Analysis: Brazil's Enrichment To Go On
by Frank Braun, Washington (UPI) Jun 29, 2005
Brazil fully intends to continue its uranium enrichment program, with the goal of eventually mastering the entire nuclear fuel cycle, said Jose Dirceu, former head of Brazil's powerful Casa Civil ministry and ex-chief of staff to Brazil's president.
"Brazil is now in the position to master the complete nuclear fuel cycle for peaceful energy generation; it has the seventh largest Uranium reserve in the world, possesses two functioning nuclear reactors, and is developing (through a proprietary centrifuge design) a new technology for energy generation," Dirceu said in a recent interview with United Press International that took place before he resigned his top positions over a financial scandal.
Brazil is in the initial phases of its program to enrich uranium, says Odair Goncalves, president of Brazil's Atomic Energy Commission.
"We have successfully operated our pilot (uranium enrichment) plant at Aramar, which was fully licensed by the IAEA," Goncalves said. "Now we're building our first full scale production facility at Resende."
The IAEA refers to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
It was the plant at Resende, near Rio de Janeiro, that was featured in the world's newspapers last year when Brazilian authorities balked at allowing U.N. inspectors direct access to the plant's centrifuges, where the uranium is processed.
The Brazilians claimed the centrifuges were proprietary technology they had spent nearly a billion dollars and many years to develop, and which they wanted to protect.
Goncalves believes Brazil has come up with cutting-edge technology on the centrifuges.
"Most centrifuge designs try to work it out so that at least one end of the centrifuge is not physically attached to an axle, (or is only magnetically attached) which cuts down on the friction of turning parts and thus on maintenance costs," he said.
"Generally this is achieved only at one point of the centrifuge. Brazil has managed to design a centrifuge where neither end is attached physically to an axle, where both ends are magnetically levitated. This is our proprietary design and we believe we are the only ones who have been able to achieve this."
Dirceu believes this technology represents a "strategic intellectual property" for the country.
In 2004, the Brazilians said while they would allow U.N. inspectors into the Resende facility, they would not let them see the actual centrifuges, which they placed behind a set of "panels."
That led to news stories that Brazil had denied IAEA inspectors access to its nuclear installations and might be hiding something about its nuclear program.
"We never denied access to our facility," Goncalves said. "In Aramar, our pilot plant (for uranium enrichment) we had the same panels in front of the centrifuges. And the inspectors had no problem with that. We had a facility that was under safeguards and that didn't have any problems.
"So when we started to construct the new Resende plant we did everything the same way, except the difference now was that Sept. 11 happened. After Sept 11, the IAEA came to us and said 'We are no longer happy with the idea of the centrifuges behind panels; we're going to have to reconsider this approach.'"
At some point, inspectors said they wanted to see inside the panels, according to Goncalves, and a discussion began about whether it was necessary to look behind the panels to guarantee there wasn't any diversion of uranium for "improper purposes."
Since that incident, Brazil has reached a partial agreement with the IAEA inspectors for inspection of the Resende experimental plant under construction, according to Goncalves.
"There are various phases in the negotiations over the safeguard inspections in Resende. We have already reached an agreement with the AIEA over the testing phase. The negotiations over the final procedures are in its 'final phase,'" he emphasized.
"We agreed and the inspectors agreed that they don't have to look inside the panels to verify that no uranium is being diverted."
Goncalves claims he is "confident" a final agreement will be reached with the IAEA over Resende.
"Everything is moving toward a rapid solution which is why you have not seen anything more in the press specifically about Resende," Goncalves said.
"It will be a matter of weeks or at the most a month now to resolve this."
Not everyone is so sanguine, however.
Speaking on PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," long-time arms control advocate Joe Cirincione said, "If we let Iran and Brazil get these technologies, many more countries might want it. And then you have a world where many more counties are on the very brink of nuclear weapons capability. That is too risky a situation to be able to tolerate. We've got to stop it here, we've got to stop it now."
Cirincione, the director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, claims "once you have a large functioning enrichment capability, it's just a matter of retooling it to turn it into a nuclear bomb factory."
Brazil's Goncalves scoffs at such comparisons with Iran.
"It's the think tanks who want to cite this (comparison) with Iran, but this parallel does not exist. At no time, and under no circumstances, did Brazil give any indication that there was anything irregular with our program. Iran, on the other hand, went explicitly outside the regulations.
"It's not just a question of wanting to enrich Uranium; it's a question of how they have behaved until now. Iran turned itself into the focus of the world's attention by conducting 'undeclared activities.' The inspectors actually found undeclared and highly enriched uranium where it was not supposed to be," he noted.
And from there, the controversy began, according to Goncalves.
"The issue then became a matter of international politics."
The United States says Iran, in violation of its international treaty obligations, is using its civilian nuclear program to make weapons. Tehran denies the charge.