July, 1987. President Raúl Alfonsín invites his Brazilian homologue, José Sarney, to visit the Pilcaniyeu nuclear centre, the secretive Argentine installation where local uranium enrichment capabilities were first developed. President Sarney will later recall that Brazilian scientists realised at that very moment that Argentina’s nuclear tech was at least 10 years ahead of their own.
It was the beginning of a novel, bilateral arrangement of mutually agreed non-proliferation. A first step that, a decade later, allowed both countries to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Today, however, the outlook is different. Jair Bolsonaro’s rise to the Planalto Presidential Palace has delivered some alarming signs. Some that indicate that this internationally praised arrangement might be at risk.
‘NUCLEAR WEAPONS WARRANT PEACE’
A few days before last week’s visit to Argentina, congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, Jair’s youngest son, made the curious statement that “nuclear weapons warrant peace.” He mentioned Pakistan and India as examples in point. Questioned by the Times at a recent Argentine Council of Foreign Affairs (CARI) meeting in Buenos Aires, Eduardo admitted that his country was well aware that there was no support in the international arena for a Brazilian nuclear bomb. “We know we will be sanctioned,” he said. However, as his father has stated previously, he insisted that signing the NPT was a mistake.
This past Thursday, the bilateral Permanent Nuclear Policy Committee held a meeting. It was tinged with tension, produced by Bolsonaro’s troubling statements. The Foreign Ministry this week refused to comment on this meeting through its spokespeople but the Times confirmed with four separate sources, who agreed to speak only under the condition of anonymity, that pressing issues were on the table amid conflicting views of Latin America’s nuclear future.
The Bolsonaro family’s typical bravado is not only to blame for this situation though. During the last days of his much-questioned and much-criticised tenure, former Brazilian president Michel Temer signed an executive order on nuclear policy. Therein, he included “nuclear fuel reprocessing” on a list of the technologies Brazil would develop. This process is seen as highly sensitive since it can be used to develop a plutonium bomb. In fact, in the 1970s and 1980s Argentina came under heavy international pressure to drop its own reprocessing programme, as shown by numerous declassified US documents.
Another source of friction is Brasilia’s plan to build a nuclear-propelled 'Prosub' submarine. Argentina’s giant neighbour plans to be the first country to develop this technology without a nuclear arsenal.
Neither the bilateral arrangement, nor the “four-party” agreement involving the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the BrazilianArgentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC), prevents Brazil from going down that path. Nonetheless, the management of the nuclear fuel and the type of technology that some countries use in this kind of vessel – notably the use of highly enriched uranium – gives rise to some serious concerns.
The “Prosub” project is at the top of Bolsonaro’s agenda. He decided to appoint the Navy officer in charge of the development, Bento Costa Lima Leite, as his Energy minister. On the other hand, several sources have confirmed that he is pushing cooperation with France in order to achieve the goal of launching the nuclear sub in the year 2029.
Simultaneously, the Brazilian government has invited Argentina’s Defence Minsiter Oscar Aguad to visit Prosub base. They have also offered cooperation. In particular, they have suggested that Argentina’s project to develop small-scale reactors (named Carem), may help them achieve their goal faster. Eduardo Bolsonaro insisted this was a possibility during his recent visit to Argentina.
Meanwhile, Mauricio Macri’s government is looking to take the opposite path. Some voices within the administration suggest Argentina should double down on its commitment with the international non-proliferation system and sign the Additional Protocol to the NPT, a step that might widen the gap with Brazil when its government is questioning the original agreement, let alone thinking about making new commitments.
Proponents of this option argue that Argentina, as opposed to Brazil, is a nuclear tech exporter with clients in Australia, Netherland and India, among other countries. Furthermore, they suggest that this might help the respected Argentine diplomat and nuclear expert, Rafael Grossi, in his bid to be appointed the IAEA’s next chief. Other voices argue that unilaterally signing the Additional Protocol, which imposes stringent inspection rules and protocols, would further erode the bilateral non-proliferation arrangement at a time of turbulence.
The debate is still very much open but, for better or worse, it is taking place far away from the public eye. As much as the Bolsonaro family’s stances on nuclear issues may face criticism, at least the debate is taking place in the public sphere – not behind closed doors.