaceful purposes. But by mastering nuclear technology, Brazil will put itself in a position to build nuclear weapons in the future.
By mastering nuclear technology, Brazil will put itself in a position to build nuclear weapons in the future.
A Potential Presidential Roadblock
Most of Brazil's presidential candidates, from the center-left Ciro Gomes to the favorite, right-wing lawmaker Jair Bolsonaro, wish to resume the nuclear energy program, especially the third nuclear plant. The program could receive a particular boost under Bolsonaro, a former military captain who has appointed a former general as his prospective vice president. Bolsonaro has been a strong defender of Brazil's nuclear program and was a strong critic of the country's decision to sign the NPT in 1998. But one front-runner, Marina Silva of the environmentalist Sustainability Network party, could put the brakes on the atomic program in its entirety, as she has campaigned on a platform to allocate more money to solar and wind power and less to nuclear energy plants. In fact, Silva has explicitly opposed Brazil's nuclear energy program while broaching the prospect of a national plebiscite to allow the populace to decide whether they support investment in nuclear energy. At present, Silva sits second in opinion polls for the October election behind Bolsonaro.
Free of scandal, Brazil is redirecting its energies toward nuclear power, but challenges remain to its pursuit of a far-reaching atomic program. While leading presidential candidates like Silva could stop the program in its tracks, even pro-nuclear front-runners like Bolsonaro might find it difficult to make much headway because of the country's growing fiscal deficit, congressional deadlock that could hinder legislation overturning a constitutional ban on nuclear weapons and financial impediments to the completion of the third nuclear plant — to say nothing of the ramifications that Brazil's departure from the NPT would have on relations with Argentina. In such a situation, Brazil's quest to master the entire nuclear fuel cycle is unlikely to be anything but cautious.