Last October, with 55 percent of the vote, Brazilians elected former army captain Jair Bolsonaro to a four-year term as president. He not only represents an ideological shift after 13 years of center-left administrations but also brings back members of the armed forces to a position of power more than 30 years after the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship.
Media coverage has focused on Bolsonaro’s populism, his disregard for environmental policies, and his controversial statements about women, homosexuality, and race—which have earned him the nickname “Trump of the tropics.” Once in office, Bolsonaro pushed this reputation even further through his extensive use of social media and the privileged role given to his sons in his administration. But what does his election mean for Brazilian nuclear policy?
Brazil’s nuclear capabilities. Brazil houses a well-developed nuclear program and is one of the few countries in the world to control the full uranium cycle. It possesses large reservoirs of uranium, graphene, and niobium—materials with possible use in the nuclear industry—and it has two operational atomic power plants, Angra I and Angra II. It is, furthermore, the only non-nuclear weapon state on the verge of launching a nuclear-powered submarine.
Internationally, Brazil works to keep its reputation as a responsible player among institutions for nuclear nonproliferation. It is a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—and was one of the main sponsors of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Together with Argentina, Brazil also possesses the only bilateral safeguards agency in the world: the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials. This agency acts as an intermediary between both countries and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), with which it regularly conducts joint inspections.
The nuclear sector has been a low priority for Brazil in recent years. The last relevant initiatives in the nuclear field happened during former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s administration: namely, the resumption of discussions on the construction of the Angra III power plant and the signing of an agreement with France for the development of submarines.
Lula also brought back a nationalist perspective regarding nuclear energy. Most controversially, in 2004 Lula denied IAEA inspectors full access to a nuclear fuel factory at Resende in Rio de Janeiro state. The argument for that was twofold: protecting industrial secrets and claiming that IAEA access was not necessary because the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials already had full access to the facility.
Later initiatives, such as a proposal for the joint development of mini-atomic reactors put forward by then-president Dilma Rousseff and her Argentine counterpart Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, were short-lived. Further developments were frozen after the conviction of former Eletrobrás president Othon Luiz Pinheiro da Silva, a retired navy admiral, for money laundering and corruption.
More recently, in June 2018, President Michel Temer, who took office after Rousseff’s impeachment, launched the construction of the Brazilian Multipurpose Reactor, intended to make Brazil self-sufficient in the production of radioisotopes for pharmaceuticals. This reactor is being manufactured in cooperation with Argentina and is expected to be finished by 2024. Temer was arrested in March 2019 due to accusations that he accepted bribes involving the construction of the Angra III power plant.
Bolsonaro was elected with a vague program, but already he seems to be placing a higher priority on nuclear technology than his predecessors. The most relevant actors to watch are the military ones, mainly in the Navy, which has historically managed nuclear affairs in Brazil—and is currently tasked with delivering Brazil’s first nuclear-powered submarine by 2029.
The quest for a nuclear submarine. Explosive nuclear devices are expressly forbidden by Brazil’s international agreements and by domestic institutions. However, Article 21 of Brazil’s constitution allows nuclear activities “for peaceful purposes,” and Brazil has interpreted that to include nuclear propulsion for military submarines.
Having a nuclear submarine is an old ambition of the Brazilian Navy. The nuclear-powered submarine project dates back to 1979, as part of a secret program conducted by the Armed Forces and other branches of the government. It became a priority in the wake of the Falklands War in 1982, when British Valiant-class nuclear-powered submarines were spotted in the South Atlantic Ocean. In the Brazilian military’s view, the Valiant gave an unfair advantage to the British, since the subs were practicably undetectable by Argentinian technology.
Two years after the war, according to telegrams in the archives of Brazil and Argentina, Brazil bought from West Germany a Type 209 diesel-electric attack submarine. In 1989, the sub received a steel hull that would enable its conversion into a nuclear-powered vehicle through the addition of a small nuclear reactor. This conversion did not, however, prove reliable, and the Navy started to look at other alternatives.
After the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship in 1985, a general mistrust of military-related projects left the nuclear submarine program in limbo. The first elected civilian governments—under Presidents Fernando Collor de Mello, Itamar Franco, and Fernando Henrique Cardoso—paid little attention to the nuclear submarine program, which faced significant budget constraints in the 1990s.
President Lula rehabilitated the Navy’s nuclear program. He created the current Program for the Development of Submarines (PROSUB) in 2008, within the framework of a cooperation agreement between Brazil and France. The agreement envisages the construction of four Scorpène-class-inspired diesel-electric attack submarines, the first of which was launched in December 2018, and one nuclear-powered submarine.
Even though the cooperation agreement includes the transfer of know-how from France to Brazil, it does not cover nuclear propulsion. This specific technology is entirely homegrown—developed by the Navy at its research facility in Iperó in São Paulo state. Iperó is the only military facility in a non-nuclear weapon state to officially house a uranium enrichment plant.
The French contribution includes the training of Brazilian officials and technical staff, and the transfer of technology to build the non-nuclear part of the submarine. PROSUB will, therefore, test the viability of Brazil’s indigenous technology. If successful, it will not only increase the Brazilian Navy’s capabilities but could also open new markets for Brazil’s arms industry, which heavily supported Bolsonaro’s candidacy.
Today, both the president and the Navy consider acquiring a nuclear submarine crucial to the defense of the so-called Blue Amazon, a resource-rich area covering about 4.5 million square kilometers off the Brazilian coast. Because a nuclear-powered submarine can stay underwater longer and travel faster than conventional submarines, it is also a status symbol—particularly for Brazil, which does not have nuclear weapons. The Navy expects the sub to play an important deterrent role in its defense strategy, as highlighted by Vice President (and retired Army General) Hamilton Mourão a few months ago. Some policy makers in Brazil also expect that the possession of nuclear-powered submarines will blur the distinction between states possessing nuclear weapons and non-nuclear middle powers.
Empowering the military. Since the presidential campaign, President Bolsonaro has pledged to give the military a prominent role in his administration. This has implications for the nuclear sector, which is regarded as critical by the Navy. Nuclear policy is expected to be largely delegated to the Brazilian Armed Forces or to people connected to them, such as the new Minister of Mining and Energy: Admiral Bento Costa Lima Leite, the former Director-General for Nuclear and Technological Development in the Navy.
For the first time since Brazil’s re-democratization, the Armed Forces enjoy substantial bargaining power. Bolsonaro’s election was only possible due to his projected image as a hard-liner on defense and security issues, including promises to give the military a relevant role in his administration. Choosing Hamilton Mourão as vice president was a way to attract support from high-ranking military officials.
With three former Army generals, one former Navy admiral, and one retired lieutenant colonel of the Air Force, Bolsonaro’s administration has the highest number of ministers with military backgrounds since 1985. The military clique is, furthermore, the only island of stability in a government already marked by political scandals and polemic declarations by politicians connected to the president, including his sons.
The military has, therefore, considerable freedom of action and popular support to set priorities. Those priorities include PROSUB. The submarine program is expected to continue and, if possible, become more ambitious. A functional nuclear submarine industry in Brazil will be unprecedented for a non-nuclear weapon state.
PROSUB will also affect the private sector, because the agreement with France includes a joint venture between the French industrial group DCNS and Oderbrecht, an industrial conglomerate at the center of what is known as the largest corruption scandal in Brazilian history.
Possible future partners are already looking with interest to the Brazilian submarine program. Foremost among them is Argentina, which has a 2.8-million-square-kilometer resources-rich offshore area and lost one of its only three working submarines in a tragic accident in 2017.
A conceptual change to safeguards. The deployment of a Brazilian nuclear submarine will enshrine an expanded definition of “peaceful uses” of atomic energy, by showing that nuclear technology can be employed by the military in non-nuclear weapon states. This conceptual change will require creativity and legal innovation, particularly in the realm of international safeguards.
A new safeguards agreement to cover PROSUB is already under negotiation between Brazil and the IAEA, but its future shape is unknown, and it is unclear whether it would be replicable in other countries. Brazil’s rejection of the Additional Protocol to IAEA safeguards has increased the uncertainty.
The Additional Protocol was a reaction to the discovery of hidden nuclear weapons programs in Iraq and North Korea in the 1990s. It grants the IAEA broad access to information and nuclear facilities in signatory countries. Brazil argues it is not obliged to accept the Additional Protocol because the Nuclear Suppliers Group already recognized the bilateral agency with Argentina as an “alternative criterion” to that protocol. Brazil also binds any possible signature of the Protocol to progress in disarmament by nuclear weapon states.
If PROSUB is successful, it will benefit both the defense and economic sectors. Brazilian history indicates, however, that building a nuclear-powered submarine and developing nuclear technology is not as simple as it seems. It depends not only on technical expertise but also, and mostly, on political support. For now, the goal of PROSUB seems more realistic than ever, but the program’s success will depend on whether the Navy can maintain its autonomy within the rest of the bureaucracy.