On 8 September 1982, da Silva and his group, using a single centrifuge, performed their first successful enrichment experiment. They made the rotor using maraging steel, a steel alloy that has both high tensile strength and high malleability. It was a simple design, which already included the electromagnetic bearings. "From the beginning we decided that was going to be our machine's key technical difference," says Claudio Rodrigues, a physicist who was part of the initial Cyclone group and is now superintendent of IPEN.
In 1987 the Brazilian researchers put together a small module with 48 centrifuges, and in 1991 they expanded it to about 500. During those years, the group also developed or acquired all the tools and materials required for industrial production of centrifuges and their piping systems. Some manufacturing equipment came from a group of Germans who had helped Iraq's clandestine centrifuge efforts. Did they help Brazil too? The Brazilians say the sale was legal and involved no classified data. On other occasions, to facilitate the acquisition of certain items, the Brazilians didn't tell suppliers that their products were being used in an enrichment program, or the companies would have refused to sell them. Perhaps suspicious of such activities, the United States kept the navy's program under close watch and even dispatched American agents based in São Paulo to follow da Silva around, according to a secret report by the Brazilian navy.
When da Silva left the program in 1994, he says, the group was testing a third-generation machine made of carbon fiber. These are the centrifuges, he adds, that the navy is now fabricating for the Resende plant. Project Cyclone, through late 2004, spent about $250 million in equipment and infrastructure. Work on the centrifuges continues at the Navy Technology Center in São Paulo (CTMSP), next door to IPEN, while manufacturing takes place at the navy's Aramar Experimental Center, in Iperó, outside São Paulo. (Last year, I asked the Brazilian navy for interviews at CTMSP, but the request was denied.)
In the late 1980s, shortly after a democratic government replaced Brazil's military regime, the parallel program's secrecy, spending, and goals came under attack. Press reports and an investigation by the Brazilian congress revealed the existence of secret bank accounts used to fund the program. It also found that the air force had drawn up plans to build a nuclear bomb and test it at a site in north Brazil. The military never commented on these reports.
In 1988, Brazil approved a new constitution, which stated that nuclear energy would be used only for peaceful purposes, and in 1991, Brazil and Argentina, pledging not to make atomic bombs, established a mutual inspection agency. During the following years, the government began dissolving many of the parallel program's initiatives and integrating others into the Ministry of Science and Technology. In 1997, Brazil finally signed the NPT and opened all its nuclear facilities, including the Aramar navy complex, to the IAEA.
These developments helped convince many people inside and outside Brazil that the country has abandoned any nuclear weapons ambitions. "I'm not worried about Brazil trying to get nuclear weapons," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last April in a radio interview before a visit to Brazil. "Brazil wants a civil nuclear program, and I think that we should help countries develop nuclear energy for civilian purposes, but so that they don't create nuclear weapons."
Some international observers, however, aren't thrilled by Brazil's enrichment plans. They say that Brazil's achievement reinforces the notion that the nonproliferation regime is flawed, because it shows that countries can acquire potentially useful military capability without ever flouting the requirements of the NPT. Some critics even go so far as to suggest that the world should not accept the Resende plant and that Brazil should be pressed to abandon it.
To that argument, Brazilian officials respond that the NPT guarantees that signatories have the right to explore nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, including developing a nuclear fuel cycle industry in their own territories. That provision, known as Article IV, is in fact one of the core bargains of the NPT.
The 2005 NPT review conference showed that Article IV had become a critical issue: the conference foundered as some countries demanded more control of sensitive nuclear technologies, while others complained about the lack of progress toward disarmament.
"The recognition that countries could exploit Article IV to obtain nuclear weapons has led everybody from Mohamed ElBaradei to President Bush to argue that there have to be some modifications in the way we do nuclear business," says William C. Potter, director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, in California.
In 2004, the Bush administration urged a halt to the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technology, insisting that countries that don't already produce nuclear fuel should be prevented from developing that capability. Meanwhile, IAEA's ElBaradei has called for a five-year moratorium on new enrichment and reprocessing facilities. During this period, the IAEA says it will try to establish a plan to enable the agency to act as "a guarantor for the supply of fissile material to civilian nuclear users" through suppliers it authorizes and at market rates.
But Brazil says that such proposals would put restraints on its ability to develop its nuclear industry. "We don't think this is the way," says Santiago Mourão, head of the disarmament and sensitive technologies division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the capital, Brasília. "The international community is legitimately concerned with proliferation and we understand that, but we think that the way to avoid proliferation doesn't involve denying access to technology."
Moreover, nuclear technology is part of a broader industrial policy that is necessary for the country's growth, says Brazilian geophysicist Paulo Barretto, a former director of technical cooperation programs at the IAEA. It is used, he says, in medical devices and treatments, in industrial equipment and processes, in agricultural research, and other applications. "Brazil should not abandon the Resende plant," he says. "What we have to do is to convince the world that Brazil is serious, that we follow the treaties, and that we have nothing to hide. Brazil should in no way go back on this."
To Probe Further
An IAEA report on Brazil's nuclear industry is available at http://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/publications/PDF/cnpp2003/CNPP_Webpage/countryprofiles/Brazil/Brazil2003.htm.
For more on Brazil and related nonproliferation issues see "Brazil as Litmus Test: Resende and Restrictions on Uranium Enrichment," by S. Squassoni and D. Fite, Arms Control Today, October 2005, and "Making the World Safe for Nuclear Energy," by J. Deutch et al., Survival, Winter 200405.
For more on Brazil's nuclear submarine project, see article by L.S. Guimarães in Economy & Energy, no. 53, December 2005/January 2006, available at http://www.ecen.com.
"The Military Nuclear Program in Brazil," by Michael Barletta, brings a detailed account of Brazil's nuclear history: http://iis-db.stanford.edu/pubs/10340/barletta.pdf.